Pope Francis in Portugal: A return to the crowds, meeting victims of abuse and a further shift from eurocentrism

The pontiff has once again given prominence to his social agenda during World Youth Day

Pope Francis in Portugal
Pope Francis speaks with Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa after landing at the Figo Maduro air base in Lisbon to attend World Youth Day on August 2, 2023.MARCO BERTORELLO (AFP)
Tereixa Constenla

That Jorge Mario Bergoglio was going to be a pope cut from a different cloth as his predecessor, Benedict XVI, was clear from the moment he chose his official name in 2013: Francis, one of the most humble and compassionate saints in Catholicism. All subsequent decisions continued along the same path, to the point that he has been labeled “the anti-capitalist pope” due to his criticism of the excesses of economic neoliberalism. He has also come out in defense of the climate — since before Greta Thunberg appeared on the scene — but the most radical transformation is the one Francis is promoting within the Church itself, which has led to open criticism from the most conservative sectors over his determination to reverse dogmas that appeared immovable, such as the celibacy of priests, the marginalization of women, and the condemnation of homosexuals. “Who am I to judge them?” he rhetorically asked on his return from a trip to Brazil for World Youth Day 2013. Earlier this year, he stated during an interview: “Being homosexual is not a crime.” All these issues will be on the agenda during his five-day trip to Portugal, which begins Wednesday and includes a meeting with victims of sexual abuse in the Portuguese Church.

Back to outside work. The Pope’s extended stay in Portugal will allow him to gauge his physical recovery following an operation for an abdominal hernia that hospitalized him for nine days in June. His itinerary includes a trip to the sanctuary of Fátima on Saturday and another to Cascais to visit a school that runs an educational program he started in Buenos Aires in 2001.

His age (86) and recent hospital admissions had led some to speculate that Francis is entering the final phase of his papacy. Benedict XVI stepped down when he was 85, after almost eight years at the head of the Holy See. This years’ World Youth Day, which is expected to be attended by over one million pilgrims, is also the first to be held since the coronavirus pandemic. The previous edition, in Panama City, was attended by some 800,000 people.

Cardinal periphery. Three weeks before traveling to Lisbon, Pope Francis announced the surprise appointment of 21 new cardinals who, he said, “express the universality of the planet.” Once again, he reinforced the presence of Latin cardinals in a further shift from the eurocentrism that has traditionally characterized the Vatican. The new cardinals will be named in a ceremony on September 30. Among them is the Portuguese Américo Aguiar, who has been the visible head of the organization of World Youth Day in Lisbon.

Two-thirds of the College of Cardinals, the body that elects popes, has already been proposed by Francis, who has strengthened the power of those prelates considered more progressive and reformist, including the president of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference and bishop of Fatima-Leiria, José Ornelas.

Victims of sexual abuse. The pontiff is expected to hold a meeting with victims of sexual abuse in the Portuguese Church during his stay in Lisbon, although it has not been officially announced. In June, Bishop Aguiar confirmed that the interview would take place, but declined to provide further details. “We respect the people invited to participate, who would not feel comfortable with the presence of media. It is not a taboo or to hide information. It is a gentlemen’s agreement,” Aguiar said.

In February, a report carried out by an independent commission created by the Portuguese Episcopal Conference to investigate pederasty in institutions, or during activities linked to the Catholic Church, between 1950 and 2022 was presented. The commission estimated that at least 4,815 minors were sexually abused. The places where these abuses occurred most frequently were the seminary, the church, the confessional, and the parish house. The average age at which abuse started was 11.2 years old.

The Portuguese Church apologized to the victims and has created a permanent structure to channel all new complaints that may arise, and to facilitate psychological treatment for victims if required. Although it has refused to establish general indemnities, the president of the Episcopal Conference, José Ornelas, has expressed his willingness to provide financial support to victims.

Social agenda. In addition to the Catholic youth, to whom he will dedicate a large part of his public agenda, Francis plans to meet with prisoners and the sick in Fátima, as well as visiting a parish center in the Libertad neighborhood, which is sometimes described as Lisbon’s “favela.”

Although World Youth Day has not lost its religious identity, in recent years it has also cultivated the spirit of a macro-festival where multiculturalism is celebrated. Pilgrims from all over the world will attend the Portuguese edition. As of Tuesday, 354,000 young people had officially registered.

A less Catholic country. Traditionally, Portugal has been one of the countries in Europe where Catholicism carries the most weight, in addition to Italy, Ireland and Spain. Around seven million Portuguese declare themselves Catholics — about 70% of the population — according to data from the latest census by the National Institute of Statistics. It is among the 10 most Catholic countries in Europe, although there are also contradictory signs that show the advance of secularization in Portuguese society, such as people living in de facto unions (which increased from 380,00 to more than one million between 2001 and 2021) or in registered non-Catholic marriages, which stood at 73% in 2022.

Meanwhile, public expenditure dedicated to World Youth Day, which is estimated at around €80 million ($87.8 million) has provided a target for criticism from leftist political parties. The Left Bloc political formation and the co-founder of the Livre green party, Rui Tavares, who is also a member of the Lisbon City Council, have declined to participate in the institutional acts of welcome for the Pope on Wednesday.

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