Thursday, 18 August 2011

Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me!

By Richard Morley.

As I write this the Pope has just arrived at Madrid, Barajas airport and on my TV screen is being greeted by the great and the good. He is here to lead the celebrations for la Jornada Mundial Jóvenes, or World youth day.

His arrival has been preceded over the past few days by an estimated one and a half million pilgrims. Most of them are in their teens or early twenties, although there are a few that most definitely are no longer in the throws of juventud. They seem to be enjoying themselves. As I travelled into the centre of Madrid yesterday evening my Metro carriage was stuffed to the walls with young people wearing the official yellow tee-shirt emblazoned with a giant M. As we alighted at Gran Via station one of their number started to sing and the refrain was picked up by EVERY OTHER similarly clothed person on the platform. The serenade continued as we slowly rose on the escalators to the surface.

There, the normal residents of Montera, famous for its ladies of “negotiable affection”, had been replaced by groups of singing, cheering, flag-waving kids. The neighbouring McDonalds burger joint was packed with hungry youth, the pavements of Gran Via, and side streets, heaving with visitors.

This is August. Normally at this time the streets of  Madrid are comparatively quiet as most residents are on their annual vacations. Seats on the Metro are obtainable as are tables in the restaurants. This week is different.

I walked along Gran Via to Callao where I was meeting a friend. Both of us are fans of Harry Potter and we had arranged to see the ultimate film or the eponymous young wizard. The newly rebuilt Plaza Callao that now boasts an acre of rather boring flat grey stone (criticised in the local press, together with the other newly refurbished plazas of Sol and Isabel II, as “ugly deserts of granite” with little character,) was also crowded with the young pilgrims. Each waved their countries flag around which they grouped. One group of young Filipino boys held a sign optimistically offering “Free hugs and kisses”, another group chanted in time to a noisy vuvuzela. Last year’s world cup in South Africa has a lot to answer for! Another burger joint, Pans and Co and Starbucks next door were packed to the doors. Wherever you looked there were smiles. There was laughter from all directions and in all accents. (Yes, laughter has an accent!)

And it was infectious. It was impossible not to smile. As I said to my friend when she arrived, “There’s are lots of people who have no idea where they are going, but are singing as they go there”.

It has been billed as a “party” for Catholic youth. Unfortunately, every party has its “party-poopers” or “aguafiestas” as they say here. They are saying that it is wrong for Madrid to host such a party at a time when more than twenty percent of the population is out of work. They are claiming that while the government has cut funding for medicine and education the state should not be spending an estimated sixty million euros on just a few days of celebration. Knowing quite a lot of teachers who have felt first hand the effects of the cuts in the education budget it is difficult not to sympathise.

 The Government cut 40 million euros from the education budget, yet it is claimed they are spending 50 million on the pope's visit. AMAL thinks the church should pick up the tab.

Leading the protests against this event has been the Asociación Madrileña de Ateos y Librepensadores, (The Madrid Association of Atheists and Free-thinkers), AMAL. They have been leading a campaign against the use of public funds from taxation being spent for this purpose. There are many who agree with them.

The political sweep though my friends here swings from right(ish), - the days of far right wing in Spain are still active in many people’s memories, - to quite left. I know people who attend mass every week, though those who go for “special occasions” to those who hate any form of Church intervention in affairs of state. As an atheist brought up non-conformist protestant I tend to agree with the latter.

Yet is was hard last night not to join in the obvious joys of the faithful who today will meet their leader. (The TV now shows me that the pope has now arrived in the centre of town. He zoomed from the airport to the centre in the pope-mobile, which travelled at a quite alarming rate. He shot through my barrio so fast that the faithful who had been waiting on the roadside for hours would have missed his passing if they had blinked!) Interviews with people in the waiting crowds displayed an excitement not seen since the victorious Spanish football team returned from the World Cup along the same route.

But last night AMAL thought it was a good time to make their voices heard. They had been organising the protest over several days on Facebook and more than six thousand had declared their intention to attend. The march would begin in the plaza Tirso de Molina and terminate in Sol. This was bad news for my friend and I. Our cinema tickets were for the Cine Ideal, one of the cinemas that shows movies in VO, or original language, and was on the marchers’ route. So I got a close up view of the parade and heard the shouts of the protesters.

They made me angry!

It was meant to be a protest again what they see as a misuse of public money and I am sure that is what the organisers intended. Yet among those who attended the protest were members of the 15M, Democracia, ya! Movement and suddenly the demonstration ceased to be a legitimate protest of taxpayers into a revolt against the church and the pope. Indeed this morning the newspapers are headlining it as an “Antipope protest”, which it was never meant to be.

Within the march were those who held banners proclaiming the moderate atheist view that “you don’t have to believe in a god to be good” and so on, and those who criticised the Catholic Church’s attitude towards contraception, gays and abortion. Unfortunately there were also those who chanted insults, including a ribald rhyme claiming the Virgin Mary to have been a lesbian. This was designed to provoke and insult those who held different opinions. I hope the organisers were ashamed. I hope they point out to their “supporters” that invective and insults can never replace intelligent debate. And it has to be said that today their Facebook page laments the idiocy of some of the marchers.

It has to said that it is reported the government is also a little concerned about what the pope might say during his visit. Spain’s liberal views on gay marriage, abortion and with a contraceptive machine on nearly every street corner and in every metro station has drawn criticism from the Vatican in the past. They are hoping he keeps his orations on matters of youth and away from politics.

Voltaire did not say “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to impose your views on others”. That said though, I have met religious people who feel they do have that right. There’s a right that is wrong. It was probably the case that the “mal educado” in the march were a small minority. The police made a few arrests and there were a few wounded in scuffles. It is also worth a mention that earlier this week a Mexican Catholic youth was arrested by police for threatening to throw acid in the face of any protesting against the pope’s visit.

Official declarations claim that most of the cost of this celebration will be borne from the fees paid by the celebrants, but there are reported to be fifteen thousand police on the streets of Madrid this week. The use of government property for the celebrations does not come cost free and neither do the conversion of Cibeles and Recoletas into a grand outdoor cathedral. All attendees have been given an eighty percent reduction on public transport while those of us who live here are now suffering a fifty percent increase on the cost of a single ticket. The church and state claimed that donations from Spanish companies would also ameliorate the cost, but played down the fact that those companies would be getting an 80% tax break on those contributions. So, that’s more money the state won’t get. One of what I consider to be one of AMAL’s legitimate demands is that the Catholic Church pick up the tab for everything. After all, it is their party!

But theses facts and the protests of the “antipapistas” seem to have no effect whatever on the gathered, celebrating catholic youth in Madrid last night. They continued to sing and dance. The film finished just before midnight. As my friend and I walked through the plaza major en route to Opera metro (Sol station having been closed yet again!) the groups of pilgrims continued to sing from their seats on the terrace cafés and a fairly large group in the centre danced the Macarena - loudly. Scenes on TV right now of the crowds patiently awaiting the pope show lots of high spirits and enjoyment of their life.

In fact TV is showing little else right now. The protesters had their fifteen seconds of fame on the news broadcasts, but its all about the pope. I hope the celebrants will leave for their home countries with good memories of their time in this wonderful town. Judging by the joy on the faces of one and a half million young people, life is meant to be enjoyed and Madrid is a great place to enjoy it.

We can cry “Bah Humbug” when they’ve all gone home.


  1. Hi Richard,

    Interesting post. I totally agree that it is a pity that the protests against the use of tax payers'money to pay for the WYD are being perceived as "anti-pope".

    Keep on the good stuff,
    Pierre -

  2. Unfair on so many levels. Why should the locals (Catholic or not) be expected to pay an increase in Metro fairs just to subsidise cheap travel for these grinning, happy-clappy idiots ?
    Surely they don't have to travel thousands of miles just to worship their God at a time when the money that they have spent on tickets, and the country has spend on staging the event could have gone to better use.

  3. As always, I'm all for everyone being allowed to get on with their life and religion as they see fit but there are two things I don't want: 1) to have it rammed down my throat and 2) to pay for it.

    The Metro ticket reductions are an outrage - if you're going to do something like that, you should basically announce an 80% reduction in the Metro prices for absolutely everyone for the duration. Let's face it, there aren't many people in the city who aren't there for the visit so they wouldn't have lost much on the tickets and would have gained at least a bit of goodwill.

    As far as paying for the whole thing is concerned, I don't see it any differently from any other visit to a country. It should never be paid for by the host country. It should always be the visitors who foot the bill. If they want security and great hotels blah blah, fine, but they pay for it. I don't care if someone is there as a head of state or a religious leader - pay your own way or don't come.

    On a purely personal level, as an atheist, the whole thing baffles me. The guy is flesh and blood. He's you and me. He's nobody. There is absolutely no good reason for anyone to want to see him in person, let alone travel halfway round the world to do so. The reverence dished out to religious leaders is something I'll never understand. It's one thing worshipping a god/deity/mythical being/demon/whatever but the "person" they're worshipping is not standing there in front of them. At best, he's a representative, at worst, a salesman.

  4. Em, your last point is one that's been nagging at me the whole time the pope has been here. All the screaming from the kids in the street has been about "El Papa". I haven't heard a word about their god. He's been given a reception worthy of a pop star, or some other non deserving "celebrity". Watching his majestic progress to lord it over the faithful on Thursday evening I pressed the off switch on my remote with such force I thought I'd pushed the button through the box. It just made me so mad.
    The past two days have been the same. It all been about the man, like he's the god. It's actually reinforced my atheism - so catholic fail!
    However, it's given me an idea. Next tike I have a party, I will ask my neighbours to pay for it. After all, the precedent has been set.

  5. I have also been angered by having my taxes used to pay for the accommodation of peregrinos who in return have seen fit to shove their religion in my face.

    But what angers me most is that the pope is the head of an organisation that has both facilitated and covered up the rape of children (and we're not talking about a few isolated cases here). I like to think that when most people suspect something like that is going on they at least get the police involved. Not try to protect the pedaphiles at the continued expense of the young victims. However it seems a different set of rules apply to his great "holiness". I'd rather see my taxes used to bring him to justice than promote him as some kind of world youth leader, when it is clear that the wellbeing and protection of children is so far down on his list of priorities.