Pope Emeritus Benedict XVl has been buried. Pope Francis has mobility impairment. The Catholic religion is in decline.
However, the Sanctuary of Fátima in Portugal is surging ahead and this will again welcome millions of pilgrims and tourists.
Benedict, the first pontiff to resign in six centuries, did so in February 2013; ostensibly because of ill health, while being criticised for insufficient action against child sexual abusers within the Church, particularly when he was still the Archbishop of Munich. A one-page account of Benedict’s otherwise much-praised papacy was put in a metal cylinder and placed in his coffin.
The liberal Pope Francis spoke very highly of his conservative predecessor during last Thursday’s funeral, even though they differed on certain aspects of their leadership. One thing they did share was concern about Catholicism’s steep decline during both their papacies.
Revelations about child sexual abuse by a great many priests over many years have been one of the main reasons for the decline. The hundreds of thousands of victims of often repeated abuse were mainly boys, but also girls, mostly young teenagers, but some aged six or less.
The criminal abuse went on and on across Europe, including Portugal, North and South America, Australia and elsewhere. The Church often showed cruel indifference towards victims’ complaints. Regrets and apologies have been expressed, but few of the culprits have been prosecuted and few of the victims have been compensated.
Other non-religious networks have been just as guilty and some are undoubtedly still getting away with it, but the paedophilia within the Catholic Church has received maximum media coverage.
Disgust and lack of trust in the Catholic hierarchy have caused many members of the laity to leave the Church altogether. There have been many other reasons for the walkout.
Portugal is a predominately Catholic country. It always has been since Roman times. It is renowned as one of the most devout in Europe. An estimated 84% of the population have been baptised and are at least nominally Catholic, but only 18% – and perhaps less – are thought to regularly attend Mass.
As in other countries, elderly traditionalists have rejected the modernisation brought about by the Second Vatican Council.
The young are bored with the dogma, priestly arrogance and hypocrisy. They are tired of the controversy over such issues as birth control, abortion and the notion that gay togetherness is a sin. Divorced or civilly remarried couples have been made to feel unwelcome. Across the Catholic world, pews are emptying, chapel doors are closing.
Pope Francis has tried to reverse the trend, but bishops are divided and so are the laity about the wisdom of his efforts. A summit meeting on these issues is to be held in the Holy See this October.
Aside from the challenges facing him, Francis wrote his own resignation letter well in advance in case ill-health should impair him from continuing in office. He did so in 2013, well before he had to have bowel surgery.
Now aged 86, Francis has a knee problem that forces him to use a wheelchair. He quips, however, that he depends much more on his brain than his knee.
Francis remains remarkably active. At the end of this month, he will be travelling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan for an ecumenical peace pilgrimage. He is scheduled to be in Portugal from August 1 to 6 for World Youth Day in Lisbon. No doubt he will also visit Portugal’s most holy site, the Sanctuary of Fátima. He last visited Fátima in 2017 for the 100th anniversary of the apparitions reported by three shepherd children.
Three other popes have visited Fátima: Paul VI (1967), John Paul II (1982, 1992 and 2000), and Benedict XVI (2010). Another visit by Francis will most certainly add enthusiasm to the enormous number of pilgrims and tourists from around the world planning to visit the shrine this year.
April 13, the anniversary of the first Marian apparition, and October 13, the anniversary of the so-called Miracle of the Sun, are the most popular visiting dates. Many pilgrims walk long distances to get there. By car, Lisbon is about 1 hr 20 min (128km via the A1) from Fátima. Faro is about 3 hr 10 min away (363 km via the A2).
COMMENT By Len Port
Len Port is a journalist and author based in the Algarve. Follow Len’s reflections on current affairs in Portugal on his blog: algarvenewswatch.blogspot.pt