Catholic pilgrims from across the world descended on 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 papalwelcome 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 meters (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.
Many were chaperoned by priests or nuns, and snapping photos of each other.
Veronica Jackson, from Ireland, said this is her fifth visit to the World Youth Day celebrations, launched bypope John Paul II in 1986 as a way to revitalize the faith among young Catholics.
“There’s a problem in Ireland about young people going to church and it’s good for them to come here because they experience a young Church,” she said.
A steady stream of young pilgrims poured into Our Lady of Remembrance Jesuit school in northern Madrid, which will house 3,000 people from 50 nations in its classrooms and gyms during the event.
“This is a chance to meet people from all over the world who have the same faith and meet the leader of the Church. You don’t get to do that every day,” said Grace Allen, a 21-year-old nursing student from San Francisco as she stood by the sleeping bag she had unfolded on the floor of the school’s gym.
Women will sleep on the ground floor of the school and men on the second floor.
“Wherever there is a space on the floor, there will be people sleeping,” said Alvaro Paternina, 21, a Madrid dentistry student who was volunteering to help get the pilgrims settled in at the school.
Benedict last visited Spain in November 2010 for a trip in which he railed against social reforms introduced by Spain’s Socialist government such as same-sex marriage, easier access to abortion and fast-track divorce.
One government minister, Ramon Jauregui, has already warned that he did not consider it “appropriate” for the pope to criticize Spanish society again when he comes this week.
Some 150 groups that oppose the pope’s visit plan to protest Wednesday on the eve of his arrival. They include groups representing gays and lesbians, feminists as well as leftist political parties.
The country’s 15-M “indignant” movement – launched on May 15 against the management of the economic crisis, soaring unemployment and political corruption – is also mulling a series of protests.
By Daniel Silva