If you are about to depart for World Youth Day, gentle reader, my prayers are with you, for the gathering storm clouds in Madrid do not bode well at all. This morning the Spanish press is full of news reports about the upcoming visit of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, for World Youth Day. Unfortunately, for those of us who care about such things, said reports do not look good.
The celebrations for World Youth Day in Madrid begin this coming Tuesday, August 16th. The Pope will be arriving on Thursday, August 18th, and the culmination of the festivities will be a mass celebrated on Sunday, August 21st, with an estimated congregation of over 1 million people. While the official “day” of World Youth Day is on Sunday the 21st, in reality the occasion consists of several days for young people to gather together and celebrate their Christian faith through meetings, concerts, church services, social events, and so on.
Today it has been announced that the Spanish government has given in to pressure from leftist groups to allow a protest march against the Papal visit to take place on August 17th. The march will pass through the Puerta del Sol, a large square that marks the historic and geographic center of Madrid, in stature equivalent to Times Square in New York, or Trafalgar Square in London. A number of government officials, church leaders, property owners, and others had asked for the protest to be held on another day, or in another part of town, out of fears that the march could lead to acts of violence and criminality, but to no avail.
In addition, Spanish labor unions who work in the Madrid Metro (subway) system have announced that they will go out on strike on August 18, 19, and 20, to protest economic austerity measures. This strike has now received the endorsement of 15-M, the group of anarchists who made headlines for camping out in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and in other Spanish cities earlier this year, in a messy and often violent protest ostensibly about the failing Spanish economy. The Metro strike will take place at precisely the time when young people participating in World Youth Day, who will be scattered all over Madrid sleeping in hotels, hostels, dormitories, church halls, school gymnasiums, and so on, will need to make use of the subway system to attend the events.
Among the groups organizing the protest march, perhaps the two most prominent are Europa Laica (“Lay Europe”) and the Asociación Madrileña de Ateos y Librepensadores (“Madrid Association of Atheists and Freethinkers”), known as AMAL. To give you an idea of what sort of people pilgrims to Madrid will be dealing with, the news and opinion blog for Europa Laica is entitled “El Observatorio de la Laicidad”. As my Catholic readers will immediately recognize, this is a very obvious mockery of “L’Osservatore Romano”, the Vatican newspaper. These are not merely scruffy intellectuals who sit around pooh-poohing organized religion. According to Luis Vega, President of AMAL, his group has held 8 meetings about the protest march with representatives of 15-M. Vega claims that 15-M asked for these meetings, and that his group did not seek out their support, but irrespective of who first sought out whom, 15-M is now supporting the protest march.
Those organizing the march, an event they have entitled “From My Taxes to the Pope”, have claimed in interviews with the press that they are not organizing the protest against the young people gathered for the event. They also claim that they have nothing against the Pope himself. Rather, they claim that because Spain is in such a bad way economically, their protest is about spending public money for the Papal visit, in a time of economic austerity.
This is completely untrue.
In the first place, public money is not being used to pay for the event. The organizers have repeatedly stated that 80% of the costs will be paid for by the parishes and dioceses of Spain, and that the remaining 20% is being underwritten by private individuals, corporations, and institutions. Moreover, from a purely economic point of view, even the most dimwitted leftist will have to recognize that if you have over 1 million people visiting Madrid in August – a month when most Madrid residents go on vacation, and it is so hot that the city almost completely shuts down – all of whom need to be housed, fed, use public transport, etc., that there will be a surge in receipts for both private business and for the government.
Secondly and far more importantly, the claim that these groups have nothing against the Pope is a bold-faced lie. According to El Pais, Spain’s equivalent of The New York Times, in a letter submitted to the Fiscal del Estado, Spain’s Ministry of Finance, the organizers of the protest complained that the Pope’s visit was expected to launch “exclusionary messages against democratic rights” such as the right to gay marriage or the right to abortion. In addition, Europa Laica has claimed that the Papal visit and the “pageantry” [their word] that accompanies it “permits interference in the internal and political affairs of our country.” By their own words, the organizers of this protest show that they do not really care about public finance, but are using it as an excuse to advance their secularist agenda. Frankly, no one should be surprised.
As the Holy Father and pilgrims gather next week, I ask my readers to please keep him and the participants in the World Youth Day celebrations in your prayers. Spain is at a tipping point, and given my knowledge of both Spanish history and the Spanish character, we would be right to ask that all proceed with caution. However, in fear we turn with hope to God, for ultimately He is our refuge. Even in that fear, my hope is that He will watch over the safety of His Vicar and His flock, and that good will come out of this event to change hearts and minds both in Spain and around the world.
View of the Puerta del Sol, Madrid