The World Youth Day event is about to bring a week of joy to Lisbon – but maybe some chaos as well. Local authorities and services have prepared as best they can, but it is impossible to be sure that everything will go according to plan.
Hundreds of thousands of young people, including many from around the world, have registered to take part in the celebrations presided over by Pope Francis.
Portuguese police officers, railway workers, schoolteachers and garbage collectors have threatened strike action during the event that runs from the 1st to 6th August. Foreign participants will soon be arriving to find their accommodation in various dioceses in the capital and elsewhere nearby.
The first World Youth Day (WYD) was held in 1986 in Rome. The others have been held in major cities in various countries. In 1983, for example, it was held in Denver, Colorado, with more than 750,000 people present. The largest WYD gathering amounted to an estimated five million in Manila in the Philippines in 1995.
Pope Benedict XVI avidly supported WYDs. His resignation in 2013 at the age of 85 was because of declining health due to old age. During his tenure as patriarch, he had given much encouragement to young people. He was known as the ‘Green Pope’ because of his concern about global warming. This is still the number one concern of most young people in Portugal.
Pope Benedict’s first international engagement was also his first WYD, which was held in 2005 with 1.3 million people present in Cologne in his native Germany. At the last WYD before his resignation, Benedict advised young people across the globe to “preserve Christian joy within their hearts.”
His resignation came amid shocking revelations of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in the United States and later in Europe. They impacted the already diminishing number of regular Catholic churchgoers in the Western world. Most of the pews in Portugal were being left to the elderly.
An inquiry in France found that at least 330,000 children had been victims of sexual abuse by French priests, deacons and others within the church between 1950 and 2020.
Inquiries in Ireland found that thousands of infants died in brutal living conditions for unmarried mothers in the seven decades up to the 1990s. Other reports have described Catholic orphanages and schools in 20th century Ireland as places of “neglect, fear and endemic sexual abuse.”
An independent inquiry in Portugal found that hundreds of Catholic priests had sexually abused nearly 5,000 children over several decades and that this “was only the tip of the iceberg.”
Child abuse has become one of the defining themes of Benedict’s legacy and one of the chief challenges for Pope Francis. The present pope has declared that he takes “personal responsibility” for ending the abuse. He told CNN Portugal last autumn that the church had “zero tolerance” for abuse and that “a priest cannot remain a priest if he is an abuser.”
Many within the church, however, have regarded Francis’ apologies as hollow and criticized his efforts to bring all offending clerics to justice. This will probably be discussed in the background of the youthful gathering in Lisbon. Indeed, in a message eleven months ago to those preparing for the Lisbon event, Pope Francis urged young people to reflect on their priorities and what moves them. He suggested they contemplate the current humanitarian crises and avoid falling into a culture of indifference.
That said, the main focus in Lisbon will be to promote faith, hope and charity in the host country, as well as peace, unity and fraternity among people and nations around the world.
The main site for the events in Lisbon will be the 100-hectare Parque Tejo by the riverside. The Parque Eduardo VII and the Jardim Vasco da Gama will be among the other main locations for religious meetings.
Pope Francis will be in Lisbon for most of his stay but will make a day trip to the Shrine of Fatima on August 5th. This will be his second visit to Fatima, the first being in 2017 for the centenary of the apparitions involving three young youths. Two of them have been made saints. The third, Sister Lucia, will join them in sainthood soon – perhaps on August 5th as a climax to the Lisbon World Health Day event.
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.