SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA—Pilgrims, many of whom had walked hundreds of kilometres, gathered Friday in Spain's holiest city of Santiago de Compostela to see Pope Benedict XVI, on a mission to reclaim Europe for the Catholic Church.

The pontiff lands on Saturday in Santiago, the end point of the centuries-old Way of Saint James pilgrimage route, for a weekend visit to Spain that will also take in Barcelona.

He is to pray at the tomb of Saint James the Apostle, whose remains were discovered by a hermit in 813 and became a rallying cry for Christian Spain, pinned by the Moors to the northern strip of the Iberian peninsula.

The Roman Catholic Church appears again to be under attack on many fronts, and Benedict is seeking a new rallying cry.

The Church was an all-powerful presence in the lives of Spaniards during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. But with the arrival of democracy Spain tore down many of the regime-imposed restrictions on dress-code, behaviour and sexual mores.

Under the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero the country has gone dramatically further, allowing gay marriage — in five years 20,000 gay couples have tied the knot — speedier divorce and more access to abortions.

Of particular concern to the Church, women can have an abortion on demand up to 14 weeks of pregnancy, and in case of risk to the life and health of the mother until 22 weeks. Girls of 16 and 17 can get an abortion without their parents' consent if they face a risk of family violence, threats, or pressure.

Benedict will warn against "the idea inherited from the French Revolution that in order to be fully human you have to get rid of religious tradition," Celso Morga, undersecretary for the Congregation of the Clergy, said in the Vatican ahead of the visit.

But in eight years the proportion of Spaniards who describe themselves as Roman Catholic has dropped to 73 percent from 80 percent and those attending weekly mass to 13 percent from 20 percent.

In Santiago, after praying in the sprawling, majestic 12th century cathedral, the pope will embrace the statue of Saint James -- a tradition kept by pilgrims who have visited every year since the Middle Ages.

Benedict will then celebrate mass in the vast Plaza Obradoiro outside the cathedral in the heart of the medieval city — a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985 — before some 7,000 people.

Yellow and white Vatican flags flew from buildings leading into the Plaza Obradoiro, where a massive soundstage was erected behind rows of purple flowers.

"Welcome Holy Father," said one banner.

Shops leading to the cathedral— whose two towers rise to a height of about 75 metres (250 feet) — were already crammed with souvenirs of the pope's visit.

Shopkeepers said commemorative bracelets and stickers, ceramic thimbles, rosaries and key chains bearing the pope's image were the most sought after items.

But many businesses were also disappointed by the low number of visitors for the papal visit.

"This pope does not have the pull of his predecessor," said Silvia, a shopkeeper at a local gift shop in a reference to the late pope John Paul II who visited Santiago in 1982 and 1989.

The coordinator of the pilgrims' centre, Eduardo Perez, said many people shunned Santiago because of the extra security for the pope and because they feared the hotels would be full or more expensive, while others preferred to see Benedict in Barcelona on Sunday.

A spokesman for the city's hotel association, Aser Alvarez, reported an occupancy rate of about 70 to 80 percent for Friday night.

"We expected a bit more, but not much more. The tourist who normally comes will not come this weekend because they predict there will be huge crowds and it would be difficult to move around," he said.

Portuguese couple Nuno Rocha and Luisa Costa, both 31 and veterinarians, walked 185 kilometres (115 miles) from Barcelos in Portugal. "We timed our visit to coincide with the pope," said Luisa.

But many in Spain are set against the pope's message.

When the pope consecrates the great unfinished masterpiece of Antoni Gaudi, the Sagrada Familia church, in Barcelona on Sunday, hundreds of gays plan to stage a mass kiss-in.

Protesters against the visit rallied Thursday night both in Santiago de Compostela and Barcelona.