Pope's message focuses on traditional family values


VALENCIA, Spain -- Maria Pilar Hervas, a teacher, remembers the insults hurled her way when she walked through the streets with her five children. Large families were out of fashion in fast-modernizing Spain.

"People treated me as though I had committed a crime" by producing such a large brood, Hervas said yesterday as she listened to Pope Benedict XVI extol the virtues of the traditional family, and of marriage between man and woman, to a gigantic gathering of faithful.

The pope was concluding a visit of scarcely more than 24 hours to lend his support to an international meeting of families, and to drive home what he considers to be a central tenet of his papacy: There are basic truths that must not be marred by fads and the "dictatorship of relativism."

For people such as Hervas, conservative Roman Catholics in an increasingly lay society, Benedict's message was welcome comfort. She and her family traveled to Valencia on Spain's Mediterranean coast from Madrid to see the pope.

"The sense of what family is all about is being lost," said Hervas, 44, who was sprawled on the lawn at Valencia's spectacular City of Arts and Sciences, the complex where Pope Benedict officiated over Mass. "He is reminding us to fight for what we believe."

Her husband, Alfonso, another teacher, surveyed the crowd. "It's good to see we are not alone and that a lot of people think the way we do," he said. "People get very comfortable to a certain way of life and are no longer willing to make sacrifices."

Many in Spain, in fact, do not agree with the families gathered here, and that is precisely the challenge for Pope Benedict.

The pope said Mass before hundreds of thousands of people at the sports-and-arts complex, a hypermodern design of giant waves and sails by Valencia-born architect Santiago Calatrava that yesterday was bathed in white sunlight. Many people had camped overnight in the site to have a good position.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls quoted organizers who estimated the size of the crowd at more than a million, with an additional 800,000 or so following along at outdoor television screens around the city. The numbers could not be independently verified, and some reporters estimated the crowd at about half that size.

In his remarks, the pope twice referred to the "indissoluble marriage between man and woman" as the pillar of family and truth itself. Both times, the audience broke into loud applause and cheers.

"In contemporary culture," he said, "we often see an excessive exaltation of the freedom of the individual as an autonomous subject, as if we were self-created and self-sufficient, apart from our relationship with others and our responsibilities in their regard."

He lamented that "attempts are being made to organize the life of society on the basis of subjective and ephemeral desires alone."

That shortchanges what the pope called "objective, prior truths" including the dignity of the human being and "his inalienable rights and duties."

Although his language was generally couched and more studious than scolding, Pope Benedict was clearly directing his words at families he believes are under siege in a Spain that has seen swift change and the loss of tradition in the past couple of decades. Especially under Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Spain has adopted a program of liberal social laws, including one that legalizes same-sex marriage.

That and other laws have brought the Zapatero government into conflict with the Vatican, although polls in Spain give wide popular support to such measures.

In a sign of the strained relations between Madrid and the Holy See, Zapatero declined to attend the Mass and the farewell ceremony in the Valencia airport. One of the pope's final meetings before departure was a short encounter with the head of the political opposition, Mariano Rajoy, whose rightist Popular Party gave the church favored status.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times

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