Pope Francis, deep into his 80s, slowed by illness and aware that his window for bringing lasting change to the Roman Catholic Church is closing, arrived in Portugal on Wednesday for a weeklong meeting of the world’s young Catholics, in whose hands will rest the ultimate success or failure of his vision for a more pastoral and inclusive faith.
“I am happy to have come to Lisbon, this city of encounter, which embraces many peoples and cultures, and which, in these days, is even more global,” Francis told the country’s leaders in a speech on Wednesday morning in the Presidential Palace, adding that it had become “in a certain sense” a world capital, but also “the capital of the future, because the young are the future.”
Before the visit, the pope, 86, said in video remarks that he wanted “to see a seed for the world’s future” planted in Lisbon, and warned against the church’s becoming a “club” for older people that “will die.” Upon his arrival, he urged the leaders to help realize the dreams of “young people from around the world, who long for unity, peace and fraternity.”
“It is my hope that World Youth Day may be, for the ‘Old Continent,’ an impulse toward universal openness,” he added, referring to Europe, where the church’s following has dwindled as the population ages. “Old,” Francis underlined. “Old, we can say the elderly Continent.”
Francis first attended Youth Day 10 years ago, at the start of his papacy, and his five-day tour to Portugal is his 42nd overseas trip. The gathering is expected to attract about a million people from more than 200 countries, many of them age 16 to 35, and many in sync with Francis’ emphasis on inequality and climate issues.
In his first remarks, Francis supported their protection of the environment, their campaigning for peace and economic justice, including the redistribution of enormous wealth, and the countering demographic decline.
In addition to young people, the meeting will also be attended by more than 700 bishops and 20 cardinals. The gathering comes as Portugal grapples with an exploding clerical sex abuse crisis and as Francis prepares to tackle divisive issues like the role of women and L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics in the church at a major meeting of the world’s bishops that will for the first time include women and laypeople.
Throughout his papacy, Francis has sought to draw more people into the church by making it more welcoming and close to its people, and less focused on rules and abstractions, power and rank. World Youth Day, and Francis’ emphasis on the young, is a way to keep a lifeline open to the future as the church’s present, especially in the developed world, has been marked by scandals, decreasing numbers and declining cultural relevance.
It is growing more in the developing world, especially Africa and Asia, where young Catholics are more fervent. But those are also places where the church is more conservative.
Francis has steadily filled his hierarchy with prelates in his image, but has also often balked before opportunities to make concrete changes to church policy, such as allowing married men to become priests in remote areas where the faithful cannot receive communion and other sacraments.
His supporters argue that the death of the retired and deeply conservative Pope Benedict XVI last year freed Francis from an awkward brake. And they say that his own health problems — he recently left the hospital after yet another surgery — have added urgency for him to start walking in a new direction rather than just talking about it.
There is also a view that Francis may be content to prepare the ground for a major shift, and to let his successor take the real leaps. But it is not clear who will follow Francis as pope, even as he packs the College of Cardinals that will elect his successor.
In the meantime, Francis is also taking steps to rejuvenate the church. In a geriatric institution, he has put middle-aged men who share his pastoral approach to leadership in charge of major archdioceses like Buenos Aires, Brussels and Madrid. He has appointed cardinals in their 50s — spring chickens for the church — who will in theory vote to select popes in the conclaves for decades to come.
The prelate in charge of World Youth Day, Américo Aguiar, only 49, will become a cardinal at a Sept. 30 ceremony during which Francis will elevate 21 churchmen, adding to the percentage of voters he has created before the next conclave, which will pick his successor once he dies or retires. Bishop Aguiar will be the second-youngest cardinal after the head of the church in Mongolia, where Francis will travel at the end of August.
Pope John Paul II started World Youth Day in 1986 to demonstrate that the church had a younger, fresher face. The Lisbon event will be the 16th such engagement; it was initially scheduled for last year but was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
While Francis framed the fraternity of the meeting as an antidote to nationalism and populism, but far from grass-roots movements, the events are rigorously planned by the church establishment and have not translated into an organic return back into the pews. Within the church, many often consider them glorified hookup events, a view the hierarchy has sought to tamp down on.
“They do not need neither joints, nor condoms, nor alcohol to live an unforgettable joy,” the bishop of Córdoba, Demetrio Fernández, said in a recent weekly letter.
The Portuguese church has also sought to portray the event as interreligious and not strictly Catholic, with the participation of Protestants, Muslims and Jews. It was an “event open to all,” Cardinal Manuel Clemente, patriarch of Lisbon, told reporters last month.
“Certainly there will be a strong Catholic presence,” he added.
That presence is shrinking though, even in once-devout Portugal. The Portuguese Catholic church, like so many across Europe, has consistently diminished and weakened, even as evangelicals, many of them Brazilian, have multiplied their numbers.
Lisbon, once a pious capital, is now a cosmopolitan and increasingly secular city, and newly revealed sexual abuse scandals in the Portuguese church seem destined to accelerate its falling numbers — and to alienate the youth Francis hopes to inspire.
In February, a live broadcast of experts appointed by Portugal’s own church leaders reported that at least 4,815 children, most of them 10 to 14 years old, had been abused since 1950. The experts read accounts of some victims in front of the country’s top bishops, and the commission’s leader said that more than 100 priests suspected of abuse still had active church roles at the time of the report’s publication.
Bishop Aguiar has said that Francis will meet with some of those victims during his visit, even as the Portuguese church has waffled on possible reparation payments. Francis is expected to address the issue during his visit.
The distance between the country and the church has also been shown by the criticism for the tens of millions of euros directed to finance the event. In the days before the event, a Portuguese artist, Bordalo II, laid out a red carpet made from oversized 500-euro bank notes.
“In a secular state,” the artist wrote, “at a time when many are struggling to keep their homes, their jobs and their dignity, millions of public money are going to sponsor the tour of the Italian multinational.”
That is not the message the Vatican is hoping for.
Instead, Francis was welcomed on Wednesday morning by two children dressed in white and seemed at ease and beamed as he met bishops and joked with local dignitaries before taking a white Toyota hybrid in a motorcade along streets sparsely populated with cheering fans to the presidential palace. He walked a few steps with a cane and stood beside President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa for national anthems and the ceremonial shooting of rifles.
Francis will seek to animate young crowds with talk of peace on a continent once again marked by war. Francis himself has made fruitless, and critics say counterproductive, efforts to broker peace in Ukraine that Ukrainians have worried play into Russian hands. After a halting start, Francis has more clearly put the fault of the war on Russian aggression.
The pope is likely to stress his calls for peace on Saturday, when he is scheduled to return to the Shrine of Fatima, a pilgrimage site north of Lisbon where tradition holds that the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children in 1917. She delivered a prophecy that the world would be destroyed if it did not convert, and that the pope could stay God’s angry hand if he brought atheists and Communist Russia to her “immaculate heart.”
Last year, Francis consecrated all the world, but especially Russia and Ukraine, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary before a statue of Our Lady of Fatima in St. Peter’s Basilica.
In his remarks to leaders on Wednesday, Francis sought to carve out a more concrete space for Europe in delivering peace.
“We are sailing amid storms on the ocean of history, and we sense the need for courageous courses of peace. With deep love for Europe, and in the spirit of dialogue that distinguishes this continent, we might ask her: ‘Where are you sailing, if you are not showing the world paths of peace, creative ways for bringing an end to the war in Ukraine and to the many other conflicts causing so much bloodshed?’”