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Pope arrives to cheers at Madrid airbase after storm

MADRID, Aug 21 – More than a million young pilgrims cheered as Pope Benedict XVI arrived Sunday in his popemobile at a Madrid airbase to give mass, a day after a violent storm drenched the faithful.

A Vatican spokesman said Sunday the pope never considered abandoning his prayer vigil during the violent storm.

“Benedict XVI had decided, solidly decided, to stay there, like the young people who stayed,” Federico Lombardi told AFP.

“He never had the slightest doubt. The storm is a parable of Christian life in which, in the most difficult moments, things are overcome by the strength of faith.”

The storm lashed the open-air service at the Cuatro Ventos (Four Winds) airbase near Madrid late on Saturday, forcing the 84-year-old pope to cut short his speech and drenching the faithful who had waited for hours in blistering heat.

One of 17 tents set up for the “Eucharist Adoration”, in which the faithful adore the holy sacrament, collapsed, injuring seven people who were taken to hospital, including a girl who suffered a broken leg, Lombardi said.

He said police estimate that 1.5 million pilgrims packed the esplanade — the size of 48 football pitches — at the airbase, spilling out onto the surrounding area as there was not enough space.

“Today, the pope is calm, very favourably impressed by the endurance of the young people and their prayers.”

When the storm hit during World Youth Day celebrations Saturday night, Benedict’s skullcap was swept off and an assistant struggled to shelter the pope with a large white umbrella.

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When the rain eased some 20 minutes later, the pope declared to cheers: “Thank you for your joy and endurance. Your strength is greater than the rain.”

Pilgrims spent the night in the open air at the base, eight kilometres (five miles) southwest of Madrid, where Benedict is to celebrate the closing mass of the August 16-21 youth festival on Sunday morning.

In his speech which was cut short by the storm the pontiff warned that marriage is between a man and a woman and cannot be dissolved.

Though he was unable to complete the homily, Vatican officials said Sunday that the content of his entire speech the previous evening was still valid and could be published.

In the address he struck at the heart of social reforms in countries like Spain.

“The Lord calls many people to marriage, in which a man and a woman, in becoming one flesh, find fulfilment in a profound life of communion,” he told the young pilgrims.

Marriage was a project for true love, deepened by sharing joys and sorrows, and marked by “complete self-giving”, said the pope.

“For this reason, to acknowledge the beauty and goodness of marriage is to realize that only a setting of fidelity and indissolubility, along with an opennness to God’s gift of live, is adequate to the grandeur and dignity of marital love.”

The Roman Catholic Church has condemned the sweeping liberal reforms brought in by Spain’s Socialist government in recent years, including easier access to abortion, gay marriage and fast-track divorce.

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The attitude of the pope, spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, has sparked anger among the gay and lesbian community in Spain, however.

Spanish police Thursday foiled plans by 100 gays and lesbians to stage a kiss-in before the pope in Madrid, blocking the protesters before they could meet up.

When the pope last visited Spain in November he was confronted by a kiss-in in the northeastern city of Barcelona in protest at the Church’s opposition to homosexuality.

About 200 gay men and women couples locked lips to demand the Church recognise their right to be gay as he paraded through Barcelona’s streets November 7 in the popemobile.

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