Pope warns of 'aggressive' anti-priest culture in Spain

6th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Pope Benedict XVI warned Saturday of the return of "aggressive" anti-clericism and called on Europe to rediscover its Christian roots as he began a two-day trip to Spain.

Benedict set the tone for his visit even before he landed in Santiago de Campostela, Spain's holiest city, recalling the killing of priests and nuns by Republican forces during the country's civil war.

"Spain saw in the 1930s the birth of a strong and aggressive anti-clericism," he told reporters aboard the papal plane.

"The clash between faith and modernity is happening again, and it is very strong today."

In his homily at a giant open-air mass in Santiago's cobblestone medieval central square, he pleaded for Europe to open itself to God, lamenting as a tragedy a belief on the continent that God is an enemy of freedom.

"Europe must open itself to God, must come to meet Him without fear," he told 7,000 pilgrims from a vast white stage, dressed in a sweeping zigzag of purple flowers.

The 83-year-old pontiff will also visit Barcelona as he struggles to halt a retreat from the Catholic Church in Europe, where Spain is on the front line of social shifts allowing more access to abortion, fast-track divorce and gay marriage.

Santiago de Compostela, where a sprawling 12th century cathedral holds the purported remains of Saint James the Apostle, is a symbolic venue to launch a revival of Christian values.

The eighth century remains of 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 Iberian peninsula.

The German pope prayed alone for a few minutes in the brilliantly decorated crypt holding the tomb of the apostle.

Draped in a white cassock and a red cloak and stole, the pontiff then rose from his knees to embrace a painted statue of the first century saint clutching a staff.

Thousands of pilgrims had lined the 11-kilometre (seven-mile) route from the airport as the papal cavalcade made its way to the centre of the city and its landmark cathedral, pausing at one point to allow the pope to lean forward from a window and kiss several babies carried to him by stewards.

Many cheered and waved flags or threw yellow and white confetti, the colours of the Vatican flag.

"Tragically, above all in nineteenth century Europe, the conviction grew that God is somehow man's antagonist and an enemy of his freedom," the Roman Catholics leader said in his homily after walking to the giant altar clutching the golden papal cross.

As a result there had been an attempt to obscure the "true biblical faith" of God, said Benedict, draped in a gold-embroidered scarlet vestment.

"The Europe of science and technology, the Europe of civilization and culture, must be at the same time a Europe open to transcendence and fraternity with other continents, and open to the living and true God, starting with the living and true man."

Describing himself as a "pilgrim among pilgrims," the pontiff said Jesus had warned that a lack of self-giving gave rise to arrogance and exploitation, and he called on young people to take the path shown by the Gospels.

"In renouncing a selfish and short-sighted way of thinking so common today, and taking on instead Jesus' own way of thinking, you may attain fulfilment and become a seed of hope," the pope said.

Children as young as 10, elderly men and women, monks, nuns, priests and some in wheelchairs, queued in the cold outside the vast square from before dawn on Saturday.

"I'm not at all tired, I'm emotional," said Jose Antonio, a 30-year-old Spanish monk who had stood at the head of the queue since 6:30 pm (1730 GMT) Friday.

The Church was an all-powerful presence in Spain under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who defeated the Republicans in the Civil War and died in 1975.

With democracy came an end to many restrictions on politics, behaviour and sexual mores -- some to the consternation of the Church.

© 2010 AFP

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