"My client is not in a hurry", the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) used to say when people asked him when his Sagrada Familia cathedral would be finished. It looks now as if his client is chivvying things along.
News from Rome is that Pope Benedict will consecrate this work of genius (declaration of interest: I'm a huge fan) on 7 November this year --declaring it, in effect, open for business as a place of worship.
Although still unfinished -- it'll probably be another 30 years before the Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary towers are complete -- the main body of the Cathedral will be ready in the summer. To put it in non-technical but architecturally accurate language, "they'll have the roof on it by then". That means liturgies can begin. One of Europe's most popular tourist theme parks will become its flagship place of worship.
As well as being possibly the world's greatest building, the sheer capacity of the Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family -- there's room for 8,000 and a choir of 1,200 -- makes its inauguration by Benedict XVI one of this year's most exciting events. Just before Christmas a choir of 600 tested the acoustics and were blown away by the quality of the sound.
Pope Benedict will be opening the Sagrada Familia the day after he celebrates Mass at that other extraordinary Spanish templo -- in Santiago de Compostela, where it's Holy Year (see earlier post).
Santiago followed by Barcelona -- this is a magnificent opportunity to plug his favourite theme: Europe's neglected Christian roots. Santiago is just the place to point to those roots -- the pilgrim route there was one of the great arteries of medieval Europe and it remains hugely popular -- while the Sagrada Familia is the chance to show how Christianity is also intrinsic to modernity. That's some message.
This trip will take place just two months after his September visit to the UK to beatify Cardinal Newman. That makes five papal trips planned so far this year -- the others are Malta in April, Fatima (Portugal) in May and Cyprus in June. This year, one might say, is the Pope's annus europae.
The announcement also means that something long considered impossible by the Roman Curia -- two papal visits to the same country in consecutive years -- will happen after all. In 2011, he will be back in Spain -- to celebrate World Youth Day in Madrid.
As the psalmist might have put it: "He has not dealt thus with other nations". ¡Olé!