Portuguese American Journal

Opinion | Pope Francis’ historic visit to Portugal a great success | By Len Port

The World Youth Day festival in Lisbon lasted a week. It will continue to be seriously discussed for at least another month, and it will stay in the memories of more than a million young pilgrims for years.

Christians in their teens and twenties from nearly every country in the world arrived barely knowing a word of Portuguese, but hugs immediately became the international “language of love.” 

A few days before the arrival of Pope Francis, the highly innovative Portuguese artist Bordalo II managed to break into one of the main venues and roll out a “walkway of shame”, a carpet up steps to an altar from which the pope was to deliver speeches. The carpet consisted of huge images of €500 banknotes. It was a symbolic protest against the amount of public money being spent on the religious event while so many people in the capital and nearby cities are homeless or living in poverty. 

Prime Minister Antonio Costa downplayed the costs and said the government and municipalities involved would benefit from their investments in the World Youth Day (WYD) event. 

The “walkway of shame” was also a reminder of the “shame of silence”, the cover-up of child sex abuse by the clergy that persisted within the Catholic Church for decades. Shortly before the pope’s arrival, the cardinal-patriarch of Lisbon said the church was “fully committed” to resolving the scandal.  

Local Lisbon residents were far from happy about the disruption being caused to their normal daily lives by the mass of young Christian visitors. And there was some very unchristian behavior going on as well. Pilgrims had to be warned of scams such as car drivers, falsely claiming to be closely associated with the event organizers, charging exorbitant taxi fares.     

Protests and strikes by local transport workers, doctors, nurses, teachers and rubbish collectors did not seem to disrupt the tsunami of festivities that got underway on Tuesday, August 1, the eve of the pope’s arrival. By then more than a million pilgrims were reportedly in the city ready to enjoy various celebrations, including not only special religious services but musical and theatrical performances and sporting competitions. 

Less than half of the pilgrims had formally registered for the festivities. Of those who did register, the biggest groups were Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. More than 27,000 had crossed the Atlantic from the United States.

On flying in from Rome, the Pontiff’s plane was escorted by Portuguese air force fighter jets. Portugal’s President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, welcomed the pope and his entourage “with open arms” at the Figo Maduro military airport. The tight security in place included an extra large police presence in Lisbon and a ban on drones flying over Fatima when the pope went there. While the safety arrangements were secure, the Portuguese PSP police union pointed to “deplorable hygiene and cleanliness standards” for its members.

On his first day in Lisbon the pope expressed concerns about euthanasia, the environment and war within Europe. Later, in a private meeting, the pope spoke with 13 victims who had been sexually abused by members of the clergy. He “listened to them intently,” according to a Vatican spokesperson. Francis clearly deplored the weak response of the Portuguese Catholic hierarchy to the hideous scandal in this country. Before the truth fully emerged, the church hierarchy had claimed that “only a handful” of priests were involved. Francis lamented that this had driven many of the faithful away from the church. 

Later in the week, the Pontiff shared his thoughts on many other subjects including abortion, climate change, the importance of charity, and the need to avoid being fooled by false social media disinformation.

Two hundred thousand turned out to greet the pope with cheers of delight by the time he had arrived at 8.35 on Friday morning for his short visit to Fatima. The crowds lined the route for the popemobile from the Fatima heliport and filled into the vast concourse within the sanctuary in front of the Fatima Basilica overlooking the Shrine where the three shepherd children are believed to have witnessed the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1917. Francis met and blessed babies during his two-hour stay before returning to Lisbon.

Having spoken repeatedly about  the gravest challenges facing humanity and the Catholic Church, including the war in Ukraine and child sex abuse, during Mass on his final day in Portugal, the Pontiff pleaded with young people “not to be afraid” and that they are “the present and the future.”

Len Port, born in Northern Ireland, worked as a news reporter and correspondent, mainly in Hong Kong and South Africa, before moving to Portugal many years ago.

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