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Organizers say 1 million pilgrims gather for pope vigil ahead of main festival Mass in Spain
MADRID (AP) ' An estimated million young pilgrims braved searing temperatures Saturday to take part in a prayer vigil with Pope Benedict XVI, massing at a dusty airport field as the Catholic Church's youth festival neared its climax.
Firefighters atop fire trucks sprayed the crowds with water from hoses, and pilgrims sought shade from umbrellas, trees and tents in a bid to stave off the near 40-degree Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) heat.
Despite the discomfort, the scene at the Cuatro Vientos airport was nevertheless festive and colorful, with pilgrims in a rainbow of sunhats dancing, singing and waving their national flags as they geared up for a massive sleepover to be in place for Sunday's main World Youth Day Mass.
"There is a truly awesome number of people here and we have come to join them to celebrate out Christianity in the most universal and Catholic sense," said Joe Melendrez, a rap artist from San Antonio, Texas.
Nearby a group of six people from southern China fanned and shaded one of their own, a young woman who was obviously overcome by the heat. News reports said some 700 people had sought medical care.
With an hour to go before the vigil began, organizers told the crowd their numbers had surpassed a million.
Benedict was due to arrive later Saturday for the vigil, then return Sunday morning for the Mass.
This is his 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 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.
"We have come to spend the night here and really look forward to meeting lots of new friends," he said.
Earlier Saturday, Benedict celebrated a Mass with nearly 4,000 seminarians at Madrid's main cathedral and announced that he would soon proclaim St. John of Avila a doctor of the church, conferring one of Catholicism's greatest honors on the influential 16th century Spanish saint.
The title of church doctor is reserved for those churchmen and women whose writings have greatly served the universal church. There are currently 33 such doctors, including St. Augustine, St. Francis de Sales and St. Teresa of Avila. Pope John Paul II added St. Therese of Lisieux to the list in 1997, the last time one was proclaimed.
"In making this announcement here, I would hope that the word and the example of this outstanding pastor will enlighten all priests and those who look forward to the day of their priestly ordination," Benedict said.
St. John of Avila, who lived from 1500-1569, is the patron saint of Spain's diocesan clergy and was considered one of the greatest preachers of his time. A mystic born to a wealthy family, he is known for his theology of the priesthood and is particularly revered in Spain and Latin America, said the Rev. Antonio Pelayo, a Spanish priest who attended Saturday's Mass.
"He lived during a difficult period in the church's history when the clergy was very relaxed and somewhat dissolute, something that pained him a lot," Pelayo said. "St. John of Avila developed a theology for the priesthood which enabled the church to grasp and refine an important element of popular religiousness."
Benedict's announcement, while rumored, took many by surprise and drew sustained applause from the seminarians, priests, bishops and cardinals present.
Overnight, riot police again clashed with protesters opposed to the pope's visit, charging several groups that had been trying to reach the Puerta del Sol square late Friday.
Several hundred protesters had gathered outside the Atocha train station aiming to march toward Sol but were stopped before they reached their destination by police blocking the route.