July 9, 2006

Pope Winds Up Spain Trip Defending Family

By Philip Pullella and Jane Barrett

VALENCIA, Spain (Reuters) - Pope Benedict wound up a quick trip to Valencia on Sunday, implicitly condemning some key social legislation of Spain's Socialist government and stressing that marriage had to be heterosexual and for life.

At the last major event of his 26-hour visit, the German Pope presided at a mass for about a million people on the grounds of a sprawling futuristic arts and science complex in Spain's third largest city.

In his homily, the Pope, wearing green and white vestments, several times praised the traditional family, founded on "indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman."

The Spanish royal family attended the mass but Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero did not. His government has clashed head-on with the Church over several issues, mainly last year's legalization of gay marriage.

Zapatero was heckled and whistled by a small crowd when he arrived at the archbishop's residence for a meeting with the Pope on Saturday.

As well as the homosexual marriage law, which gives gays the same adoption and inheritance rights as heterosexuals, the Church has criticized moves to make divorce and fertility treatment easier and to cut Catholic education in schools.

Polls show around two thirds of Spaniards support gay marriage, a sea change from the 1939-1975 right-wing dictatorship when Francisco Franco banned homosexuality and divorce. Less than a fifth of Spaniards now practice their faith.


The Pope defended Christian education in his homily on Sunday and on Saturday urged bishops to hold firm "at a time of rapid secularization."

Despite the shortness of his stay, the Pope has received a tumultuous reception in Valencia.

During the trip, his third abroad since his election in 2005, the Pope decried attempts to relegate faith and ethics to the purely private sphere.

"In contemporary culture, we often see an excessive exaltation of the freedom of the individual," he said on Sunday, speaking in Spanish as many people sheltered under umbrellas against the beating Mediterranean sun.

The Pope, who often speaks out against abortion, also reiterated that "at the origin of every human being there is not something haphazard or chance but a loving plan of God."

Many of the families at the mass had attended a rally with the Pope that ended around midnight on Saturday. They slept outdoors on mats to get a good spot for the service.

At the end of the mass the Pope announced that the Church's next World Meeting of Families would be in Mexico City in 2009.

Zapatero's decision not to attend mass caused what a Vatican source called a "certain irritation" in the papal entourage.

A Vatican spokesman noted Communist leaders Fidel Castro of Cuba and Poland's Wojciech Jaruzelski had gone to masses presided over by the late Pope John Paul II.

During his visit, Pope Benedict also visited the site of an underground train crash that killed 42 people on Monday.