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The Pontiff takes the pilgrim path

A banner welcoming Benedict XVI hangs from the façade of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The Pope will consecrate the still unfinished church on Sunday (CNS photo)

British Catholics bathing in the spiritual glow of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent visit will be forgiven the sin of envy as they read the news that the Holy Father will visit Santiago de Compostela and Barcelona this weekend. For while there have been two papal visits in total to Britain this will be Pope Benedict’s second visit to Spain, with a third planned for next year.

Ah, you might say, but Spain is a Catholic country. While the Church in Spain is the Catholic one, the nation is fast moving to be secular and this is the scenario which will meet the Holy Father.

The hierarchy of the Church was embedded in the Franco regime. It is 71 years since the ending of the Spanish Civil War and 35 years since the death of the dictator, but that legacy lives on. Today, the Church is more at ease with the centre-Right People’s Party (PP) than the centre-Left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), which is in power. The current tensions between Church and state are over the fact that the Zapatero government has been pushing a very liberal agenda – or at least it was until the economic crisis concentrated minds on other issues.

One example of this conflict with Catholics has been the introduction of the new abortion law which came in to effect in the summer. Its provisions include girls as young as 16 being able to have an abortion without the knowledge or consent of their parents. Ranged against the bill were Catholics, pro-life groups and the PP.

The PP has promised that if it is returned to government it will repeal the law, presumably reverting to the one it introduced. This is another cause of irritation between the socialists and the Church, because while José Bono, a leading member of the PSOE government and a staunch Catholic, was threatened with excommunication because of his support for the bill, the Church took no such action against the PP when it introduced its legislation.

But Spain’s drift to secularism is best shown not by these big set-piece issues but what happens in day-to-day life. The National Institute of Statistics recently reported a major shift in how Spaniards get married. In 2009 more people tied the knot in a civil ceremony rather than in a Catholic Church, by 94,993 to 80,174. Yet if you go back to the year 2000 there were 163,636 church weddings, while those carried out by judges, mayors, councillors and authorised people stood at just 52,255.

When Pope Benedict arrives in Spain he will be met at the airport by the heir to the Spanish throne, the Prince of Asturias. He will have a meeting with the leader of the Partido Popular, Mariano Rajoy, but, it is said, only a brief encounter with the socialist premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in Barcelona.

As in Britain, the visit has stirred emotions among those opposed to the Holy Father. No a la visita del Papa, no con mis impuestos has been a theme to the protests from those Spaniards objecting to the visit being funded out of their taxes.

Pope Benedict comes to Santiago de Compostela as a pilgrim with his brother, Georg, a visit that was planned since before he was Pope. The two waited until Compostela celebrated its holy year. The Holy Father will not walk the Camino de Santiago – the Way of St James – but will travel the nine miles from the airport to the cathedral in the Pope-mobile. Once inside the cathedral, Benedict will visit the tomb of St James and, like all pilgrims, embrace the statue. After lunch with the Spanish cardinals and bishops of the Spanish episcopal conference the Pope will be accompanied by 600 priests in concelebrating Mass to commemorate Santiago de Compostela’s holy year.

The Holy Father’s decision to combine a visit to Santiago de Compostela with the consecrating of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia church as a basilica is an interesting one. Compostela’s cathedral has been a place of pilgrimage since the ninth century while Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece will not be finished until probably 2026 – a hundred years after his death.

“Santiago” is the Galician adaptation of the Latin Sanctu Iacobu (St James). Legend has it that the remains of the Apostle were brought to Galicia in the early ninth century in a boat made of stone. The cathedral was built in his honour on the spot where his remains were said to have been found. The legend that St James found his way to the Iberian Peninsula and preached there is one of a number of early traditions concerning the missionary activities and final resting places of the apostles of Jesus. Although in 1884 Pope Leo XIII accepted the authenticity of the relics at Compostela, the Vatican is today uncommitted as to whether the relics are indeed those of St James the Great. In all likelihood they are probably not, as it is impossible to know whose bones were actually found, when or how. What is key is that Compostela has drawn pilgrims for over 1,000 years and one can only wonder how a local Galician cult associated with the saint was transformed into an international one drawing pilgrims from all over Europe. For the Camino de Santiago is not a stroll through Galicia but a network of routes that stretch throughout the continent.

What a contrast then with the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (its official Catalan name) in Barcelona. The church has been under construction since 1882. A privately funded Catholic church, it was designed by Gaudí, who worked on the project from 1883 and devoted the last 15 years of his life entirely to the endeavour. Many of his original designs were lost in the Spanish Civil War but since 1940 a team of architects has continued the work by reconstructing his designs and adding its own.

In any one year more than two million people visit the church, making it one of the main tourist attractions in Spain. Gaudí intended the church to be the “last great sanctuary of Christendom”. Its most striking aspect is its spindle-shaped spires. A total of 18 spires represent in ascending order of height the Twelve Apostles, the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary and, tallest of all, Jesus Christ.

One final word on Gaudí who is now on the road to beatification. Gaudí was a devout Catholic, to the point that in his later years he abandoned secular work and devoted his life to Catholicism and his Sagrada Familia.

He spent the last few years of his life living in the crypt where he is buried. Since he was neither a priest nor a member of a religious order nobody officially started up his Cause. It was 66 years after his death, in June 1992, that a group of two architects, a sculptor, a writer and a priest began the process. On May 13 2003 the Cardinal Archbishop of Barcelona closed the Cause’s diocesan phase. The Cause then moved to Rome.

Ultimately, the Pope will decide whether Gaudí should be beatified. The year 2016 is being talked about. Perhaps it might be the occasion for Benedict XVI’s fourth visit to the country.