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

7th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Pope Benedict XVI warned of a return to 1930s-style "aggressive" anti-clericism in Spain and urged Europe to embrace God as he embarked on a two-day visit.

Benedict XVI set the tone for his visit even before he landed Saturday in Santiago de Compostela, Spain's holiest city, recalling an era when pro-Republicans killed priests and nuns and burned churches.

"Spain saw in the 1930s the birth of a strong and aggressive anti-clericism," the 83-year-old German-born pontiff told reporters aboard the papal plane.

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

In a homily at a giant open-air mass in Santiago's cobblestone medieval central square, the pope 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 who greeted him with cries of "Be-ne-dicto!" before he stepped onto a vast white stage, which had been dressed in a sweeping zigzag of purple flowers.

The pontiff landed later in Barcelona, where he will consecrate Antoni Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia church, a symbol for the pontiff of the sacredness of family and a rallying call against Spain's embrace of gay marriage and easier access to abortion.

Thousands waved Vatican flags in yellow and white, crying "Benedicto" and "Viva el Papa" in the Barcelona square outside the Episcopal Palace where the pope spent the night. The pontiff waved from the balcony of the palace as the crowds below chanted, children and youngsters carrying lighted candles.

But not everyone welcomes the pontiff's message.

Gay rights activists plan to hold a homosexual kissing "flashmob" protest outside the Sagrada Familia as the pope arrives for the blessing and mass on Sunday morning.

"Our main goal is to perform a symbolic act through love to show other forms of love," the organisers, a group of six friends, said in a statement on the eve of the protest.

Benedict XVI is struggling 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.

He told reporters on his plane that he admired the courage of the Sagrada Familia's architect, the devout Gaudi, who died in a tram accident June 10, 1926.

The edifice is a homage to family, the pope said.

"The problem of the family unit that is fundamental to society is a major issue today," he said.

When the pope sanctifies the Sagrada Famila before a 7.5-tonne stone altar, a 1,492-pipe organ will play, accompanying three choirs of a total 800 voices, singing to 6,500 guests including hundreds of priests and bishops.

And once the nave is consecrated, it will be open for daily mass for the first time since the first stone was laid March 19, 1882. Now mass is held in the crypt, the resting place of Gaudi's remains.

Building could still take another 15 years at least, with 10 more spires to go, including the central tower crowned by a cross reaching up 170 metres (560 feet), the main Glory facade, and the sacristies.

In time for the pope's consecration, craftsmen covered the central nave this year. Now a forest of white tree-like columns rises 60 metres up, splitting into branches and then spreading into a ceiling of leaves crackled with gold and green mosaic.

The Catholic Church in Spain was an all-powerful presence in the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who defeated the Republicans in the Civil War. But after the return to democracy following his death in 1975 came an end to restrictions on politics, behaviour and sexual mores.

Under Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the country has gone much further, allowing gay marriage, speedier divorce and easier access to abortions, to the consternation of the Church.

© 2010 AFP

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