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WYD 2011: Pope thanks youth as he departs for Rome

Spain's King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia pictured with the Pope at Barajas airport (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)

Benedict XVI said this evening that he was leaving Madrid filled with gratitude to the Spanish people, the World Youth Day organisers and the more than a million pilgrims who prayed with him.

“Spain is a great nation whose soundly open, pluralistic and respectful society is capable of moving forward without surrendering its profoundly religious and Catholic soul,” the Pope told King Juan Carlos and other dignitaries before boarding a plane to return to Rome.

Spain has a reputation as a country where the overwhelming majority of residents are baptised, but faith has little resonance in public policy.

But Pope Benedict said the way Spanish society handled World Youth Day showed it could rally for a great cause: “helping young people to become more deeply rooted in Jesus Christ, our Saviour”.

The Pope thanked the young pilgrims who came to Madrid for World Youth Day with their “joyful, enthusiastic and intense presence”.

“To them I say thank you, and I congratulate you for the witness which you gave,” he said.

“I leave Spain very happy and grateful to everyone. But above all, I am grateful to God, our Lord, who allowed me to celebrate these days so filled with enthusiasm and grace, so charged with dynamism and hope,” the 84-year-old pope said at Madrid’s Barajas airport.

Many of the young pilgrims were on hand at the airport, waving mostly Spanish flags and cheering for the Holy Father as he reached his final destination of the four-day whirlwind tour.

World Youth Day lets the Church look toward the future with greater hope and trust in God, he said. That is why the Church “continues to be young and full of life,” even as it confronts challenging situations.

The grace of Christ, the Pope said, “tears down the walls and overcomes the barriers which sin erects between people and generations,” a fact the pilgrims at World Youth Day experienced firsthand.

The Pope said the celebration also proved that young people will respond happily and massively “when one proposes to them, in sincerity and truth, an encounter with Jesus Christ”.

He asked bishops, priests and lay leaders to make sure that their young pilgrims are supported as they return home, so the experience could transform their lives.

Before going to the airport, Pope Benedict took time to thank about 12,000 of the 30,000 volunteers from around the world who ensured – as much as possible – the smooth functioning of the World Youth Day events.

Crowds waving banners and throwing confetti said goodbye to the Pope as he travelled through the streets of Madrid on the way to the fairgrounds adjacent to the airport. Upon entry, a crowd of volunteers in green shirts clapped and waved, cheering for the man whose visit they had worked nonstop all week to coordinate. Baby after baby was lifted through the window of the popemobile for a papal kiss as he circled the crowd, smiling and waving.

After greeting a handful of volunteers personally, Pope Benedict addressed the entire group, acknowledging “all the effort that went into preparing for these days, all the sacrifices, all the love””

“Everybody did his or her best, by work and prayer, to weave, stitch by stitch, the magnificent, colourful tapestry of this World Youth Day,” he said.

Speaking on behalf of the volunteers, Giselle Azevedo, a 28-year-old from Rio de Janeiro, said they all loved God and the Church, which led them to dedicate their time and energy “to serve and to help young people from the whole world have the most incredible experience of their lives: a personal encounter with Christ”.

And, she said, the young people of Brazil eagerly await the opportunity to welcome young pilgrims to World Youth Day 2013 in Rio.