When Pope Benedict XVI landed in Madrid on Thursday, the conversation focused more on the economy than the spirit. His visit is for the Catholic Church's World Youth Day, but it's taken on a weightier significance in a country with over 20 percent unemployment -- the highest in ailing Europe -- and with nearly half of young people looking for work.
"Man must be at the center of the economy and the economy must not be measured only by the maximization of profit but according to the common good," the patriarch of the Catholic Church told reporters on his airplane. The recession, he said, proved that ethical issues were not "exterior," but "interior and fundamental" to economic problems.
But whether the pope's trip itself was for the common good was up for debate. The cost of staging the week-long event is an estimated 50 million taxpayer euros ($72 million), according to church critics, and thousands of protestors gathered the Wednesday night before his visit in Puerta del Sol Plaza, wielding slogans like "More jobs and less crucifixes," and "The pope's visit, not with my taxes," reported Deutsche Welle.
"At a time of crisis, and with so many people in need, we feel this visit should not be so massive and attention-drawing, so spectacular, but rather something more simple and closer to the grassroots of the church," Raquel Mallavibarrena, a spokeswoman for the progressive Catholic group Redes Cristianas, told the Associated Press.
Church organizers claim the visit is fully funded by corporate sponsors, private donations and ticket revenue from pilgrims.
Some of the young Catholics in Madrid for the World Youth Day counter-protested, and although riot police tried to separate the crowds, eight demonstrators were still arrested and 11 injured, according to police.
One counter-protestor, a 24-year-old Mexican chemistry student volunteering for the pope's visit, was arrested Tuesday night on suspicion that he was plotting a gas attack on demonstrators. He had been making threats over the Internet against individuals opposed to the visit.
Over a million pilgrims from 193 countries are expected to participate in the festivities, which include a vigil, an outdoor sleepover and morning Mass.
Papal visits usually spark some protest, particularly from secularists who resent the taxpayer cost. But these voices have become louder since the recession and the Church's scandal over pedophile priests.
The pope's historic tour through the U.K. last September cost an estimated total of over £25 million, according to British Religion in Numbers, with two fifths covered by the church. Participants claimed that 20,000 people protested through the streets as the pontiff rode along in his Popemobile, an armour-plated Mercedes people carrier encased in bullet-proof glass.
Although economic issues have been the focus of the visit so far, the pope's first speech Wednesday afternoon addressed another crisis facing young Spaniards: the declining rate of religiosity. Intensely Catholic Spain is often seen as a balwark of religiosity in a secularizing Europe, but last year only half of 15 to 29-year-olds in the country considered themselves Catholic, according to the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (Center for Sociological Research).
"The young followers of Jesus must be aided to remain firm in the faith and to embrace the beautiful adventure of proclaiming it and witnessing to it openly in their lives," the pope said, according to CNN, before thousands of pilgrims and Spanish dignitaries.
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