A freak thunderstorm Saturday forced Pope Benedict XVI to cut short his speech to an estimated million young pilgrims gathered for the church's world youth festival, giving the outdoor prayer vigil at a Madrid airfield a dramatic climax.
During the day, firefighters atop fire trucks had sprayed the crowds with water from hoses, and pilgrims sought shade from umbrellas, trees, tarps and tents in a bid to stave off the near 104-degree heat. As night fell, a flash downpour drenched the crowd: with lightning lighting up the night sky, the 84-year-old Benedict was forced to skip the bulk of his speech and merely deliver brief greetings in a half-dozen languages.
Despite the discomfort, the scene at the Cuatro Vientos airport was nevertheless festive and colorful, with pilgrims in a rainbow of sun hats and umbrellas dancing, singing and waving their national flags as they geared up for a massive sleepover to be in place for today's main World Youth Day Mass.
"There is a truly awesome number of people here, and we have come to join them to celebrate our Christianity in the most universal and Catholic sense," said Joe Melendrez, a rap artist from San Antonio.
The crowd erupted in cheers when Benedict arrived at nightfall, greeted by Spain's crown Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia. Once it became clear he couldn't proceed with his speech because of the storm, organizers told the crowd that they had asked for more water during the day when it was so hot, and their prayers were answered.
"With this rain, the Lord sends us many blessings," Benedict quipped when he resumed his truncated remarks.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said that when the storm kicked up, Benedict had been asked by his aides what he wanted to do, and he insisted that he wanted to wait the storm out. The half-hour delay, he said, was due mainly to the failure of the sound system; once it was fixed and the storm passed, Benedict proceeded with the vigil program.
This is Benedict's third World Youth Day, the once-every-three-year gathering of young Catholics from around the world that was launched a quarter century ago by Pope John Paul II in a bid to reinvigorate and spread the faith among the young. It has the feel of a weeklong rock concert and camping trip, with bands of flag-toting pilgrims roaming through Madrid's otherwise empty streets to take part in prayer and education sessions, Masses, cultural outings and papal events.
"I haven't been able to catch the pope's exact words because he has spoken only in Spanish but it is an amazing experience to share these moments with so many people from so many different countries," said Joseph Maduma, a 16-year-old student from Tanzania as he awaited the vigil.