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Pope Begins 5th Visit to Spain

On Saturday Pope John Paul II begins his fifth visit to Spain. Church officials are hoping the papal trip will revive fervor among the country's increasingly apathetic Catholics.

Spanish civil and ecclesiastical authorities estimate that more than one million people will converge on Madrid for Pope John Paul's fifth official visit to Spain since he began his pontificate 24 years ago.

The ailing pontiff, who turns 83 this month and suffers from Parkinson's disease, will be in Spain only briefly - 32 hours - and will stop only in Madrid.

The pope will celebrate a mass for young people Saturday evening at an airbase in the south side of the city. But the high point of the visit is a Mass Sunday morning in Madrid's central Plaza Colon, where he will canonize five Spaniards as new saints of the church. That event will be attended by the Spanish Royal family headed by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía, Prime Minister José María Aznar, members of his cabinet, and the head of the main Socialist opposition party, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero as well as various local dignitaries.

Some 5,000 security officials, supported by 10,000 volunteers and 1,000 health workers, have been mustered to cover the two events. They are prepared to handle as many as half a million young people at the first event and a million at the second.

But ecclesiastical authorities are concerned that the declining number of churchgoers in traditionally Catholic Spain may be reflected by a low turnout at those events.

Church leaders organized this visit in an effort to stem the decline in the number of practicing Catholics, which has led to a marked decrease in contributions to the church.

Looming large in the background of this visit is a political crisis in Spain. An overwhelming majority of Spaniards were opposed to the war in Iraq, as was the pope, but the war had the staunch support of Prime Minister Aznar and his ruling Popular Party.

Pope John Paul's energetic opposition to the war was supported in Spain by all the opposition parties in parliament, including former allies of the Popular Party.

Municipal and regional elections are scheduled for the 25th of this month and the big question is to what extent the estimated 80 percent of voters who opposed the war will punish the Popular Party at the ballot box.