VALENCIA, Spain – Pope Benedict XVI embarked Saturday on the most contentious pilgrimage of his 15-month papacy, carrying his message of traditional family values to a country that has very diverse opinions on the matter.
Spain, with its socialist government, is one of the pope’s biggest challenges in what he sees as an increasingly secular, anti-religious West. Once a bastion of Roman Catholicism, Spain in the last year has legalized same-sex marriage and eased restrictions on divorce, abortion and similar issues that the pope finds abhorrent.
Benedict is scheduled to spend just 26 hours in Spain to officiate over the conclusion of the fifth World Families Conference, and from the moment he stepped onto the tarmac at the airport in hot, steamy Valencia, he emphasized the importance of the traditional family.
“The family is a unique institution in God’s plan,” he said, adding that family “based on marriage” between a man and a woman cannot be substituted.
On the plane from Rome to Valencia, Benedict had reiterated his belief that same-sex marriage violates God’s law. “We want to make people understand that according to human nature, it is man and woman who are made for each other and can give humanity a future,” he told reporters accompanying him on the flight.
Later, addressing hundreds of thousands of pilgrims camped out at a sprawling sports and art complex on Valencia’s outskirts, Benedict said the family was a “privileged setting” and an “indispensable foundation for society.”
“The family is an intermediate institution between individuals and society, and nothing can completely take its place,” he said. He admonished government leaders to “reflect” on the value of the traditional family and to work to protect it.
Tensions between the Vatican and the Spanish government were on view long before Benedict arrived. And several thousand Spanish, including gays, atheists and liberal Catholics, were protesting the visit.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero met briefly with the pope but has indicated he will not attend the Mass that Benedict will preside over later Sunday. That clearly irritated Vatican officials. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls noted pointedly that even hard-core leftists Fidel Castro of Cuba and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua had attended papal Masses.
Crowds outside the Apostolic Palace – Vatican turf – where Benedict met Zapatero booed the prime minister when he arrived. Journalists were not allowed to cover the meeting. Spanish officials described it as cordial; the Vatican did not comment. Television showed the two men exchanging gifts.