ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI denounced the "disintegration" of family life in Europe on Sunday and called for couples to make a commitment to marry, not just live together, as he reaffirmed traditional Catholic family values during his second and final day in Croatia.
Benedict also voiced the Vatican's opposition to abortion at an open-air Mass Sunday at Zagreb's hippodrome, the highlight of his trip to mark the local church's national day of families. Tens of thousands of people, waving small plastic Croatian and Vatican flags, began arriving before dawn at the field muddied by overnight thunderstorms.
The sun shone through the clouds as Benedict arrived for the Mass in his white popemobile, waving to the crowd as he looped around the field, which has a capacity of some 300,000 and appeared nearly full.
This is 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.
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.
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 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.
"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."
Sister Monica Zvonarek said the pope's presence in Croatia gives hope to all families. "He can encourage us, our politicians to enter in Europe," she said as she waited for the Mass to start.
As he arrived in Zagreb Saturday on his 19th foreign visit, Benedict urged Croatia to use its new role in the EU to remind Europe about its Christian heritage "as a matter of historical truth" — a constant refrain of this pope who has made fighting Europe's increasing secularization a priority. He also urged young Catholics to hold fast to their faith and values and not be tempted by "enticing promises of easy success."
Later Sunday after Mass, Benedict will pray 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 Nazis.
On Saturday en route to Zagreb, Benedict praised Stepinac as a model for having defended "true humanism" against both the communists and the Ustasha Nazi puppet regime that ruled Croatia during the war. The Ustasha, said the German-born pope, "seemed to fulfill the dream of autonomy and independence, but in reality it was an autonomy that was a lie because it was used by Hitler for his aims."
Trisha Thomas in Zagreb and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade contributed.