Young Catholics converge on Madrid to wait for pope
Thousands of young Catholics from across the world converged Tuesday on the Spanish capital Madrid for six days of World Youth Day celebrations, which will culminate in the visit of Pope Benedict XVI.
Groups of pilgrims were walking about the city or riding buses, taking pictures, singing and buying religious souvenirs.
‘I would like the pope to see that young people still have faith,’ said Estela, a 22-year-old woman from northeastern Spain.
The World Youth Day events were scheduled to begin in the evening with a mass, celebrated by Madrid Archbishop Antonio Maria Rouco Varela on the central Cibeles square.
More than 400,000 pilgrims have officially announced their participation in World Youth Day, but up to 1,5 million were expected in Madrid to see Benedict XVI, who will arrive in the capital on Thursday.
The highlight of the celebrations will be a mass celebrated by the 84-year-old pontiff at Madrid’s Cuatro Vientos airport on Sunday.
The trip to Spain is Benedict’s 21st abroad since he was elected pope in 2005, and his third to Spain. The German pontiff previously visited Valencia in 2006 and Santiago de Compostela and Barcelona last November.
World Youth Day – a tradition launched by Benedict’s predecessor John Paul II – has already drawn some 17 million Catholics to cities including Buenos Aires, Paris, Toronto and Sydney.
The Madrid gathering will not only feature religious services, but also more than 300 cultural events such as exhibitions, concerts or plays.
About 10,000 police and thousands of volunteers are being deployed in one of Madrid’s biggest ever security operations, which is to include snipers and closing the airspace to private aircraft.
Several central streets have been closed to traffic for a week, and police have carried out 80,000 security checks in two days.
The pope is coming to Spain at the time of an economic crisis, which has caused youth unemployment to soar above 40 per cent and created concern that Spain could follow Greece, Ireland and Portugal in needing an international bailout.
The crisis has sparked a young people’s protest movement, known as the Indignant Ones. Its demands include ending the influence of financial markets over politics.
Many members of the protest movement, as well as groups defending a secular state, were planning to attend a demonstration against the papal visit on Wednesday.
A group called Catholics for Choice said it intended to campaign for the use of condoms, although the Madrid authorities banned it from doing so during World Youth Day.
Critics slammed the cost of the papal visit, estimated at 70 million euros (100 million dollars), at a time when the government is cutting social spending.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s government and the Madrid regional authorities, however, said most of the cost was covered by fees paid by pilgrims and by sponsors.
World Youth Day is expected to inject more than 100 million euros into the local economy.
The visit will be the pope’s last under the premiership of Zapatero, who will not seek a third term in the parliamentary elections in November.
The socialist prime minister’s two terms in office have been marked by frequent rows with the Catholic Church over his liberal social reforms, such as homosexual marriage, easier access to abortion and speedier divorce.
More recently, however, the government has sought better relations with the Vatican, postponing the legalization of euthanasia and increasing the amount of tax money Catholics can voluntarily contribute to church coffers.
The Vatican has long been concerned about the decline of the faith in Spain, a former Catholic stronghold where church attendance has dropped steadily.
Only about 70 per cent of Spaniards now regard themselves as Catholics, and less than 30 per cent attend mass at least once month, according to the Centre of Sociological Investigations (CIS).
This article was originally distributed by Deutsche Presse-Agentur.