Pope fights to reclaim Spain from social change

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Pope Benedict XVI lands in Spain Saturday to reclaim a bastion of the Church from the lure of quick divorce, abortion rights and gay marriage.

Pilgrims trekked to see the pope when he arrives in Spain's holiest city of Santiago de Compostela. The pontiff heads Sunday to Barcelona to santify Antoni Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia.

Benedict XVI will pray here at the tomb said to hold the remains of Saint James the Apostle, discovered by a hermit in 813.

Saint James, later to be known as the Slayer of the Moors, became a symbol to rally Christian Spain, then pinned down by the Moors to the northern strip of the peninsula.

More than 1,000 years later the Church is fighting back again, this time against a perceived slide away from the core beliefs of Christianity: the sanctity of life and lifelong marriage between a man and woman.

"I will travel as a witness to Christ's resurrection, with the desire to spread his word, which offers the light for living with dignity and the hope for building a better world," Benedict said this week at the Vatican.

The Roman Catholic Church was an all-powerful presence in the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, but the arrival of democracy tore down regime-imposed 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.

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.

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 12th century cathedral, the pope will embrace the statue of Saint James -- a tradition kept by 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 in front of some 7,000 people.

Yellow and white Vatican flags flew from buildings leading into the Plaza Obradoiro, where a massive soundstage was erected behind rows of purple flowers.

But many businesses were also disappointed by the low numbers of visitors for the papal visit. "There are still no people, we're very surprised," said Marisol, the co-owner of a local tourist gift shop.

Many people in Spain are set against his message.

When the pope consecrates the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona on Sunday, transforming it into a Basilica, hundreds of gays plan to stage a mass homosexual kiss-in outside.

Thousands of demonstrators massed in Barcelona and Santiago on Thursday night to fight for a secular Spain, gay rights and to protest child sex abuse. The GCT union plans another protest Saturday afternoon in Barcelona with the slogan: "No God, No State, No Pope."

The city is preparing a warmer welcome.

In time for the pope's consecration, craftsmen covered the central nave of the Sagrada Familia this year.

The main 1,492-pipe organ will bellow behind the pontiff, 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 by the pope, 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.

© 2010 AFP

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