Portugal’s moment of glory is upon us. As we write, the country is assailed by World Youth Day fever. Over a million young pilgrims from all over the world have arrived on national territory and are converged in Lisbon, to ‘meet the Pope’ (if only via a massive video screen set up along the transformed riverside venues, created especially for this frenetic week).
The message all the way through has been how “today’s youth are the future” – a message so obvious one could question why there is the need to spend well over €150 million celebrating the fact.
But as columnists agree, this particular World Youth Day (delayed as a result of the pandemic) is perhaps not so much about today’s youth, but about moving on (or certainly trying to move forwards) from the image of the past in which the Church was far too connected to the horrors of child sexual abuse.
On Monday, still preparing for the ‘grand opening’ of World Youth Day, Lisbon’s Cardinal Patriarch found himself quizzed about three large billboards mounted specially for the event, alluding to the “more than 4,800 children abused by the Catholic Church in Portugal”.
Referring to rights of people to demonstrate “as long as they comply with the law”, the cardinal-patriarch stressed that Pope Francis intends to use World Youth Day to have meetings with victims of the sexual abuse (painstakingly uncovered by the Independent Commission set up for this purpose two years ago) – but that these meetings will be “so secret” that even he doesn’t know “where and how they will take place”.
The country’s politicians have managed to steer clear of the subject, instead focusing on the “enormous return” World Youth Day is expected to have for Portugal as a country.
Newspaper articles detailing a worrying slew of ‘direct-contracts’ awarded in the last few months leading up to the event have been batted aside. There has never been any major event in Portugal “where discussions and controversies have not been the same”, the prime minister told reporters in an episode described by State news agency Lusa as the head of government “downplaying the costs associated” with World Youth Day’s organisation – costs which run into as yet unspecified millions of euros. In the government’s and local municipalities’ eyes, the money spent will be worth every last ‘cêntimo’. This event will give the country “unimaginable projection” – and the fruits of this projection “will continue over time”.
Leader writers accept that the hundreds of thousands of young people taking part are actually unlikely to be any more brilliant or humanitarian-minded than previous generations, but that the Church may well be able to draw a line over the past in this mega moment in Lisbon. World Youth Day is “an opportunity for redemption”, suggests the editorial director general of Correio da Manhã, a newspaper that has been getting into the spirit of the week by giving its readers all kinds of papal souvenirs.
Meantime, the logistics of the week are ‘assured’/ ‘prepared’ and the message from the various authorities is “let’s now enjoy it”. As long as you are not among the many thousands of residents living within earshot of the airport (which is allowing unlimited night flights to cope with the demands of World Youth Day), this is all that anyone can do at this point.
There will always be little niggles. For instance, the Angolan delegation that had beseeched its pilgrims “not to flee” when they arrived here: “The European dream is no longer the same”, the national director of the Youth Pastoral of the Episcopal Conference of Angola and São Tomé warned – has seen 106 boys and girls promptly vamoose. The Leiria diocese, which had been expecting them, has had to admit none of them ever turned up.
Missing too is a pilgrim from the Congo, while pilgrims from Egypt have already fallen out amongst themselves, engaging in an unseemly punch-up within the Church of Our Lady of Fátima. Fortunately, the timely arrival of PSP agents calmed the situation down and as of Tuesday the fervour to ‘meet’ the Pope and take part in this event was in colourful full swing.
One of the real plus-points for Lisbon residents (and those in municipalities like Loures) is that the transformed riverside will remain for future enjoyment. In fact, another €3.5 million is to be spent on Parque Tejo (which had previously been a container-storage area) to enhance it for use by city-dwellers and visitors.
And by Sunday evening, it will be ‘all over’. The Pope is due to have his last public appearance on Sunday afternoon, to thank the many thousands of volunteers who helped make the event possible, and finally be able to return to the Vatican.
This will be a punishing schedule for a man of 86 with health and mobility issues, but the tight security detail around him, and the comforts of the ‘popemobile’, should be able to ensure as easy a ride as possible.
On Friday, his Holiness is expected to visit one of the capital’s poorest neighbourhoods. He won’t be meeting with very many of the residents, to the dismay of the area’s priest, but it will still be a ‘high moment’ of their week. Expresso carried a thought-provoking article about the residents of neighbourhoods, known as bairros, in Lisbon – many of whom live without bathrooms or running water. It is for these people that artist Bordalo II breached ‘security’ at the grand altar stage in Parque Eduardo VII last weekend to roll-out a carpet imprinted with images of €500 euro notes. He told reporters later, he felt the millions spent on World Youth Day would be so much better spent on families living in grinding poverty – families who will still be living in grinding poverty when the World Youth Day farrago has had its moment in the spotlight and everyone has returned to their home countries (at least, more or less everyone…)