VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI will visit Spain in late August, celebrating the youthfulness and vigor of Catholic faith in a country where the Catholic majority often seems to have little or no impact on modern public life.
The primary focus on the pope’s trip Aug. 18-21 will be on Catholic youths from around the globe participating in World Youth Day.
But Pope Benedict also will meet with Spain’s royal family and with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose government has promoted several policies opposed by the church, including relaxing Spain’s divorce laws, easing restrictions on abortion, legalizing same-sex marriage and allowing gay couples to adopt.
Welcoming a new Spanish ambassador to the Vatican in April, Pope Benedict expressed concern that in certain sectors of Spanish society, “religion is considered socially insignificant, even troublesome,” with the result that faith is marginalized “through defamation, ridicule (and) even indifference to obvious cases of profanation” of religious objects and monuments.
The situation is particularly worrying because more than 92 percent of Spain’s 46 million citizens are baptized Catholic and because the country has a long and proud Catholic history. Spain has given the church some of its greatest saints and mystics, and Spanish members of religious orders continue to serve as missionaries around the world, particularly in Latin America.
The organizers of World Youth Day 2011, which kicks off Aug. 16, hope the hoards of young Catholics descending on Madrid not only will energize each other’s faith, but that they’ll also be powerful witnesses to the lukewarm among Spain’s Catholics.
“I think the impact will be huge; at least I hope so,” Yago de la Cierva, WYD Madrid director, told Catholic News Service July 28. “Spain is suffering through a process of secularization that is very deep and moving very fast.”
“Many young people in Spain have no religious training at all and we have to shake up this situation,” he said in a telephone interview.
“Also, we have a very aggressive, anti-Catholic press in Spain. We hope World Youth Day will be effective in presenting Jesus Christ and the church in a more accurate way, in a light that shows our joy. We aren’t crazy or sad or twisted and we want people to come and see that,” De la Cierva said.
Part of the challenge facing the church everywhere, but particularly in Spain and other parts of Europe, is to help people see that religion isn’t simply part of their cultural history, but can have a positive impact of their personal and social lives today.
One way the pope will demonstrate that is by holding two special meetings at the Augustinian monastery complex in El Escorial, north of Madrid. One of the appointments will be with about 1,500 nuns and other religious women younger than 35. While the sisters come from a number of countries, the idea behind the event was to demonstrate that although Spanish Catholicism faces some real challenges, there are some bright spots, too.
As the WYD organizers reported, Spain “is home to several orders of sisters who have experienced an upsurge of young vocations in recent years, much to the surprise of almost everyone.” The organization gave the example of the “Iesu Communio” order, based in Lerma, Spain; the average age of its 177 members is just under 30.
The second meeting at El Escorial will be with 1,100 young university professors – specialists in a variety of academic subjects, but all under the age of 40. They must hold a doctoral degree and be registered as World Youth Day pilgrims.
It’s not unusual for the pope, who was a theology professor before becoming a bishop and cardinal, to address professors on the road or at the Vatican. In an age focused so heavily on education, technology and the rational and empirical, the pope has emphasized the importance of teachers and professors being open to truths they might not be able to prove in a laboratory.
Meeting with university students and professors at the Vatican in 2009, he said that whether studying math, science, art history or literature, a truly Christian scholar conducts all of his or her research trying to catch the glimpses of divine wisdom present in everything.
Of course, Pope Benedict also is traveling to Spain to pray with young people and help them solidify their relationship with God through the Mass and the sacraments.
World Youth Days always have been marked by the sight of thousands of young people lining up in fields, squares or pavilions to go to confession. But WYD Madrid will mark the first time that the pope will become one of the hundreds of priests hearing confessions.
Names will be drawn by lot from potential penitents among the corps of international volunteers working for WYD, De la Cierva said.
When the pope was told he would have an opportunity to offer the sacrament to three or four young people, “his response was ‘so few?’ But his schedule is very full,” so that’s all the time Vatican trip planners set aside, he said.