SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain — Pope Benedict XVI criticized an "aggressive" anti-church sentiment in Spain that he said was reminiscent of the country's bloody civil war era as he began a two-day visit Saturday to rekindle the faith.
Benedict made clear his distaste for Spain's liberal bent as he arrived in the pilgrimage city of Santiago di Compostela, where the remains of St. James the Apostle are said to be buried.
He was warmly received by a crowd of thousands chanting "Viva el papa!" but there were hints of opposition as well. About 100 people demonstrated against the pope's visit and a handful of gays kissed along his motorcade route – a preview of the gay "kiss-in" protest that awaits him Sunday in Barcelona.
Benedict told reporters en route to Santiago that the anticlericalism seen now in Spain is like that of the 1930s, when the church suffered a wave of violence and persecution as the country lurched from an unstable democracy to civil war.
The reference was striking, given the scale of violence back then, when poverty-stricken and disgruntled Spaniards burned churches and murdered priests and nuns whom they considered obstacles to much-needed change. The church claims 4,184 clergy were killed by the government, or Republican side, which accused the church of backing fascist Gen. Francisco Franco.
Nowadays, the church finds itself fighting laws supported by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist government that have allowed gay marriage, fast-track divorce and easier abortions.
"In Spain, a strong, aggressive lay mentality, an anticlericalism and secularization has been born as we experienced in the 1930's," Benedict told reporters.
The reference surprised Spaniards, with Cadena SER network saying: "The Pope compares today's Spain with the Republic."
The pope said Spain was a particular focus of a new Vatican effort to fight secular trends worldwide since Spain had played such an important role in reviving Christianity in centuries past. He urged Europe as a whole to rediscover its Christian roots.
"Europe must open itself to God, must come to meet him without fear," Benedict said in Spanish during a Mass before thousands in Santiago's central Plaza del Obradoiro. "The Europe of science and technology, the Europe of civilization and culture, must be at the same time a Europe open to transcendence and fraternity with other continents."
An estimated 6,000 people attended the open-air Mass in the shadow of Santiago's ornate cathedral, where Benedict prayed before the apostle James' tomb, embraced his statue and watched, a bit awe-struck, as a massive incense burner swung pendulum-like across the entire transept.
Legend holds that the enormous incense burner was used to mask the pungent odor of pilgrims who had walked for weeks to reach Santiago. Nowadays, the burner is hoisted and swung from an intricate system of pulleys only during solemn occasions.
After the Mass, Benedict was heading to Barcelona, where he will dedicate the famous modernist Sagrada Familia church on Sunday. The church is a monument to the traditional family – another key theme Benedict is stressing in his Spanish visit.
Up to 200,000 people packed the square and cobblestone streets of Santiago's beautiful medieval quarter and lined the fog-shrouded route from the airport Saturday to catch a glimpse of the pope's motorcade, featuring his armored white "popemobile." Benedict stopped several times to kiss babies handed up to him.
The pontiff said he was coming to Spain as a pilgrim – like so many of the millions of faithful who take part in the "Camino de Santiago" pilgrimage to this western Galician city. Their numbers swell in a jubilee year, which occurs every time the feast of St. James – July 25 – falls on a Sunday, as it does this year.
Benedict has long sought to visit the shrine. The scallop shell symbol of St. James, ubiquitous around the city and on pilgrim routes that thread toward Santiago, is particularly important to Benedict: It forms a central part of his papal coat of arms.
But not everyone was excited about the pope's visit.
"We want to let him know that he is not well received here because of the church opinion regarding sexual minorities," protester Pilar Estevez said in Santiago.
Ahead of the giant "kiss-in" Sunday by gays and lesbians, Benedict on Saturday called the family the "fundamental cell of society" that forms the basis of faith and life. Church teaching holds that a family is based on the indissoluble marriage between a man and woman – not people of the same sex.
With such palpable opposition to the pope's visit, Zapatero is only seeing Benedict as he's leaving on Sunday night, letting Spain's royal family take care of protocol instead. Crown Prince Felipe and Crown Princess Letizia greeted Benedict at Santiago's airport Saturday and welcomed him to the country.
Associated Press writer Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.