Pilgrims gather to see pope, on mission to reclaim Europe
Pilgrims descended Friday on Spain's holiest city Santiago de Compostela to get a glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI, on a mission to reclaim Europe for the Church.
On the eve of the pope's arrival here for a weekend visit that will also take in Barcelona, planes were packed and the state-owned rail network Renfe added 13,000 extra seats to trains headed to the city.
The pontiff lands Saturday to pray at the relic of the Saint James, whose remains were discovered by a hermit in 813 and became a rallying cry for Christian Spain, pinned by the Moors to the northern strip of the peninsula.
The Roman Catholic Church appears again to be under attack on many fronts, and Benedict XVI is seeking a new rallying cry.
The Church was an all-powerful presence in the lives of Spaniards during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. But with the arrival of democracy Spain tore down many of the regime-imposed restrictions on dress-code, behaviour and sexual mores.
Under the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero the country has gone dramatically further, allowing gay marriage -- in five years, 20,000 gay couples have tied the knot -- speedier divorce and easier abortions.
Of particular concern to the Church, women can have abortion on demand up to 14 weeks of pregnancy, 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.
Benedict XVI will warn against "the idea inherited from the French Revolution that in order to be fully human you have to get rid of religious tradition," Celso Morga, undersecretary for the Congregation of the Clergy, said in the Vatican ahead of the visit.
But in eight years the proportion of Spaniards who describe themselves as Roman Catholic has dropped to 73 percent from 80 percent and those attending weekly mass to 13 percent from 20 percent.
In Santiago, after praying in the sprawling, majestic cathedral, the pope will embrace the statue of Saint James -- a tradition kept by masses of pilgrims who have visited every year since the Middle Ages.
Benedict XVI will then celebrate mass in the vast Plaza Obradoiro outside the cathedral's main facade in the heart of the medieval city -- a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985 -- in front some 7,000 people.
Shops leading to the cathedral -- whose two towers rise to a height of about 75 metres (250 feet) -- were already crammed with souvenirs of the pope's visit. Shopkeepers said commemorative bracelets and stickers, ceramic thimbles and key chains bearing the pope's image were the most sought after items.
Yellow and white Vatican flags flew from buildings leading into the Plaza Obradoiro, where a massive soundstage was decked out in white behind rows of purple flowers.
"Welcome Holy Father," said one banner.
Portuguese couple Nuno Rocha and Luisa Costa, both 31 and veterinarians, walked 185 kilometres (115 miles) from Barcelos in Portugal. "We timed our visit to coincide with the pope," said Luisa.
And Santiago mayor Xose Sanchez Bugallo on Thursday inaugurated a one ton, 98,000-euro (140,000-dollar) bronze statue of Pope Benedict XVI to commemorate his visit which depicts the pontiff with his arms outstretched and carrying a walking stick.
But many in Spain are set against the pope's message.
When the pope consecrates the great unfinished masterpiece of Antoni Gaudi, the Sagrada Familia church, in Barcelona on Sunday, hundreds of gays plan to stage a mass kiss-in.
"We are hoping for a crowd of people of the same sex who will kiss each other for two minutes in front of the pope," said one of the organisers, Marylene Carole.
Protesters against the visit massed Thursday night both in Santiago de Compostela and Barcelona.
In Barcelona, banners held by 2,000 demonstrators declared "Jo no t'espero" ("I'm not waiting for you" in Catalan) declared banners carried by a crowd of more than 2,000 people in the Sant-Jaume Square.
"Children welcome, priests flee," said another placard carried by a child, referring to the child sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church worldwide but largely spared Spain.
© 2010 AFP