- - Sunday, August 21, 2011

MADRID | Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday called on 1.5 million young people attending a Mass here to become missionaries and to resist secularism, as he ended the Catholic Church’s four-day youth celebrations.

“You, too, have been given the extraordinary task of being disciples and missionaries of Christ in other lands and countries filled with young people who are looking for something greater … . They do not let themselves be seduced by the empty promises of a lifestyle which has no room for God,” the pope said during the service at the Cuatro Vientos airfield outside the city center.

Benedict’s sermon and a later speech to volunteers culminated the World Youth Day (WYD) event, during which more than 1 million pilgrims from nearly 200 countries inundated the Spanish capital.

This year’s WYD, which is held every two to three years at different locations, was set against the backdrop of a country in economic crisis: The perceived costs of the Catholic festivities sparked protests by residents suffering through a three-year recession and facing a 21 percent unemployment rate. The jobless rate for young people hovers at about 40 percent.

On Wednesday, about 20,000 people took to the streets to protest the use of public subsidies for the religious event. Their slogan: “To the pope, from my taxes, zero.”

“To put on such pharaonic splendor during an economic crisis to the detriment of the people who live here is what drove us to protest,” said Luis Vega, head of the Madrid Association of Atheists and Free-thinkers, one of the rally organizers. “And despite what some media say, this was not an anti-Catholic protest. There were practicing Catholics marching alongside of me.”

Officials have refused to delineate the cost of the WYD. Estimates range from $72 million to $143 million, and many groups have called for a transparent breakdown to be released. Madrid residents fear their taxes have been misused.

The city provided housing for pilgrims by opening public schools and youth centers that usually are closed in August. City cleaning crews worked around the clock to keep up with garbage removal. And accredited pilgrims were given an 80 percent discount on public transportation.

Three weeks ago, the regional government increased the price of bus tickets by 50 percent. The head of Madrid’s transportation agency justified the increase as the “only solution because we lack budgetary resources.”

The regional government also instructed hospitals and clinics not to charge pilgrims for health care.

Meanwhile, pilgrims paid between $110 and $300 to register for WYD, depending on their country of origin, housing and meals. “We have been able to marvel at the mystery of the worldliness of the church,” pilgrim Giselle Azevedo told the Spanish press.

But the Forum of Madrid Priests, a group of 120 priests who work in some of the region’s poorest areas, published a letter on their website echoing the protesters’ sentiments about WYD’s financial backing.

“In organizing the event, it has been necessary to make agreements with political and economic forces, which reinforce the image of the church as a privileged institution,” the priests wrote. “It is scandalous to compare the ease at which the government has financed this event with the economic and social cuts the majority of citizens have had to endure.”

Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon said WYD did not cost the city a penny and that it brought in millions in tourism revenue. But the protesters were skeptical.

“No one knows exactly what money is being spent or how, and we may never know, but I don’t believe for a second the politicians who say the city isn’t paying for this,” said Ana Martinez, 32. “More than half a million extra people are here this week. You don’t think that involves providing extra services? And if this is to make money, why are they giving everything away practically for free?”

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