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Pope Visits A Changing Spain

Young Catholics welcome Pope Benedict XVI as he arrives at Cibeles Square during World Youth Day celebrations on Aug. 18, in Madrid.
Denis Doyle
Getty Images
Young Catholics welcome Pope Benedict XVI as he arrives at Cibeles Square during World Youth Day celebrations on Aug. 18, in Madrid.

Pope Benedict XVI visited Spain on Thursday to celebrate World Youth Day with Catholic pilgrims from around the globe. But a country that was solidly Catholic for centuries has become much more secular, and not everyone extended a warm welcome.

Regal music is piped through the streets of Madrid as the popemobile rolls by. The faithful fall to their knees. Up to a million Catholics are present, including Sara Vallarta from Laredo, Texas.

"It's been an awesome experience. It's incredible, the amount of people here, coming all together with their faith," she says.

But just hours earlier, thousands of angry protesters forced their way through police barricades on the same thoroughfare.

The number of protesters shouting "Out, out!" were only a fraction of those here to see the pope. But the presence of both groups gets to the heart of modern Spain. For 500 years, Spain spread Catholicism around the world. Now it's embraced secularism in a single generation.

"Basically, I don't believe in God," says Rocio Cangas, one of those protesting the cost of the pope's visit and what she calls an outdated link between church and state.

"A lot of people have children now who are not brought up in the Catholic Church, parents who don't believe in God, and basically they bring up their children to be atheists. More than ever," she says.

Changes Outpacing The Church

Most of the papal audience is from outside Spain. Madrid clears out in August as many Spaniards head to the coast.

The role of religion in Spanish life has contracted dramatically in the past 30 years, says Jose Ignacio Wert, a Spanish sociologist. Now Spain is one of the least religious places in Europe, in terms of seeing the church as a guide for moral values.

Wert says it's no coincidence this pope has visited Spain more than any other country. It's an attempt at "reconquest," he says.

World Youth Day was last held in Spain in 1989, at the height of liberal expression in the country — think filmmaker Pedro Almodovar and punk rock. Chusa Gallego is a Madrid nurse who was there in 1989. She says that even then, there were no anti-pope protests.

"I remember that everybody agreed, and everybody was so, so happy because it was the pope. But come on, it's been 20 years," she says.

Spaniards have since seen abortion and gay marriage legalized, and crucifixes taken down from the walls of their schools. Church doctrine changes more slowly.

In a rare move, the Vatican is offering to forgive women who've had abortions, if they confess at World Youth Day. They won't be excommunicated, as is normally the case.

Economic Concerns More Pressing

But not many Spaniards are really worried about excommunication, these days. Helena Fernandez, 24, says she's got more immediate concerns.

"We don't have jobs. We are 5 million people who don't work. You can make the university, but afterward you don't have work," she says.

More than 100 priests from Madrid's poorest barrios posted a letter online deploring tax breaks granted to World Youth Day's corporate sponsors — which mean that ultimately, taxpayers foot at least part of the $70 million bill.

Pilgrims get discount subway fares, but the price just went up 50 percent for regular folks.

Brian Dugary is a 21-year-old Catholic from Philadelphia. "It should be a boost for the economy, and I don't see why anyone would protest it," he says.

Catholic organizers say it's not only goodwill they're spreading — it's also millions of dollars of tourist revenue.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.