The night of Aug. 16 belonged to both Pope John Paul II, the great friend of the world’s young people and the Catholic faith of Spain.

With 500,000 young Catholic pilgrims gathered in central Madrid for the start of World Youth Day and the impending arrival of Pope Benedict XVI later in the week, the open-air Mass celebrated by the cardinal archbishop of Madrid, Antonio Ruoco, was marked by recalling the past and continuing spiritual presence of Blessed John Paul II in the lives of young Catholics throughout the world.

Cardinal Ruoco also called his fellow citizens of Spain to remember their Catholic roots and to see the week ahead as an opportunity to renew and strengthen their ancient faith. 

In his homily during the “Mass of Blessed Pope John Paul II,” the newly approved liturgy since the late Pope’s beatification in May, the 74-year-old cardinal invoked the name of the Polish Pope more than a dozen times.

He told the young people from nearly 190 countries, and the 8,000 priests and 800 bishops vested in matching shimmering-white chasubles and stoles gathered with him, that “World Youth Day, already with its long history of more than a quarter century, is inseparable from that blessed man, in whose memory we celebrate the Eucharist this evening in the Plaza de la Cibeles. I’m talking about the unforgettable, venerable and beloved John Paul II — the Pope of youth! With John Paul II begins a new historical period, unprecedented, with respect to the Successor of Peter’s relationship with the youth, and, consequently, a relationship that until then did not exist between the Church and her young: direct, immediate, heart to heart, imbued with a faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, enthusiastic, hopeful, joyful, contagious.”

With these words, a spontaneous and lengthy applause broke out across the plaza, and hundreds of national flags were waved in the steamy, 90-degree evening air, including two flags representing communist China, flags which are not normally seen at large Catholic gatherings.

The World Youth Day cross and icon of Mary, Health of the Roman People — two of the tangible legacies Pope John Paul II left to World Youth Day participants — were arranged on the massive white altar that was erected in front of Madrid’s town hall. An oversize depiction of the Virgin Mary of Almudena, the patroness of the city of Madrid, was also incorporated into the modernistic altar area that included an automatic water-sprinkling system to keep the celebrants cool during the two-hour celebration.

A silver stand for the Book of the Gospels that contains a vial of the blood of Blessed John Paul II built within it was used for the first time at the Mass and will be used throughout the liturgies of World Youth Day 2011. Blessed John Paul II is one of nine patron saints for this year’s celebration. The others, including Sts. Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier and Teresa of Avila, are all of Spanish heritage.

The week’s schedule included an opening prayer service with Pope Benedict, also at Plaza de la Cibeles on Thursday, a city-wide Way of the Cross on Friday, a major catechesis and evening vigil service with the Pope on Saturday and a concluding open-air Mass on Sunday with the Pope.

More than 2 million pilgrims and Spanish Catholics were expected to attend.

Cardinal Ruoco reminded the gathered throngs, mostly dressed in bright yellow-red-and-green T-shirts and hats, official colors for WYD Madrid, that the 2011 theme “Planted and built up in Christ, firm in the faith,” from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, is particularly important for the people of Spain, who represent an ancient expression of the Catholic faith: “Spain’s main hallmark is the profession of the Christian faith by its children in the communion of the Catholic Church. The historic character of Spain is formed with distinctive features about the Christian vision of man and life from the very dawn of its history, which began with the first journey of the apostolic preaching in Spain almost 2,000 ago.” 

But that faith has weakened in recent years, as seen in falling Mass attendance and small numbers of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The decline in the practice of the Catholic faith in Spain is often given as one important reason that Pope Benedict is making his third trip to Spain thus far in his six-year papacy.

Cardinal Ruoco took note of this trend in his homily and challenged the participants to see their time in Madrid as directly participating in the New Evangelization that Blessed Pope John Paul II consistently proclaimed. “Jesus Christ shows you the way and the aim of real happiness. Not only to you, but also to your fellow friends, who moved away from religious practice, and even from their faith, or who do not have any knowledge about it,” he said. “Jesus is asking you to put down roots in the hearts of young people of the third millennium.”

World Youth Day Madrid has been planned for the past three years, ever since Pope Benedict announced his choice of Madrid at the conclusion of the 2008 World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia. It has been a massive undertaking for the Archdiocese of Madrid and the whole Church of Spain, showing its commitment to young people in Spain and from around the world.

The week is expected to bring an estimated $150 million to Spain. The cost of the program is covered by the registration fees from participants and from corporate sponsorships. No Spanish taxes are being used to pay for World Youth Day, despite claims of anti-Catholic protesters.

Along with the regularly scheduled events, Pope Benedict has added two new elements this year: a meeting with young religious women and a meeting with young university professors, both to be held at El Escorial, the former royal palace on the outskirts of Madrid. He is also the first Pope to hear confessions at WYD.

This is Spain’s second World Youth Day; the first was held in 1989 at Santiago de Compostela with Pope John Paul II in attendance.

Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the branch of the Vatican that directly oversees World Youth Day on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI, also accented the importance of Blessed John Paul II to WYD and the challenges of contemporary Spanish Catholicism. At the end of the Mass, in a speech reminiscent of those that open the Olympic Games, the Polish cardinal exclaimed in a loud and enthusiastic tone: “Blessed John Paul II has come back to you, the young people that he loved so much, and who was equally loved by you.  He has returned as your blessed patron and protector in whom you can trust. He has returned as a friend — a demanding friend — as he liked to call himself.”

He concluded by announcing the importance of the Catholic faith, especially in Europe, which has been beset recently by many problems, especially among youth, considering the rioting in England and the massacre of young people on a camping trip in Norway. Cardinal Rylko encouraged his fellow Catholics, “You are gathered in Madrid. You have come to say aloud to the whole world, and in particular to Europe, which is showing signs of being very lost,  your unwavering ‘Yes’ — yes that faith is possible.”

Chris Kudialis, from Johnson City, Tenn., and a student at the University of Michigan who has spent the past six months studying in Madrid, confirmed this trend away from faith, especially among Madrid’s young adults. He said that he has met only two Spanish students at his university out of hundreds who still attend Mass on Sunday. He said most Spaniards can’t believe that he goes to Mass every week. He said they think he is strange, but he is hoping that World Youth Day will have an impact.

“My hope is that it will encourage them to open their hearts a bit and maybe bring some of them back to the Church,” he said. “I don’t think it will hurt anybody, and, really, nobody in Spain that I have met is bummed out about it being here.” Kudialis said he is most looking forward to seeing the Pope for the first time and being with him at the final Mass.

Cardinal Ruoco concluded the opening Mass with the blessing of Marian medals with the Virgin of Almudena for the pilgrims, calling her “St. Mary, the Royal of Almudena.” He said, “I pray that, especially, these days she will watch over all of you, young people of this World Youth Day 2011, pilgrims to Madrid, the town that is devoted to Mary and in particular to celebrate the meeting with the Holy Father Pope Benedict.”

Jesuit Father Matthew Gamber filed this story from Madrid.