The Missionary to Spain

A look back at Pope Benedict’s November visit

The history of the Church in Spain is a history of evangelization, loss, reconquest, and blood. St. Torquatus and six other bishops preached the Gospel in Roman Spain, and soon saintly Catholics were suffering martyrdom in defense of the faith. Yet at the Synod of Elvira in 305, the state of the Church was such that Spain’s 19 bishops had to discipline priests who violated celibacy, religious who forsook their vows, and laity who sacrificed to idols, committed sorcery, whipped their servants to death, abused boys, and aborted their children.

As the Roman Empire fell, Arian Visigoths overran the region, and heresy held the upper hand for more than 150 years. The conversion of an Arian prince, St. Hermengild, to the Catholic faith and his subsequent martyrdom at his father’s command was soon followed by the public conversion of his brother, the new king, in 589, leading to Arianism’s decline. The faith flourished under the brother bishops St. Leander and St. Isidore, the latter of whom would be named a Doctor of the Church for his efforts to preserve the treasures of learning for subsequent generations.

The Muslim invasion of 711 led to centuries of dhimmitude and persecution, and northern Spain became the center of resistance from which the Reconquista was launched. In the meantime, the Church had been weakened from within by the adoptionist and Albigensian heresies, which led to the rise of the Inquisition. By the beginning of the High Middle Ages, Islam had begun to lose ground, and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella regained Granada from the Moors, completing the Reconquista in 1492.

The following year, Pope Alexander VI, a Spaniard, awarded most of the Americas to his native land, helping set the stage for the golden age of Spanish Catholicism—an age that produced St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Francis Xavier, and saw the conversion of millions in the Spanish colonies.

Since the 18th century, the Church in Spain, as elsewhere in the West, has been locked in a struggle with secularism, at time subtle, at times violent. King Charles III expelled the Jesuits from his realm in 1767 and mandated reductions in the number of men and women religious. Religious institutes were further reduced and later banned during and after Napoleonic rule (1809- 14, 1820-23). As a result, the number of religious in Spain plunged from 83,000 in 1769 to 31,000 in 1833, according to the official history of the Mercedarian order. The persecution that immediately followed was worse: the mid-1830s witnessed the burning of convents and the murder of religious, and in 1837, all religious orders were suppressed, their property confiscated by the government.

The situation began to improve in the 1870s, and the number of religious rose to 51,000 by 1903. The persecutions of the 19th century, though, were child’s play compared to what followed:

• In 1909, the Tragic Week revolution in Barcelona, fomented by a coalition of anarchists, Freemasons, and socialists, saw the burning of 80 churches in Catalonia.

• In 1931, with the proclamation of the Second Republic, 100 churches were burned down. The following year, the government expelled the Jesuits.

• In 1933, the government took ownership of all Church property, including statues and sacred vessels in churches, and forbade members of religious orders to teach.

• In 1934, the Red Terror commenced with the murder of 37 priests and seminarians.

• In 1936, as the Spanish Civil War began, 57 out of 58 churches in Barcelona were burned down, and all churches in the Republicancontrolled area of Spain were shut down. The three years of the Spanish Civil War saw the murder of 13 bishops and nearly 7,000 priests and religious—in all, nearly 20 percent of the nation’s clergy.

From 1939 to 1975, Spain was ruled by the pro-Catholic yet repressive regime of Francisco Franco, the victorious Nationalist general in the Spanish Civil War. Franco appointed King Juan Carlos to succeed him as head of state, and free elections returned in 1977.

The nation has drifted back toward secularism, particularly since the election of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2004. While 93 percent of Spaniards are baptized Catholics, an April 2010 survey found that only 73 percent consider themselves Catholic (versus 84 percent in 2000). The number of religious has fallen to 54,599—roughly the same number as a century ago—and a 2008 CWR article found that the ratio of seminarians to Catholics ranked Spain 147th among the nations of the world. In 1996, 77 percent of those between the ages of 15 and 24 considered themselves Catholic; in 2006, fewer than half did. A 2005 poll found that only 59 percent of Spaniards believe in God. Spain’s weekly church att endance rate—21 percent in 2004, according to a Gallup survey—remains higher than that of the majority of European nations.

Spain’s return to secularism is particularly evident in its abandonment of the Christian vision of family life. Divorce was legalized in 1981, and “express divorce”—divorce without a period of separation—became legal in 2005. Spain now has the highest divorce rate in the European Union. The number of deaths exceeds the number of births, and the fertility rate (1.3 births per woman, compared to 2.1 in the United States) is among the lowest in the world. The Zapatero government legalized same-sex marriage in 2005 despite opposition from the hierarchy and large protests from the populace. Abortion was legalized in 1985 for reasons of rape, incest, birth defect, and physical and mental health; abortion on demand during the first trimester became legal in July 2010, again despite opposition from the hierarchy and large protests.

Overt persecution of the Church has again reared its head. In 2009, anarchists vandalized 20 Barcelona churches, sealing their doors with silicone and leaving behind graffiti messages like “The only church that gives light is the one that is on fire.”


In the context of this 250-year battle between the Church and secularism, Pope Benedict made his 18th apostolic journey outside Italy, and his second to Spain, on November 6 and 7. He visited two cities: the northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela, where he venerated the relics of St. James the Greater (“Santiago” in Spanish), and the northeastern city of Barcelona, where he consecrated the Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family (Sagrada Familia).

Addressing journalists while on the airplane to Santiago de Compostela, the Pontiff spoke of the Church’s conflict with secularism and said that he especially had Spain in mind with his recent creation of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization:

Just think that the rebirth of Catholicism in the modern era was brought about above all thanks to Spain; figures such as St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of Avila are figures who really renewed Catholicism, who formed the features of modern Catholicism. Yet it is likewise true that a laicity [secularization], an anticlericalism, a strong and aggressive secularism developed in Spain, as we saw precisely in the 1930s. And this dispute, this clash between faith and modernity— both very intense—has also arisen once again in Spain today: therefore for the future of faith and of encounter, not conflict, but the encounter of faith and laicity also has a central point in Spanish culture itself. In this regard I thought of all the important countries of the West, but especially also of Spain.

Pope Benedict arrived in Santiago de Compostela, now a city of 95,000, late in the morning on November 6. Prime Minister Zapatero skipped the welcoming ceremony, instead making a surprise visit to Spanish troops in Afghanistan, his first since 2005.

In Santiago de Compostela, the Pontiff was welcomed by Prince Felipe, the heir to the Spanish throne, and Princess Letizia, a former television journalist. “A city awaits you with open arms, as it did on two memorable occasions with your predecessor, His Holiness Pope John Paul II, who left us the profound impact of his message and affection,” said Prince Felipe. “Since that time there has been a real explosion in the number of pilgrims and travelers arriving at Compostela.” The prince was right: the number of pilgrims who had walked at least 60 miles to Compostela increased from 389,000 in the 1990s to 1,017,000 in the following decade.

Speaking both in Spanish and Galician— a language partly suppressed during the Franco era—the Pontiff replied:

I have come as a pilgrim in this Holy Year of Compostela, and I bring in my heart the same love of Christ which led the Apostle Paul to embark upon his journeys, with a desire also to come to Spain. I wish to join the great host of men and women who down the centuries have come to Compostela from every corner of this peninsula, from throughout Europe and indeed the whole world, in order to kneel at the feet of St. James and be transformed by the witness of his faith. They, at every step and filled with hope, created a pathway of culture, prayer, mercy, and conversion, which took shape in churches and hospitals, in inns, bridges, and monasteries. In this way, Spain and Europe developed a spiritual physiognomy marked indelibly by the Gospel.

That afternoon, Pope Benedict visited the famed Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, which was consecrated in 1211, some 136 years after construction began. “Santiago de Compostela is one of the greatest pilgrimage churches in the world,” famed University of Notre Dame architect Duncan Stroik told CWR. “Like many cathedrals built over the centuries, it combines a Gothic structure with the exuberance of the Baroque, all pulled together using a Spanish accent.” Pope Pius XII said in 1940:

After the tabernacle, where Our Lord Jesus Christ really lives, present, though invisible; after Palestine, which preserves as well the Holy Sepulcher with the vestiges of His sojourn on earth; after Rome, which possesses the glorious tombs of the Apostles, there is perhaps no place on earth where all through the centuries the pilgrims have gathered as the historical capital of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela.

“I have come to confirm your faith, to stir up your hope and to entrust to the apostle’s intercession your aspirations, struggles, and labors in the service of the Gospel,” Pope Benedict said at the cathedral basilica. “As I embraced the venerable statue of the saint, I also prayed for all the children of the Church, which has her origin in the mystery of the communion that is God.” Implicitly critiquing both secularism and political repression, he added that “truth and freedom are closely and necessarily related. Honestly seeking and aspiring to truth is the condition of authentic freedom. One cannot live without the other. The Church, which desires to serve unreservedly the human person and his dignity, stands at the service of both truth and freedom. She cannot renounce either.”

Following a meeting with Spain’s cardinals and the executive committee of the episcopal conference, Pope Benedict offered Holy Mass on the occasion of the Compostelian Jubilee Year. (A jubilee year is celebrated there every seven years, when the Feast of St. James falls on a Sunday.) The Mass took place in the Plaza del Obradoiro, located in front of the cathedral, and during the homily he appealed to Spaniards to question secularism and turn to God.

“Today we are called to follow the example of the apostles, coming to know the Lord better day by day and bearing clear and valiant witness to his Gospel,” he preached. “We have no greater treasure to offer to our contemporaries.” He challenged young people to accept the Gospel by “renouncing a selfish and short-sighted way of thinking so common today, and taking on instead Jesus’ own way of thinking.”

“Tragically, above all in 19th-century Europe, the conviction grew that God is somehow man’s antagonist and an enemy of his freedom,” the Holy Father said, adding:

God is the origin of our being and the foundation and apex of our freedom, not its opponent. How can mortal man build a firm foundation and how can the sinner be reconciled with himself? How can it be that there is public silence with regard to the first and essential reality of human life? How can what is most decisive in life be confined to the purely private sphere or banished to the shadows? We cannot live in darkness, without seeing the light of the sun. How is it then that God, who is the light of every mind, the power of every will and the magnet of every heart, be denied the right to propose the light that dissipates all darkness? This is why we need to hear God once again under the skies of Europe; may this holy word not be spoken in vain, and may it not be put at the service of purposes other than its own.

Less than eight hours after Pope Benedict arrived in Santiago de Compostela, he departed for Barcelona.


On November 7, Pope Benedict concluded his two-day apostolic journey to Spain. The Pope spent his day in the northeastern city of Barcelona, the nation’s second largest city (after Madrid) with almost five million people.

In the morning, the Pontiff met briefly and privately with King Juan Carlos, who acceded to the throne in 1975, and the Greek-born Queen Sofía, a convert to Catholicism. The Pope then presided at Holy Mass and the dedication of Sagrada Familia, the masterpiece of the Servant of God Antonio Gaudí (1852- 1926), whose cause for beatification was introduced in 2000.

Architect Duncan Stroik described Sagrada Familia as “stylistically difficult to pin down.”

“Up until now, one would say that Sagrada Familia has had a type of cult following,” Stroik told CWR. “Generally loved by contemporary architects because it harkens towards the future and has innovative proportions and vaulting for the early 20th century, it is loved by many non-architects because it is a modern-style church which retains aspects of Gothic architecture, albeit not literally. Add to this the whispers that Gaudí was a saintly man, and one has enough ingredients for a newsworthy church.”

Begun in 1882 and privately funded, the church is scheduled to be completed in 2026. During the Spanish Civil War, revolutionaries burned the church crypt, destroyed the architect’s plans, and smashed his plaster models, making the task of subsequent architects more difficult. In 2010, the central nave was covered, allowing the church dedication to take place.

Preaching in Spanish and Catalan—another language partly suppressed by Franco—Pope Benedict called Gaudí a “creative architect and a practicing Christian who kept the torch of his faith alight to the end of his life, a life lived in dignity and absolute austerity.” Putting all of Barcelona’s other accomplishments in their proper perspective, the Pontiff called the dedication of the church “the high point of the history of this land of Catalonia which, especially since the end of the 19th century, has given an abundance of saints and founders, martyrs, and Christian poets. It is a history of holiness, artistic and poetic creation, born from the faith, which we gather and present to God today as an offering in this Eucharist.”

The Pope clearly saw Gaudí’s masterpiece as a strong challenge to secularism. “I consider that the dedication of this church of the Sagrada Familia is an event of great importance, at a time in which man claims to be able to build his life without God, as if God had nothing to say to him,” he said. “In this masterpiece, Gaudí shows us that God is the true measure of man; that the secret of authentic originality consists, as he himself said, in returning to one’s origin, which is God. Gaudí, by opening his spirit to God, was capable of creating in this city a space of beauty, faith, and hope which leads man to an encounter with him who is truth and beauty itself.”

The Pope then turned his attention to the secularist assault on the unborn and family life:

Life has changed greatly and with it enormous progress has been made in the technical, social, and cultural spheres. We cannot simply remain content with these advances. Alongside them, there also need to be moral advances, such as in care, protection, and assistance [for] families, inasmuch as the generous and indissoluble love of a man and a woman is the effective context and foundation of human life in its gestation, birth, growth, and natural end … For this reason the Church advocates adequate economic and social means so that women may find in the home and at work their full development, that men and women who contract marriage and form a family receive decisive support from the state, that the life of children may be defended as sacred and inviolable from the moment of their conception, that the reality of birth be given due respect and receive juridical, social, and legislative support. For this reason the Church resists every form of denial of human life and gives its support to everything that would promote the natural order in the sphere of the institution of the family.

During the Angelus address that followed, the Pope stood outside the church and observed that the architect “conceived of the three porticos of the exterior of the church as a catechesis on the life of Jesus Christ, as a great Rosary, which is the prayer of ordinary people, a prayer in which are contemplated the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries of our Lord.”

Following his Sunday Angelus address and lunch with the nation’s bishops, Pope Benedict visited the Obra Benefico-Social Nen Déu, which provides medical and educational services and is associated with the Archdiocese of Barcelona and the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart. “It is indispensable that new technological developments in the field of medicine never be to the detriment of respect for human life and dignity, so that those who suffer physical illnesses or handicaps can always receive that love and attention required to make them feel valued as persons in their concrete needs,” he said.

Following a private meeting with Prime Minister Zapatero, who had returned from Afghanistan, and a gracious address by King Juan Carlos, Pope Benedict bade farewell to Spain. Sagrada Familia and the Obra Benefico- Social Nen Déu, he said, “stand in today’s Barcelona as two symbols of the fruitfulness of that faith which has marked this people deeply and which, through charity and the mystery of God’s beauty, contributes to the creation of a society more worthy of man. Truly, beauty, holiness, and the love of God enable people to live with hope in this world.”

Pope Benedict departed from Spain less than 32 hours after he arrived, but the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and Sagrada Familia remain as sentinels to strengthen the faithful, to beckon nonbelievers to conversion, and to offer hope that Spain will one day be reconquered from the clutches of secularism.


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About J. J. Ziegler 55 Articles
J. J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.