Thursday, 11 November 2010

Pope Benedict XVI Visits Barcelona

la pedrera vestida per al papa

What a unfortunate week to start commenting on events in Barcelona, Catalonia and Spain. My plan has been to write light hearted chronicles on everyday political quarrels. Instead I have to open with a theme version about Pope Benedict XVI's visit here - an event which has provoked a lot of reactions, but which I - an immigrant from a theortically Protestant, but in reality almost only secular Sweden - perhaps should not touch.

I have, after all, moved here – to a historically devout Catholic country - totally voluntarily and did so although I have grown up in a society where the Vatican's position on personal freedoms (especially concerning contraception but also regarding abortion laws and LGBT rights) are considered so extreme that they are hardly represented in our political landscape. It may sound extreme, but for me the late Pope John Paul II's fight for the liberation of Eastern Europe was the first major - and for many Swedes probably still the only - example of how the Catholic Church, thanks to its ideological and supranational power, can play a key role in improving the world.

I am aware that the church, even today, has very deep roots here – suffice it to look at the enormous anti-abortion demonstrations which we have seen in Madrid during recent years. The participants in those would obviously be appalled by some of the values I bring with me from Sweden, but that is not the feeling I have in the small Catalan town where we live. Not the least through the children's school, are we regularly invited to religious festivities and traditions, but nowhere do I encounter the conservative Catholic doctrine. As a phenomenon it feels equally distant here in Vilanova i la Geltrú as it did when we lived in Sweden.

Now that when Pope's visit is being summed up most people seem to agree that it has been a fantastic success, not the least thanks to all the beautiful images of la Sagrada Familia - now consecrated and declared a basilica - and Barcelona, which have been broadcast worldwide. Catalan TV3 ran a six hours live transmission from the events and according to media polls as much as a quarter of the population of Catalonia watched some part of that program. On the other hand, evil tongues claim that along some streets there were more police than spectators. The audience in the city has been estimated to some 250.000 people and that is said to be only half of what the organizers hoped for.

During his days in Barcelona, the Pope did not only speak in Latin and Spanish, but also in Catalan, something which has made Josep Lluís Carod Rovira from independence-oriented and left wing ERC exclaim that Bendict XVI has already done more for the Catalan language than any Spanish prime minister. José Montilla, socialist (PSC) and President of Catalonia's Generalitat, were present in several acts, but the day before, just in case, he made a speech where he defended same-sex marriages.

Spain's socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (PSOE) went even further. He avoided the big celebration mass on the grounds that he he is not a believer. Instead, he chose to visit the Spanish troops in Afghanistan and so his official meeting with the Pope was limited to a few minutes at the Barcelona airport. Lluís Martínez Sistach - the Archbishop of Barcelona who through this visit is believed to have strengthened his position within the Spanish Catholic Church - diplomatically criticized this by pointing out that a prime minister actually represents the entire population, i.e. also the many believers.

Zapatero possibly could have made a bigger effort to build bridges, but neither did the Pope seem to want to avoid confrontation. In a meeting with media, during the flight to the Saturday visit in Santiago de Compostela (Galicia), he criticized the "aggressive anti-clericalism" which he currently sees in Spain and compared the atmosphere of social reforms with the so-called second Republic of the 1930-ies; a time when many churches were burnt down (including the one here in Vilanova), and several priests were murdered. The PSOE government's answer has been that the Pope's criticism was not directed at anyone particular, but, honestly, does not everyone understand who he was referring to?

Progressive minds will see this as evidence that the Pope does not want to understand how the Church in Spain is losing contact with society. Photos from la Sagrada Familia, where he holds mass surrounded by older men becomes a grateful caricature for the lack of change, especially since afterwards it was nuns who had the role to clean up the holy oil sprinkled on the floor during the ceremony.

Another comment which has ignited debate was one of the Pope's last messages before he left Barcelona: for Spain to stick together as one family. Many think that this was a political declaration that he does not want to see an independent Catalonia, but the Church stresses that the words of the Pope should be interpreted as a call for the whole world to come together as one.

Since there will soon be parliamentary elections in Catalonia this statement could have further consequences, but I do not think it will. Convinced independentistas already distrust the Vatican, so among them the Pope has merely confirmed their prejudice. Meanwhile, Catalonia's two biggest parties, do not have anything to win by questioning his intentions. The Catalan Socialists, PSC, certainly do not want to irritate possible Christian voters and generally have a better relationship with the church, than PSOE does on the Spanish level. The oppostion, CiU, runs a balancing act, since it is in fact a two party federation where the smaller partner, UDC, has a quite conservative Christian-democratic program, while the larger one, CDC, stands for a more liberal values.

As you will understand, the Pope's visit has shaken us a bit, but I am convinced that in a year when we think back on it, we will only remember how positively it promoted Barcelona to the outside world. And that is probably the opposite of what I will usually write about here. My bet is that these articles will be dominated by political bickering, not impressing anyone beyond the political party machines. Well, time will tell.

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Sources and inspiration:

La cuarta parte de la población catalana siguió la visita del Papa en Tv3

Benedicto XVI recorre una ciudad sin multitudes

El Papa revive el fantasma del anticlericalismo

No es verdad

Sistach a Zapatero: Asistir a la misa no es contrario al estado laico

El triunfo del cardenal tranquilo

Sistach aboga por recuperar el clima de la Transición para combatir el laicismo

Montilla lamenta que del mensaje del Papa sólo se destaque lo que separa a la sociedad

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