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Million pilgrims join Pope vigil

An estimated million young pilgrims have braved searing heat followed by blustery rains in Madrid 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 40C heat. Later, a flash donwpour drenched the crowds and forced Benedict to suspend his remarks.

Despite the discomfort, the scene at the Cuatro Vientos airport was festive and colourful, 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 tomorrow'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, Texas.

The crowd erupted in cheers when Benedict arrived greeted by Spain's crown Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia. Once it became clear he couldn't proceed with his speech because of the rain, organisers told the crowd that they had asked for more water during the day when it was so hot, and their prayers were answered.

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.

With an hour to go before the vigil began, organisers told the crowd their numbers had surpassed a million.

Earlier, 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 honours 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.

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 last night. The protesters resent that Spain is staging the 50 million euro World Youth Day at a time of economic crisis.

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