[MADRID] The weather -- this happened before, when the Pope came to the UK -- is positively Spring-like here in the Spanish capital: clear-skied and sunny. But Pope Benedict won't be coming here; he arrives tomorrow for a 32-hour visit to two iconic European cathedrals: the imposing medieval cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain, and Antoni Gaudi's modernist masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona, in the north-east. It will be the first time the Pope has been to either city, and both offer magnificent opportunities for the great mission of Benedict XVI's papacy -- to summon Europe to its Christian roots by demonstrating the inseparability of what European modernity seeks to separate: faith and reason, Church and society, religion and politics, God and art.
The 800-year-old cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the site of the relics of St James the Apostle and the object of perhaps the world's greatest continuous pilgrim route, the Camino de Santiago. The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is Europe's most recent -- one hesitates to say "last" -- great Catholic church, begun in 1882 and still unfinished, but ready, now, to be declared fit for worship, turning Spain's most popular tourist attraction into what could be Europe's most visited cathedral.
It's easy to see why this visit proved irresistible to Benedict XVI, despite the risk of appearing to favor Spain above other European countries: this the second visit here of his pontificate, and he'll be back next August for World Youth Day in Madrid, making Spain, along with his native Germany, the most visited country of his pontificate.
Some 7,000 people will squeeze into the Plaza del Obradoiro in Santiago tomorrow, and another 57,000 will attend the consecration of the Sagrada Familia. Because the visit has a "state character" -- without actually being a state visit -- he will meet the Princes of Asturias in Santiago, and the King and Queen of Spain in Barcelona. Government ministers will welcome him; the country's anticlerical prime minister, Jose Luis Rodrigez Zapatero, will see him off.
Not everyone is happy. A demonstration yesterday in Barcelona of 3,000 "no Pope" protesters -- under the banner, "Yo no te espero" (roughly, "I am not looking forward to you coming") -- made the customary critiques of clericalism, authoritarianism, and in favour of gay and women's rights, organised by a loose coalition of Barcelona's active secularist groups. And, as in the UK, there are the usual criticism of taxpayers having to meet the costs of the visit -- reckoned at 3.7m euros -- but the local governments in Galicia and Catalonia have pointed to the massive economic benefits.
Both regions will be going overboard -- as did Scotland when the Pope visited the UK -- to show off local culture to the 3,000 accredited journalists and the 150m around the world -- many, of course, in Latin America -- who are expected to follow the visit on television; and the Pope will delight locals when he utters more than just a few words in the local languages, gallego and catalan.
The Church, of course, has been pointing out just how important a role it plays in Spanish society, to offset the inevitable comments about how Spain has abandoned its faith. The number of people marrying in civil ceremonies last year exceeded, for the first time, numbers marrying in church ceremonies; and Spain has one of the lowest birth-rates in the world.
But the statistics are still impressive. More than 90% of Spain's 46m population declares itself Catholic. There are 23,00 parishes in 16 dioceses; 124 bishops (37 retired), two cardinals, 14 archbishops. 18,000 incardinated priests, along with 54,599 religious. There are 5,600 Catholic schools and universities educating 1.3m students, and three out of every four Spanish students opt for Catholic religious instruction in state schools. And the Church is still the major player in Spanish civil society, running 93 hospitals, 788 homes for the elderly, and hundreds of other Catholic institutions and associations: according to the Spanish bishops' conference, the Church runs 4,500 centres attending to the needs of 2,764,000 people.
Apart from the two cathedrals, Pope Benedict will also visit a church-run centre for the mentally disabled in Barcelona. Just as, in the UK, he visited a home for the elderly to send a discreet message to those contemplating the legalisation of euthanasia, the visit to the diocesan-run Obra Benéfico Social del Niño Dios draws attention to the numbers of Down's Syndrome babies aborted each year in Spain under a law which allows abortion for "health" reasons and defines health as "complete physical and mental wellbeing".
But Pope Benedict will avoid direct confrontation. Spanish bishops and the socialist government of Zapatero clashed frequently and noisily during Zapatero's first term, over abortion, stem-cell research, same-sex unions and religious education, with both sides amping it up in arguments over Spain's identity as a Catholic or a secular nation. But since Zapatero's re-election in 2008, the volume has been turned down. Faced with an economic crisis, and anxious not to let the conservative Popular Party back in on a church ticket, Zapatero has sought better relations with the Church, meeting Pope Benedict in June and deciding to put on the back burner a religious freedom law which would strip the Spanish state of its remaining Catholic references. Asked what is happening to the bill, the Government says it doesn't want to be distracted from tackling the economy; but the real reason is the new policy of detente between state and Church.
This visit is one of its fruits. The Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has been working overtime to build better relations with the Spanish government, in the hope that dialogue and cooperation are more likely than confrontation to succeed. So far the policy is succeeding: Church-state relations are better now than at any time under Zapatero.
Pope Benedict will do nothing to upset the new entente cordiale. But his homilies in the two cathedrals are likely be bold.
The question is, will he address the great split in Spanish history and society? Will he ask the Spaniards who have long since rejected the Church for ideological reason to reconsider? Will he refer -- as did the Spanish bishops in 2006 -- to the unhealthy identification of Catholicism and nationalism which plagued Spain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and point to how the Church has changed? To denounce "aggressive secularism", as he did in the UK, risks inflaming some of those memories if he does not also pour balm on old wounds.
I'm leaving shortly for Barcelona, from where I'll be following the Pope's visit tomorrow to Santiago de Compostela (he arrives at 1130 and says Mass at 1630) and where, on Sunday, I'll be in the Sagrada Familia. The next report will be from there.