Faithful flock to Fatima shrine for pope’s mass

2010-05-13 12:24

Pilgrims flooded the shrine of Fatima today, many after spending

the night outdoors, to attend a mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI at one of

Christianity’s most holy shrines.

The faithful climbed on statues of saints to get a better view and

parents carried young children on their backs as police and boy scouts in their

brown uniforms controlled the flow of people into the esplanade of the

shrine.

A choir sang “Welcome to Portugal, Holy Father” as the 83-year-old

head of the Roman Catholic Church entered the sprawling square in his

bullet-proof white popemobile as people applauded and waved white

handkerchiefs.

Up to 500 000 people were expected to attend the mass on the

esplanade at Fatima, where three children claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary

in 1917, turning the Portuguese village into one of the biggest draws for the

Roman Catholic faithful.

Benedict’s mass today is the high point of a four-day visit to

Portugal and rain fell on thousands who spent the night on the esplanade in

sleeping bags – and a lucky few under tents – to make sure they got a

place.

“The rain was harder to deal with than the cold. We came to the

altar at 4.30am but there were already lots of people here, we are not as close

to it as we would like,” said Isaac Gonzales, 24, from Seville in Spain.

Despite the child-sex scandal that has rocked the Church, the

83-year-old pope remains a huge draw. Hours before his arrival, pilgrims had

claimed spots on every spare statue in the main square.

Bedraggled pilgrims formed huge queues outside the portable toilets

and Fatima’s cafes hoping to get breakfast.

Before the pope’s arrival a large group of Spanish youths gathered

near the altar where Benedict was to celebrate the mass, singing hymns, beating

tambourines and dancing as they waited for the ceremony.

“We have come to support the pope so that, wherever he goes, he

feels the presence of young people,” said Juan Moreno, a 20-year-old software

engineering student who was part of a group of 87 students who spent the night

in the bus that brought them to Fatima from Madrid.

Others sat quietly in folding chairs, reciting the rosary prayer.

Behind them fluttered the flags of national groups from Italy,

Ireland, Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands and many from Spain.

The pope led a huge candle-lit ceremony on the esplanade last

night. Chants of Vivo o Papa rose up from the crowd before being drowned out by

massed choirs singing hymns.

The paedophile priest controversy has failed to dampen enthusiasm

and Benedict has drawn vast crowds throughout his trip to Portugal.

The trip began on Tuesday with an outdoor mass in Lisbon’s biggest

square, which police later said 280 000 people had attended, exceeding

expectations.

Shortly after his arrival from Lisbon, the pope told priests to

“take a firm stand” for their vocation.

He also used the visit to warn Portugal of the consequences of

increasing secularism in the country, where nearly 90% are Catholic but only

about 20% are practising.



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