National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 16, 2003

A woman blows a kiss to Pope John Paul II during his meeting with hundreds of thousands of youths at the Four Winds Airbase in Madrid May 3.
-- CNS/Catholic Press Photo
Pope bolsters ailing Spanish church


For almost four decades, from the end of a bloody civil war in 1939 to the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, the Spanish Catholic church was virtually a state-enforced monopoly. Franco’s demise, and the collapse of this church-state symbiosis, coincided with the onset of runaway secularization and consumerism, leaving Spanish Catholicism dazed.

What followed can only be described as a crisis. Today, while baptismal records say that 94 percent of Spaniards are Catholic, polls show that only 80 percent self-identify as such. Although Spanish Catholicism is renowned for an intense, emotional spirituality, the church faces serious problems. Polls reveal that only 18 percent of Spaniards go to Mass at least once a month, and one in two, fully 50 percent, say they never go at all. A priest shortage and declining public influence add to the woes.

John Paul II’s 36-hour May 3 and 4 trip to Madrid was thus, at least in part, intended as a shot in the arm for the Spanish church. It was his fifth journey here, making it his most-visited country aside from Poland (where the pope has gone nine times, for obvious biographical reasons) and the United States (seven times, for equally obvious strategic reasons).

Rekindling the Catholic identity of Spain was a constant theme. The pope urged Spaniards “not to abandon your Christian roots!” In a telling ad-lib remark after Mass May 4, addressing himself to young people, John Paul said: “You can live in modern society and still be profoundly faithful to Jesus Christ.”

To help make that argument, the pope offered Spaniards five new saints, all from the 20th century, canonized in a May 4 ceremony in Madrid’s Plaza de Colón. The ceremony was seemingly calculated to suggest that holiness is not just a distant historical possibility, and the message was backed up with a giant banner reading, “You too can be a saint.”

One of the new saints, Fr. Pedro Poveda, was killed in the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War that claimed a total of 4,184 martyrs. So far John Paul has beatified 459 of them and canonized 11. The other four canonized on this trip were founders of institutes or religious communities.

The others canonized May 4 were: José María Rubio, Genoveva Torres, Angela de la Cruz and Maravillas de Jesús.

The pope drew large, enthusiastic crowds. Some 600,000 young people attended a Saturday night vigil service at Madrid’s Four Winds Airbase, and more than a million people turned out for the canonization Mass. The youth turnout was all the more striking, given that John Paul was up against a home game for the ultra-popular hometown Real Madrid soccer team, as well as highly anticipated Saturday evening bullfights.

To judge from banners and cheers, many people in the crowds over the weekend were drawn from the various “new movements” in the Catholic church, which are arguably stronger in Spain than anywhere else in the world. Three well-known movements were born here: the Neocatechumenate, Cursillos and Opus Dei. (Opus is technically a personal prelature, but it shares many features of the movements.) Other prominent groups at the papal events included Regnum Cristi (the lay arm of the Legionaries of Christ) and Communion and Liberation.

As one indicator of the importance of the movements in Spain, Fr. José Carlos De la Hoz, an Opus Dei priest and church historian in Madrid, told NCR that among Catholics who regularly attend Mass, some 40 percent are involved in the movements, and that number is rising.

How successful John Paul’s mission to Spain may have been remains to be seen.

In some ways, the mere fact of the trip represented a victory for the aging John Paul. Despite Parkinson’s disease, an imperfect hip replacement surgery in 1994 and arthritis in his right knee, all of which make it painful for the pope to walk or even stand, he remains determined to continue his peripatetic ministry. All signs in Madrid suggested the Vatican has worked out a way to accommodate him, from a hydraulic lift to get him on and off his plane, to a “wheeled throne” that allows him to get into position at an altar and to celebrate Mass in a seated position. In effect, the pope can travel the world without taking a single step.

At the youth gathering, John Paul poked gentle fun at his age. “I’m going to be 83,” he said, referring to his upcoming birthday May 18. Pausing for dramatic effect, he then belted out, “But a young 83!”

The pope’s Spanish weekend was the first outing in what is to be a busy travel schedule over the coming months. In June, he will be in Croatia and Bosnia. In August, the pope is expected to visit Mongolia’s tiny 177-strong Catholic community, with the possibility of stopover in Kazan, Russia. It would be the pope’s first-ever trip to Russia. Later in the year, John Paul may travel to Slovakia.

The pope brought to Spain all-time- high levels of moral authority. Polls here show an overwhelming majority sided with the pope and against Prime Minister José María Aznar on the Iraq war. Aznar was among the Bush administration’s staunchest allies. Although Iraq did not come up when John Paul and Aznar met May 3, the pope used some form of the word “peace” 13 times in his two speeches that day, leaving no doubt about his views.

“You know how preoccupied I am with peace in the world,” he told the young people. “Today I want to exhort you to be operators and creators of peace.” The crowd roared its approval.

There were at least two other bits of political subtext to the Madrid trip.

First, John Paul pressed his case that a Europe that forgets or denies its Christian heritage would be untrue to itself. The pope prayed for the birth of a “new Europe of the spirit,” one “faithful to its Christian roots … conscious of being called to be a lighthouse of civilization and a stimulus to the progress of the world.” The exhortation comes as the European Union debates a new constitutional document, with the Vatican insisting that it include a specific reference to Christianity and formal dialogue with religious groups.

Second, the pope also tried to help calm Spain’s always-explosive political scene by denouncing terrorism and an “exasperated nationalism,” a clear reference to the push for Basque separatism that has claimed 800 lives in terrorist attacks over the last three decades. The pope did not, however, publicly address the divisions among the Spanish bishops. Basque bishops are generally sympathetic to the complaints of the separatists if not their tactics.

King Juan Carlos I de Borbón y Borbón picked up on the Basque theme in his May 3 welcome of the pope.

“We thank you … for your repeated condemnation of terrorism, which is intrinsically perverse and never justifiable,” the king said, “and from which we Spaniards in particular suffer.”

Whether this flurry of canonizations, exhortations and public events will change the Spanish church is impossible to say. But if one is looking to build a case for optimism, many observers would say that the pope already has at hand an instrument well adapted to revitalize Spain in the form of the new movements.

Critics complain that these groups can be secretive, hard to reconcile with existing parish and diocesan programs, and fiercely conservative. Supporters, however, say they have a unique capacity to foster Christian life in a culture that is often hostile to it.

“The movements have managed to find a synthesis between faith and culture,” said Fr. Manuel Barrios, pastor of a wealthy suburban Madrid parish. “They offer people a way of living the gospel in our time. They speak today’s language while saying the things of old.”

De la Hoz, the Opus Dei priest and church historian, has no doubt.

“The future of the church in Spain runs through the movements,” he said.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 2003

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