Pope warns Spain against anti-clericalism

POPE Benedict XVI has warned of the return of a 1930s-style “aggressive” anti-clericism in Spain, and has called on Europe to rediscover its Christian roots.

The 83-year-old Pontiff, fighting a slide away from the Roman Catholic Church’s core beliefs, recalled the years when Republican forces slaughtered priests and nuns and burned churches before and during the Civil War.

“Spain saw in the 1930s the birth of a strong and aggressive anti-clercism,” he told reporters yesterday on the plane from Rome to Spain’s holiest city, Santiago de Compostela, where masses of pilgrims awaited.

“The clash between faith and modernity is happening again and it is very strong today,” he said before embarking on a two-day visit to struggle against an onslaught of social change in Spain, and Europe.  The leader of more than one billion Roman Catholics called for Spain and the whole of Europe to have a “meeting between faith and secularism and not a confontation”.

The Pontiff waved as he emerged from a fog-enshrouded Alitalia plane from Rome to battle for the Church’s core beliefs against a drift towards easy divorce, abortion and gay marriage.

On the transparent “Popemobile”, wearing a red cloak laced at the neck over his white cassock, he kissed three babies wrapped in blue or pink blankets and carried by officials into his arms from their parents, airport workers.  Pilgrims lined the 11km route from the the airport to the Catholic Archdiocese of Santiago de Compostela, many waving white handerkerchiefs or yellow balloons and cheering.

Others threw yellow and white confetti, the colours of the Vatican flag.  The Pontiff will spend the day in Santiago de Compostela before heading to Barcelona in the evening and then on Sunday sanctifying Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia church.

Up to 200,000 people were in medieval Santiago, where Benedict XVI will pray at the tomb of Saint James the Apostle, discovered by a hermit in 813, and now resting in a sprawling 12th century cathedral.  Saint James, later to be known as the Slayer of the Moors, became a symbol to rally Christian Spain, then pinned down by the Muslim Moors to the northern strip of the peninsula.

The Pope recalled how the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela created a spiritual unity across Europe, and he recalled how Pope John Paul II had called for the continent to reinvigorate its Christian toots.

“I too wish to encourage Spain and Europe to build their present and to project their future on the basis of the authentic truth about man, on the basis of freedom which respects this truth and never harms it,” he said.

Children as young as 10, elderly men and women, monks, nuns, priests and some in wheelchairs, queued in the cold outside Santiago de Compostela’s vast Plaza Obradoiro where the Pontiff was to celebrate mass.

All must pass through tight security, including bag searches, to enter the Plaza Obradoiro, where a massive sound stage has been set up for the Pope to celebrate mass in front of about 7000 people.  Many people carried huge banners or the yellow and white flag of the Vatican saying “Welcome Benedict XVI”, or wore yellow neckerchiefs or scarves bearing the Pope’s picture.

The Church was an all-powerful presence in the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who died in 1975, but with democracy came an end to restrictions on politics, behaviour and sexual mores.  Under the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero the country has gone far further, allowing gay marriage, speedier divorce and easier abortions.

Of particular concern to the Church, a law passed four months ago lets women have abortion on demand up to 14 weeks of pregnancy, and in case of risk to the life and health of the mother until 22 weeks.  Girls of 16 and 17 can get an abortion without their parents’ consent if they face a risk of family violence, threats or pressure.

In eight years the proportion of Spaniards who describe themselves as Roman Catholic has dropped to 73 per cent from 80 per cent and those attending weekly mass to 13 per cent from 20 per cent.

This is Benedict’s second visit to Spain, where social changes have rapidly eroded Catholic influence. He is scheduled to make a third visit next year to preside over World Youth Day festivities in Madrid.

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