VATICAN CITY, Oct 28 (Reuters) The Vatican held the biggest mass beatification in history today, putting nearly 500 Catholics killed during the Spanish civil war on the path to possible sainthood.
But the outdoor ceremony in St Peter's Square, attended by tens of thousands of Spanish pilgrims, also revived bitter memories of a conflict which still divides Spain.
Many Catholic clergy and Church leaders sided with Francisco Franco during the 1936-39 conflict, which began when the general led a military coup against the left-wing government and ended with his victory and installation as a dictator.
Most of the Catholic martyrs honoured today were killed by left-wing militias at the outbreak of fighting in 1936.
''The Communists came and took him away, they shot him,'' said Martin Lozano, describing the death of his great-uncle, a 35-year-old priest from Toledo. Lozano, 45, was named after him.
''This is an important ceremony for Spain, for our history,'' Lozano said.
Over decades, the Church in Spain has gathered evidence that hundreds of its members died for their faith during the war, making them eligible for beatification.
If devout Catholics report miracles linked to their prayers to those beatified on Sunday, some could be considered for sainthood, a process which takes many more years.
NOT POLITICAL, CHURCH SAYS The civil war is still the source of furious debate in Spain and the Church has insisted it did not want the beatification ceremony to be confused with a political statement.
Pope Benedict, speaking to the crowds in St. Peter's Square just after the ceremony, said the martyrs honoured today were ''motivated exclusively by their love for Christ''.
''The beatifications today remind us of the importance of humbly following our Lord even to the point of offering our lives for the faith,'' the Pontiff said.
Martyrs were even more important symbols in today's ''secularised society'', the Pontiff said.
In Spain, there is no more potent symbol of the kind of secularisation opposed by the Vatican than the current socialist government's policy to allow gay marriage.
During the beatification ceremony, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins reminded the crowd that marriage should only be ''between a man and a woman''.
The Spanish government is also promoting a law, opposed by the Church, officially to condemn the rule of Franco, who died in 1975.
Some pilgrims gathered in St Peter's Square said they hoped the Church could do more to bridge the divide over the war.
Alberto Rodriguez Gracia, 71, who travelled from Madrid for the ceremony, suggested the Church should honour Catholic Spaniards who died at the hands of Franco supporters.
''It would be important if there were also something for people from the other side, because there were priests who opposed Franco, who were also killed,'' Gracia said.
REUTERS SS RAI1839