Catholic pilgrims from across the world flocked to Madrid Monday for a youth festival expected to draw more than a million faithful, with the highlight an open-air mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI. The World Youth Day festival, which runs from Tuesday to Sunday, has been criticized, however, for the costs involved in welcoming the head of the Roman Catholic Church as Spain struggles with an economic crisis.
But WYD officials say most of the costs would be covered by the pilgrims themselves — arriving from 193 countries — and the event would be a massive tourist boost for the city of Madrid. A huge stage has been erected at the central Plaza de Cibeles, one of Madrid’s most emblematic sites.
The square will host three of the four main events during WYD: the opening mass on Tuesday, the papal welcome two days later and the Stations of the Cross ceremony on Friday. On Saturday, hundreds of thousands will be entertained by pop groups at the Cuatro Vientos air base southwest of the capital, where the pope holds a “Prayer Vigil” in the evening. The young pilgrims will spend the night under the stars at the air base with duvets and rugs on a vast esplanade the size of 48 football fields.
The 84-year-old pontiff celebrates mass there on Sunday morning at a white altar almost 200 metres (660 feet) long in front of a wave-shaped stage and under a giant parasol “tree”, made of interwoven golden rods that will protect him from Madrid’s brutal August heat. Madrid’s airport was bustling Monday with tens of thousands of excited young pilgrims carrying large backpacks, studying maps to find out how to get to the churches or schools where they will be staying, or waiting for buses.Around 80 percent of the roughly 450,000 people who have registered for the event have already arrived in other Spanish cities and were expected to make the trip to Madrid on Monday or Tuesday, organizers said.