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Pope heads to liberal Spain to press church agenda

Nuns walk through the Obradoiro square in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, background, Spain, on Friday, Nov. 5, 2010. Pope Benedict XVI will visit the pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela on Nov. 6 to celebrate his Holy year. (Getty Images / AP Photo/Lalo R. Villar)

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November 06, 2010 VATICAN CITY (KATAKAMI / AP)  – Pope Benedict XVI begins a pilgrimage to Spain on Saturday to visit two of Christianity’s most spectacular sites, fulfilling a long-held personal wish while pressing his bid to revive the faith in a once-staunchly Catholic country that is now among Europe’s most liberal.

Benedict arrives first in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, a medieval and present-day pilgrimage site whose ornate cathedral is said to hold the remains of St. James the Apostle.

He wraps it up on the other side of the country in Barcelona, where he’ll dedicate the famous albeit unfinished Sagrada Familia church — and face a gay “kiss-in” expected to draw thousands.

With such opposition palpable, it’s no coincidence that Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero will only see Benedict as he’s leaving on Sunday night. Laws under Zapatero’s watch allowing gay marriage, fast-track divorce and easier abortions have deeply angered the Vatican.

In Zapatero’s place, Spain’s royal family will take care of the protocol meeting and greeting functions during the two-day visit.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi noted that Benedict had long hoped to make a pilgrimage to Santiago with his brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, but they never got a chance and now Ratzinger is too old and frail to travel.

Millions of the faithful every year take part in the “Camino de Santiago” pilgrimage to the western Galician city — even more so in this jubilee year, which occurs every time the feast of St. James — July 25 — falls on a Sunday.

The scallop shell symbol of St. James, ubiquitous around the city, is particularly important to Benedict: it forms the central part of his papal coat of arms.

“From the beginning of my pontificate, I have tried to live my ministry as the successor of Peter with the sentiments of a pilgrim,” Benedict said in a message last month to pilgrims at the Santiago sanctuary.

In Santiago, Benedict will do as the pilgrims do — embrace a statue of the apostle in the cathedral, pray before his tomb, and watch as the cathedral’s enormous “botafumiero” incense burner swings pendulum-like across the length of the transept.

He’ll also celebrate a Mass in the plaza outside. As many as 200,000 people are expected to travel to Santiago to see the pontiff, packing the square and cobblestone streets of the city’s beautiful old quarter.

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, where Benedict arrives Saturday night, hundreds of people staged a peaceful nighttime rally Thursday against the visit, with banners decrying everything from the cost of hosting the pope to the pedophile priest scandal that has rocked the Vatican.

The centerpiece of Benedict’s visit to Barcelona is the dedication Sunday of one of Spain’s greatest architectural marvels, Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church.

The Vatican says the Mass in Barcelona could draw as many as 100,000 people who will witness as the church — over 100 years in construction and still unfinished — is declared a basilica.

Gaudi, one of Catalan’s star modernist architects, was killed in 1926 when he was run over by a tram, leaving his life’s work woefully unfinished. He is on the path to possible sainthood, though Benedict isn’t expected to make any major announcements during his visit, Vatican officials say.

Thousands of gays and lesbians plan a kiss-in 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 the conservative pontiff, whose opposition to gay marriage is well known.

The protests are clear indications of how the influence of the Catholic Church in Spain has waned in the decades since conservative dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975. After Franco’s rigid social and political constraints came an explosion of hedonism and cultural vigor that has horrified the Vatican and spurred this second of three planned trips by Benedict to the country.

For many liberal Spaniards, though, the church’s association with the Franco regime has been a cause for much of the alienation.

(MS)

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