In Portugal, Pope Francis will sow seeds of his legacy

The pontiff will meet with nearly a million young Catholics for World Youth Day celebrations and share his vision for the future of the church.

Volunteers are lifted up by others after a Mass celebrated for volunteers from around the world in Estoril, outside Lisbon, Portugal, Wednesday, July 26, 2023. The volunteers will be working during the World Youth Day from Aug. 1 to Aug. 6, with the presence of Pope Francis. The event is expected to bring hundreds of thousands of young Catholic faithful to Lisbon. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — When Pope Paul VI became the first pontiff to set foot in Portugal in 1967, the church and world were in turmoil. 

Deep fractures spurred by the Second Vatican Council, the massive 1962-65 summit aimed at reconciling the church with the growing secularism of the time, commanded his attention. 

When Pope Francis visits Portugal for the World Youth Day celebration Wednesday (Aug. 2-6), he will lay the groundwork for another, potentially seismic, church event.

In October, the Vatican will host a gathering of bishops and lay Catholics, the synod on synodality, to address the main challenges facing the institution — from the sexual abuse crisis to the role of women and inclusion of LGBTQ faithful. 

Francis will address nearly 1 million Catholics gathered for World Youth Day, a festival initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1986 and centered around prayer and music. Considered the largest Catholic event in the world, the pontiff will have the opportunity over several days to meet and talk to young people between the ages of 16 and 35 from all over the world.

“I hope to see a seed of the world of the future in Lisbon,” Pope Francis said in a video message published July 27, in which he set his prayer intentions for the youth festival. “A world where love is at the center, where we can feel like brothers and sisters.”

On Thursday (Aug. 3), Francis will meet with members of the Argentine group Scholas Occurrentes, aimed at promoting encounter and dialogue. The next day (Aug. 4), he is scheduled to conduct a Via Crucis, or stations of the cross, with young people at the festival. On Saturday (Aug. 5), the pope will lead a vigil near the Tago River in a nature reserve not far from Lisbon. In the same location, the pope will preside over the closing Mass for World Youth Day.

This will mark the first World Youth Day since 2019; the festival was halted for three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Vatican, more than 700 bishops and 20 cardinals will attend. Some 20,000 volunteers from 200 countries are expected.

A delegation from Russia and Ukraine is also expected. When Pope Francis asked for faithful to pray for him as he embarked on this trip during his Angelus prayer on Sunday (July 30), he also mentioned the conflict taking place in Ukraine and asked the Russian “brothers” to restore the Black Sea grain trade deal.

The Russia-Ukraine war also occupies the pontiff’s mind as he prepares to meet with Catholic youth.

“We are at war,” Francis said in his message. “We need something different. A world that is not afraid to bear witness to the gospel. A world where there is joy, because if us Christians don’t have joy then we are not credible, and no one will believe us.”

Few places are as closely associated with the message for peace than the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared in 1917 to three shepherd children. In the apparitions, Mary is believed to have asked the children to pray the rosary to bring World War I to an end.

Francis will follow in the footsteps of his three predecessors and visit the Marian shrine on Saturday (Aug. 5), where he is also expected to meet with people seeking healing there.

In 2017, Francis visited the shrine on the centenary of the apparitions and canonized Francisco and Jacinta Marto, two of the three shepherd children who saw an apparition of Mary.

The pope’s trip to Portugal will be the first since his hernia operation in June. The 86-year-old pontiff has recently picked up the pace of his reform efforts in what Vatican observers believe to be an attempt to secure his legacy.

He recently selected a new group of cardinals who will be eligible to elect the next pope. Among them is Bishop Americo Aguiar, who is overseeing the World Youth Day celebrations and, at 49, will become the second-youngest cardinal in the church.

World Youth Day is an opportunity for Francis to sow the seeds of his vision for the church at a time when Portugal is facing growing secularism and diminishing church attendance. A February report by an independent commission found that almost 5,000 children were sexually abused in Portugal since 1950, for the most part by Catholic clergy. Many of the perpetrators are dead or no longer in ministry, but the commission accused the church’s leadership of hiding the abuse.

Francis has taken steps to ensure the protection of minors in the Vatican and beyond. In 2019, he issued a law requiring Catholic clergy to report abuse cases to the local authorities. Portuguese bishops said last month that the pope will meet with a group of victims privately during his visit.

His predecessor, Paul VI, was able to win the hearts of the country’s conservative Catholic majority that viewed the Second Vatican Council with skepticism. When Pope Francis touches down in Portugal, the church will be no less divided. He may yet hope for another hurrah.

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