SAN LORENZO DE EL ESCORIAL, Spain — Pope Benedict XVI Friday warned of an “eclipse of God” as he spoke to nuns outside a 16th century Spanish monastery during protest-hit Catholic youth celebrations.
About 1,600 nuns clapped and cheered as the 84-year-old pontiff arrived at the monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, some 47 kilometres (29 miles) west of Madrid.
“Your lives must testify to the personal encounter with Christ which has nourished your consecration, and to all the transforming power of that encounter,” said the pope, wearing a white cassock and skull-cap.
“This is all the more important today when we see a certain ‘eclipse of God’ taking place, a kind of amnesia which, albeit not an outright rejection of Christianity, is nonetheless a denial of the treasure of our faith, a denial that could lead to the loss of our deepest identity.”
Benedict was addressing the nuns, most of them from Spain and around 400 of whom live a cloistered life, on the second day of his four-day visit to Madrid for World Youth Day events.
The lavish festivities have drawn criticism and protests — even from some priests — over the cost at a time of economic hardship in Spain.
The monastery, part of the Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, was begun in the 16th century by King Philip II and his architect Juan Bautista de Toledo and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It includes a palace and a basilica.
Later, the pope addressed some 1,500 university professors, teachers and academics in the massive basilica, after the choir of the monastery sang “Ave Maria.”
He told them young people today need “reference points in a society which is increasingly confused and unstable.”
The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics said technical ability was not the only thing that matters in education but “embracing the full measure of what it is to be human.”
The pope earlier met with King Juan Carlos at the royal Zarzuela Palace near Madrid and is also due to meet with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero later on Friday.
He lunched with 12 WYD volunteers – two from each continent and two from Spain – selected by lottery.
On Friday evening he will preside over a Stations of the Cross religious service evoking the “sins of humanity,” including sexual abuse and crimes against children.
Young people from 15 nations, including Iraq, Sudan, Haiti and Japan, will participate.
The service covers a 700-metre (nearly half-mile) route representing the steps in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as a symbol of the problems of youth around the world, and includes elaborate works of religious art from across Spain.
The pope received a rapturous reception on Thursday night from hundreds of thousands of pilgrims at a lavish ceremony in Madrid for the World Youth Festival.
The rock festival-style events, which last until Sunday, are expected to draw more than a million pilgrims from 193 nations, according to organisers.
But just a few hundred metres (yards) away Spanish riot police clashed for a second night with protesters angry over the high cost of the visit amid Spain’s economic crisis.
Police swung batons to disperse about 150 protesters who had gathered in the central square of Puerta del Sol, birthplace of Spain’s widespread “indignant” protests over the handling of the economic crisis.
The government Friday defended the police actions.
“Democracy functions with rules and the function of the police is that these rules are enforced with determination and with caution, that is the determination of the interior ministry,” government spokesman Jose Blanco said.
The protesters are fuming over the official 50.5-million-euro ($73 million) price tag, excluding the cost of police and security, of the August 16-21 celebrations.
Nationwide unemployment stands at more than 20 percent while youth unemployment is running at more than 45 percent.
The Church argues that most of the cost is covered by pilgrims, who must pay a registration fee, and it says the event will provide a major tourism boost to Spain.
The pope will hold a “Prayer Vigil” on Saturday evening at an airbase southwest of the capital, where the pilgrims will spend the night on an esplanade the size of 48 football pitches.
He celebrates mass there on Sunday morning at a white altar almost 200 metres (660 feet) long in front of a wave-shaped stage and under a giant parasol “tree”, made of interwoven golden rods.