The Washington post
By DANIEL WOOLLS
The Associated Press
Friday, November 5, 2010; 10:36 AM
MADRID — Pope Benedict XVI meets Spain’s Facebook generation this weekend – setting up a clash of values and lifestyles in a once-staunchly Catholic nation that has become one of Europe’s most liberal.
The visit is part of a major Vatican push to make increasingly secular Europe re-embrace its Christian roots, but the pope faces a big challenge in a nation that has undergone an extraordinary social transformation in just the past few years – with laws allowing gay marriage, fast-track divorce and easier abortions.
These changes are the latest, perhaps most dramatic, chapter in Spain’s reinvention after the deeply conservative dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, who died in 1975. After rigid social and political constraints came an explosion of hedonism and cultural vigor that caused the nation to stray further and further from its religious heritage.
It has all horrified the Vatican, which remembers a not-so-distant age when all public schoolrooms had a picture of Franco and a crucifix mounted on the wall. For many liberal Spaniards, on the other hand, it’s the church’s association with the Franco regime that has been a cause for much of the alienation.
“This is without a doubt the least Catholic Spain in history, and demographic data suggest it will continue to become less and less Catholic,” sociologist Kerman Calvo said of the country hosting Pope Benedict Saturday for a two-day visit.
Indeed, church attendance is falling steadily and at Mass on Sunday most worshippers have gray hair. Congregations are fast losing young people. And civil ceremonies now outnumber church marriages for the first time.
Against that challenging backdrop, the pope’s tour starts in Santiago de Compostela, a medieval and present-day pilgrimage site whose ornate cathedral is said to hold the remains of St. James the Apostle. It ends Sunday in Barcelona, where the pope will consecrate part of the Sagrada Familia, or Holy Family, church – Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished architectural marvel.
Tensions rose even before the Pope arrived, as riot police swinging truncheons clashed Thursday night with anti-papal protesters in Santiago, some of whom carried red banners reading “I am not waiting for you.”
In Barcelona, hundreds of people staged a peaceful nighttime rally against the visit, with banners decrying everything from the cost of hosting the pope to the pedophile priest scandal that has rocked the Vatican.
Thousands of gays and lesbians plan a kiss-in in Barcelona in the pope’s presence as he leaves the grounds of the city’s actual cathedral on Sunday morning, puckering up en masse to protest against the conservative pontiff, whose opposition to gay marriage is well known.
Barcelona radio station RAC1 reported Friday that a man walking his dog came across documents this week that included names of hotels where papal delegation members would stay, details on security cameras for the visit and the names, emails and telephone numbers of high-ranking Spanish security authorities.
Spanish authorities downplayed the possibility of a security breach, saying the documents had been reported lost a month ago and that logistical plans to deal with the papal visit had been adjusted.
The pope already visited Spain in 2006 for a rally stressing family values, and plans to come again next summer for a Vatican event called World Youth Day. The trio of journeys by a man who is 83, albeit robust, show that Spain is very much a part of the Vatican’s drive to rekindle Christianity as Europeans turn away from religion as a source of meaning in their lives.
Monsignor Celso Morga, a Spaniard and undersecretary in the Vatican’s office for clergy, said the pope “wants to give a message to Europe, young and old: Let’s return to the tomb of the apostle, let’s return to the origins of our faith which built Europe.”
Faith, the family, and Christian life in Europe are likely to be themes the pope will touch on during the trip, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
The pope is visiting Santiago as a pilgrim to celebrate its jubilee year, which falls every time the July 25 feast of St. James – Spain’s patron saint – comes on a Sunday. The Vatican says the symbol of St. James, a scallop shell, is particularly dear to the pontiff and is part of his papal coat of arms.
As many as 200,000 people are expected to travel to Santiago de Compostela to see the pontiff, packing the square outside the cathedral and cobblestone streets of its beautiful old quarter. The Vatican says the Pope’s Mass Sunday in Barcelona could draw as many as 100,000 people.
Despite the expected crowds, the influence of the Catholic church in Spain has waned in the decades since Franco died in 1975.
However Javier Elzo, a professor emeritus at Deusto University in the Basque region and expert on the sociology of religion, said he is not ready to declare Catholicism comatose in Spain.
He noted that a poll released in September showed 73 percent of those questioned still consider themselves Catholic, calling that significant even if it is down nearly 10 points since 1994.
“The Catholic brand has not disappeared. Name me a political party, labor union, football team, singer or whatever that has the stated support of 73 percent of the population,” Elzo said.
Part of the problem in Spain is that many Catholics want to remain true to their faith but are frustrated with the conservative bent of the pope and of Spanish bishops named in the times of the late John Paul II, said Mariano Benito, a churchgoing businessman of 46.
“The church needs to get up to date,” Benito said, holding the hand of his small son on a sunny afternoon in Madrid, not far from their parish church. “The church would have a lot to gain.”
Since his election in 2004, Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has angered the church with his liberal-minded reform program. The latest plank was officially installed in July with a law that eased abortion legislation dating back to 1985, providing for unrestricted abortion in the first 14 weeks of a pregnancy and letting girls as young as 16 undergo the procedure with no need for parental consent. It’s a far cry from the Franco era in which Spanish women traveled to England, France or Holland for abortions.
But now Zapatero is overseeing an economy struggling to overcome recession and a nearly 20 percent jobless rate and trailing the opposition conservatives badly in the polls with elections due in 18 months – and has apparently shelved plans to enact a law that would force the removal of crucifixes from schools and other public buildings such as hospitals.
The conservative Popular Party has challenged the abortion law in Spain’s highest court, and party leader Mariano Rajoy has said that if elected prime minister he would propose erasing the clause allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to abort without parental permission.
Father Olegario Gonzalez de Cardedal, a professor of theology at the University of Salamanca, says Spanish society has changed tremendously over the past 50 years and the church is working to catch up and find new ways to spread faith now that old models like the family and small local parishes have lessened in importance. He acknowledges the role of the church has weakened, but insists it remains strong and is trying to adjust.
These days, he wrote in the conservative newspaper ABC, “people get their education from the street, from music, from information society in its diverse and extremely complex channels, from the society of anonymity.”
Alan Clendenning contributed from Madrid.