As the 83-year-old pontiff paraded in his “popemobile” towards the unfinished masterpiece of Antoni Gaudi, 200 gays kissed to protest the Church’s rejection of homosexuality.
It was a sign of many Spaniards’ embrace of the changes that Benedict abhors: easier access to abortion, gay marriage laws that have enabled 20,000 unions in five years and swifter divorce.
The pope, his golden mitre on his head to underline the solemnity of the moment, sprinkled holy water to bless the massive stone altar of the Sagrada Familia, or Holy Family church, as singing from an 800-voice chorus rang out under its vaulted ceilings during a special dedication mass.
Among an estimated 250,000 people gathered for the pope, thousands watched on giant screens outside and broke into applause as his blessing opened the way to the celebration of mass and conferred the elevated status of basilica.
Light showered through the stone canopy in the form of leaves crackled in gold and green mosaic and supported by a forest of white tree-like columns rising 60 meters up and splitting into branches.
Only love and faith can lead to true freedom, said the pope, draped in a golden robe and white stole encrusted with red crosses, as he addressed 6,500 faithful.
“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,” he said in a reference to the Church opposition to all abortion.
He urged that children’s lives be defended as “sacred and inviolable” with judicial, social and legislative support, and defended the “indissoluble love of a man and a woman” as the foundation of human life.
Thick crowds waving yellow-and-white Vatican flags had lined his route to the Basilica, where the main nave is now open for mass for the first time since the first stone was laid March 19, 1882.
But not all welcomed the anti-abortion, traditional-family message delivered by the pope, whose visit began Saturday in the medieval cobbledstoned streets of Santiago de Compostela.
Hundreds of gay men and women couples locked lips for five minutes as the pope passed through Barcelona in his transparent “popemobile”, breaking off to shout “Get out,” and “paedophile.”
“It is strange that such a noble act as kissing can still be considered revolutionary today, in the 21st century,” Marylene Carole, one of the protest’s organizers, told the Spanish news agency EFE. “This is a battle for sexual and affective rights, based on passion rather than violence.”
The pope faced similar protests during his visit to London in September, where nearly 10,000 people showed up to condemn the pope’s stance on condoms, homosexuality, and women’s rights.
Even before arriving in Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James have drawn pilgrims for more than 1,000 years from across Europe, the pope warned of an “aggressive” anti-clericism in Spain.
He recalled an era before and during the Civil War when pro-Republicans killed priests and nuns and burned churches.
“Spain saw in the 1930s the birth of a strong and aggressive anti-clericism,” the German-born pontiff told reporters aboard the papal plane from Rome. “The clash between faith and modernity is happening again, and it is very strong today.”
After the return to democracy in Spain following the death of the dictator General Francisco Franco in 1975, came an end to restrictions on politics, behavior and sexual mores.
Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has carried the country much further, allowing gay marriage, speedier divorce and easier access to abortions, to the consternation of the Church.
The pope brought a broader message too, urging Europe to remember its Christian heritage and recalling how Santiago de Compostela had erased national differences among pilgrims of different faiths.
“There was a common language, the Gospel of Christ,” he said at Barcelona’s airport before his plane left for Rome, seen off by King Juan Carlos, Queen Sofia, the prime minister and 1,500 youths. “May this faith find new vigour on this continent and become a source of inspiration.”
Video of the protest is below.
With additional reporting by Raw Story.