Thousands of yellow-and-white Vatican flags have already been draped throughout Madrid ahead of Pope Benedict's four-day visit this week, unfurled by early arrivals from around the planet taking part in this year's Catholic Church-organized World Youth Day between August 18 and 21. More than one million young people are expected in the capital.
A huge stage has been erected at the central Plaza de Cibeles, one of Madrid's most emblematic sites and where the Real Madrid soccer team traditionally celebrates its victories. The traffic circle, surrounded by buildings dating back to the late 18th century, will host three of the four main events during WYD: the opening Mass on Tuesday, the papal welcome two days later and the Stations of the Cross ceremony on Friday, which will feature 15 carvings from the Spanish Holy Week processions.
The government says it would prefer the pontiff to stick to the spiritual domain
Opposing the visit are 150 lay and atheist groups, plus some Christian societies
On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people will be entertained by pop groups at the Cuatro Vientos airbase southwest of the capital, where the pope will hold a "Prayer Vigil" in the evening. The young pilgrims will spend the night under the stars at the airbase with duvets and rugs on a vast esplanade the size of 48 football fields. Pope Benedict will celebrate Mass there on Sunday at a white altar almost 200 meters long in front of a wave-shaped stage and under a giant parasol "tree," made of interwoven golden rods to protect him from the brutal August heat.
But Benedict XVI is not visiting Spain in a purely spiritual capacity. He will be welcomed as a head of state by the king and queen - besides paying a private visit to the royal family at its official Zarzuela residence just outside Madrid - and will also meet Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero at the papal nunciature in the north of the city.
While accepting the accordance of state honors on the pope, the government has already said that it would prefer the pontiff to limit his comments to the spiritual domain. But Pope Benedict will not miss the opportunity to share his opinions with the faithful on the problems that Spain faces. He is due to make some nine sermons over the course of his stay, and will doubtless bemoan secularism and the relativism that he believes has overtaken Spanish society. He will also back up the country's bishops in their outspoken criticism of recently passed laws benefiting homosexuals, fast-track divorce and abortion rights.
Led by the outspoken archbishop of Madrid, Cardinal Antonio María Rouco, Spain's Catholic clergy have taken part in demonstrations and marches against these laws, annoying the government and angering public opinion, which overwhelmingly supports the legislation.
Rallying round a campaign slogan of "No money to the pope from my taxes," around 150 lay and atheist organizations, along with religious groups such as the Christian network, the Priests' Forum, and the John 23rd Association of Theologists, held a protest last Wednesday about what they see as the Vatican's interference in matters of state, as well as to criticize the government for its support of the papal visit, which is being financed to the tune of 50 million euros. They say they are acting in defense of "democracy, freedoms, for the separation of Church and state, and the end of legal, symbolic, political, fiscal, and economic privileges that the official Catholic Church enjoys in Spain." A protest march is planned for Wednesday.
The prelate of Toledo, Archbishop Braulio Rodríguez, the head of the Church in Spain, responded to the critics of Catholic privileges by calling them "yokels," and describing their views as "radical secularism that represents a moral danger." Juan Antonio Martínez Camino, the spokesman for the General Synod of Bishops, went even further, calling the organizers of the demonstration "parasites." On Saturday, the organizers issued the following statement: "An important part of the Catholic Church behaves with worrying arrogance that at times borders on defamation. Furthermore, some of the comments they make could incite fundamentalists to carry out acts of violence." A letter has been sent to the Attorney General's Office detailing these accusations.
Campaigners for a greater separation between Church and state have called on "the authorities and the relevant politicians" who represent them "independently of their beliefs and personal convictions" to avoid taking part in "ceremonies and events of a purely Catholic nature that call for intolerance and that do not respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and laws approved by parliament."
Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in April 2005 shortly after his 78th birthday. This is his third trip to Spain as Benedict XVI. In 2006 he visited Valencia to attend World Family Day (the financing of the trip is now subject to judicial scrutiny as part of the Gürtel kickbacks-for-contracts network involving the Popular Party administration in Valencia). In November of 2010 he visited Santiago de Compostela and Barcelona. During the plane trip he said that Spain was in the grip of "aggressive anticlericalism" and compared the country's mood to that of the days of the Second Republic prior to the Civil War. The Catholic Church gave unconditional support to Franco's uprising and subsequent dictatorship, describing the illegal actions of the military as "a crusade."
The government expressed its surprise at the comparison, but avoided making an issue of it. Zapatero was in Afghanistan when the pope arrived, and was then criticized for not attending a Mass celebrated by the pontiff in Barcelona. Eventually, the Socialist leader did travel to Catalonia to see the pope off. Since then, there have been no further incidents between the government and the Catholic Church; due principally to the government's U-turn on a number of electoral promises such as regulating euthanasia and changing the law to offer greater inclusion for other religions, as well as further limiting religious education in schools. Zapatero has been criticized for "allowing his arm to be twisted by the pope, Cardinal Rouco, and other hard-line Catholics." The government has so far refused to be drawn, and will be hoping that Benedict XVI does not stoke the flames of controversy during his stay. Which is unlikely.