ZAGREB, Croatia — Pope Benedict XVI wrapped up his visit to Croatia on Sunday by denouncing the "disintegration" of family life in Europe and calling for couples to make a commitment to marry and have children, not just live together.
Benedict stressed traditional Catholic family values, including opposition to abortion, during an open-air Mass attended by about 400,000 people at Zagreb's hippodrome, the highlight of his trip to mark the local church's national day of families.
The faithful, who came in droves from across Croatia and surrounding countries, arrived before dawn at the field muddied by overnight thunderstorms. Another fierce thunderstorm, when the pope was about to fly back to Rome in the evening, forced the departure ceremony at the airport to be hastily moved from the planned tarmac venue to inside a hangar. Benedict arrived safely back in Rome Sunday night.
The sun shone through the clouds in the morning as Benedict celebrated Mass before a crowd of flag-waving faithful whose numbers exceeded estimates of 300,000 and whose devotion seemed to deeply impress the pontiff. Later, Benedict prayed before the tomb of a Croatian World War II-era cardinal hailed by Catholics for opposing communism but criticized by Jews for sympathizing with the Nazis.
It was Benedict's first visit as pope to Croatia, an overwhelmingly Catholic Balkan nation that is poised to soon join the European Union. The Vatican has strongly supported its bid, eager to see another country with shared values join the 27-member bloc and help Benedict's project of rekindling Europe's sense of its Christian heritage.
Yet while Croatia is nearly 90 percent Catholic, it allows some legal rights for same-sex couples and, thanks to leftover communist-era legislation, permits abortion up to 10 weeks after conception and thereafter with the consent of a special commission of doctors. Elsewhere in Europe, including in Italy, marriages are on the decline as more and more people choose to just live together.
In his homily, Benedict lamented the "increasing disintegration of the family, especially in Europe" and urged young couples to resist "that secularized mentality which proposes living together as a preparation, or even a substitute for marriage."
"Do not be afraid to make a commitment to another person!" he said.
He urged parents to affirm the inviolability of life from conception to natural death – Vatican-speak for opposition to abortion, saying "Dear families, rejoice in fatherhood and motherhood!" He also urged them to back legislation that supports families "in the task of giving birth to children and educating them."
His message – delivered mostly in Italian and translated into Croatian – has been received with a resounding welcome in Croatia, which Benedict's predecessor Pope John Paul II visited three times during and after the Balkan wars of the 1990s in a sign of the strong ties the Vatican and Croatia enjoy.
"It's great the pope's here," said Karmela Sokolic, a young girl who said she arrived at the hippodrome at 4 a.m. to snag a place near the altar. "I just love the pope and I love that I am here."
Nea Busic, a 27-year-old who has a 3-year-old daughter, a 1-year-old son and is pregnant with a third child, said she and her husband took the pope's message to heart.
"We are not afraid of life, we are not afraid of children and the Catholic Church approves of that," she said as she waited for Benedict's vespers service to begin.
"The pope especially, he encourages young people to get married and to have lots of children, because that is our future," said Busic, an English teacher who came to Zagreb on an overnight train with some 1,000 faithful, mostly families, from Split.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said Benedict had been particularly impressed by the level of devotion of the Croat faithful, noting the intensity of prayer he witnessed among young people and the absolute silence that accompanied a prayer during a vigil Saturday night that drew 50,000 people to Zagreb's elegant central square.
"I was there and I could hear the birds singing," Lombardi said. "If someone can hear birds singing in a piazza with 50,000 people, it means the silence is perfect."
Monsignor Valter Zupan, in charge of family issues in the Croatian bishops' conference, echoed Benedict's denunciation of secular trends in Europe which he said favored "different types of living together which don't have any foundation in European culture."
Croatia has recognized same-sex couples since 2003 and allows gay partners in relationships of more than three years rights of inheritance and financial support, the same as enjoyed by heterosexual couples who aren't married. There is no gay marriage, however, and gay couples cannot adopt.
"We want our children to continue to call their parents 'mamma' and 'papa' because that's their natural names," he told the applauding crowd. "Children have the right to publicly state that a 'father' and a 'mother' gave them life," he said, adding that the church also had the right to demand the government reverse its abortion law.
After Mass, Benedict presided over a vespers service in Zagreb's Gothic cathedral and prayed before the tomb of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, Croatia's World War II primate whom John Paul beatified during a 1998 trip.
Stepinac was hailed as a hero by Catholics for his resistance to communism and refusal to separate the Croatian church from the Vatican. But his beatification was controversial because many Serbs and Jews accuse him of sympathizing with the Ustasha Nazi puppet regime that ruled Croatia during the war.
Benedict said that thanks to his Christian conscience, Stepinac knew to resist both forms of totalitarianism, "becoming in a time of Nazi and Fascist dictatorship, a defender of the Jews, the Orthodox and of all the persecuted, and then in the age of communism, an advocate for his own faithful, especially for the many persecuted and murdered priests."
Some Jews took exception to the pope's visit, even while praising the German-born Benedict for having said earlier in the trip that the Ustasha regime was a lie.
"Stepinac was an avid supporter of the Ustasha whose cruelties were so extreme that they even shocked some of their Nazi masters," said Elan Steinberg of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants. "Pope Benedict was right in condemning the evil Ustasha regime; he was wrong in paying homage to one of its foremost advocates".
Trisha Thomas in Zagreb and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade contributed.