LISBON — An estimated 1.5 million people packed a riverside park in Portugal’s capital on Saturday, braving a relentlessly scorching sun for hours for an evening prayer service with Pope Francis.
The Parque Tejo, a new venue created for the event, covers 100 hectares and has no shade or structures. Some participants had to wait up to 20 minutes to refill their water bottles as temperatures reached 38 degrees Celsius.
Some arrived more than eight hours before the pope appeared in the early evening, riding in a open popemobile that took more than half an hour to snake through the crowd.
The app of the World Youth Day — the Roman Catholic festival the pope traveled to Lisbon to attend — sent heat warnings reminding people to drink water and apply sunscreen.
A tractor with a water tank sprayed the crowd and a succession of bands and speakers from a huge stage with the backdrop of a cross tried to keep the participants’ minds off the heat at an event that has been dubbed the Catholic Woodstock.
Many planned to sleep there ahead of a papal Mass on Sunday morning.
At the start of the event, the pope listened to an 18-year-old girl from Mozambique describe hiding in the forest from guerrillas who attacked her village.
He then delivered a short, improvised but impassioned address to the crowd, rather than reading his much longer, prepared one, telling the young people that nothing is free in life but God’s love.
Francis, who is due to leave on Sunday afternoon, started the day at the Catholic Shrine of Fatima, praying with about 200,000 people at the site where the Church says the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children in 1917.
There, he skipped reading a speech that was on the program of his two-hour visit and which was expected to have been the centrepiece of the day.
The omission did not appear to indicate the pope was experiencing any health issues. He later greeted dozens of people individually as an aide slowly pushed his wheelchair through the crowd.
NO EYESIGHT PROBLEMS
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Pope Francis’ apparently last-minute decision to skip the speech had nothing to do with his eyesight.
The pope has shortened several speeches or has chosen to speak instead off-script since the trip started on Wednesday. He said on one occasion that he was having trouble with his glasses.
Later, on Francis’ account on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, the Vatican published part of the unread speech, which was a peace appeal.
At the start of his visit to Fatima, a smoke cloud caused by a wild fire at Castelo Branco, about 100 km (60 miles) east of Fatima, hovered over one side of the sanctuary and tiny specks of ash fell. It later mostly dissipated.
The three Fatima visionaries said the Madonna gave them three messages, the so-called Secrets of Fatima.
The first two were revealed soon after and concerned a vision of hell, seen by believers as a prediction of the outbreak of World War II, a warning that Russia would “spread her errors” in the world, and a need for general conversion to God and prayer.
The Vatican revealed the third secret in 2000, saying it was a prediction of the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul on May 13, the same day of the first reported apparition in 1917. — Reuters