Page last updated at 19:45 GMT, Sunday, 22 March 2009

Heat and happiness at Angola Mass

An Angolan wearing a makeshift Pope mask
Many of the crowd simply made their own outfits

By Louise Redvers
BBC News, Luanda

Angolans began to gather at the cement factory yard while it was still dark, eager to get a good position to watch Pope Benedict XVI celebrate Mass.

Some walked in the sticky heat to beat the long queues of traffic, others arrived on the back of pick-up trucks, singing and clapping as they bumped along the dusty pot-holed road past Luanda's infamous Roque Santeiro market.

By 1000, when Pope Benedict arrived, nearly one million people had congregated in the wide-open square, the majority wearing white souvenir Pope T-shirts and caps.

Huge crowds at Cimangola, Luanda
The crowds trooped from across Luanda to hear the Pope deliver Mass

There were babies carried on their mothers' backs, old women dressed proudly in brightly-coloured sarongs and groups of teenagers, many of whom had come to Luanda from outlying provinces especially to see the Pope, clutching flags and banners.

A giant steel stage stood at the front, decorated in pink cloth and flowers, and a red carpet ran down from the altar.

Next to the stage, but separated from the main crowd, bishops, priests, monks and nuns sat together in a seated enclosure surrounded by boy and girl scouts holding hands in a human chain.

The Pope arrived at Cimangola at the main gate and the crowds parted to allow the white Popemobile to pass through, cheering and chanting: "Papa, Papa."

Call for peace

He began Mass by offering his condolences to the families of two girls who had died in a stampede at a city football stadium the day before.

He said: "I offer my sympathies to their families and friends, and my deep sorrow, because they were coming to meet me."

A man carries rosary beads
Africa is home the world's fastest-growing Catholic community

Then, after readings from church leaders from different southern African countries, Pope Benedict spoke again to acknowledge Angola's long legacy of war and to call for an end to "the clouds of evil… which have overshadowed Africa".

Later in his prayers he called for peace across the continent, especially in the Great Lakes region.

Different music played throughout, ranging from traditional hymns with choirs to more traditional African melodies. The Mass, the largest on this, the Pope's first tour of Africa, ended with a large cheer and more singing.

The strong morning Sun beat down on the spectators, who had no shade apart from the odd umbrella. A number of people - mostly women - had to be taken away on stretchers for medical attention.

'Great blessing'

But despite the heat, the dust and the delays to get home, Angolans left the Mass smiling and full of spirit.

One worshipper, Maria De Conceicao de Silva Lemos, said the Mass was "beautiful" and an "inspiration".

The 73-year-old from Luanda said it had taken her two hours to reach the service and it was likely to take even longer to get home, but she said: "Of course it was worth it to see the Pope."

A woman is carried over crowds to medical attention
The heat and size of crowd were too much for some of the faithful

Maria Pelinganga, 46, from Rangel, also in the capital, said Angola was proud and honoured that the Pope had paid them a visit.

"It's a great blessing for us to have the Pope coming to our country, actually, today has been indescribable."

Asked about the Pope's message, and his previous comments about corruption and poverty in Africa, 63-year-old Father Augusto Ferreira, a Portuguese missionary who has worked in Sumbe, Angola for 37 years, said: "We will have to see if what Pope Benedict said makes a difference to the government and if things do change.

"But this visit has definitely given the Church a new lease of life to work together with the government, to stimulate good governance and make things change."

Within two hours of the Mass ending the factory yard had emptied.

The music and cheers were replaced by the clunking of workmen dismantling the stage and by growling litter trucks, scooping up discarded water bottles.

The memory of the spectacle though is likely to live on in the minds of Angolans for years to come.

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