VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI’s four-day visit to Portugal will focus on spiritual, political and economic questions seen as crucial for the country and the rest of modern Europe.
The May 11-14 trip is first of all a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Fatima, where three young shepherd children had visions of Mary in 1917. In the pope’s view, Mary’s appearances in human history are an important sign for the church and the world, a much-needed invitation to conversion.
On a political level, the German pontiff will visit Portugal at a time when cultural change is challenging the country’s Catholic identity. Most specifically, the country appears poised to legalize same-sex marriage, but on a broader level, church leaders are concerned about erosion of traditional moral values, especially among the young.
Finally, the pope’s visit coincides with an economic downturn in Portugal that has threatened to make it the next crisis zone in the European Union. The pope will have an opportunity to revisit one of his favorite themes: European unity built solely on financial interests is bound to fail.
The schedule in Portugal is a demanding one for the 83-year-old pope, with 17 major events and at least 11 speeches. His busiest day, May 12, will include separate meetings in Lisbon with cultural leaders and Prime Minister Jose Socrates, followed by a helicopter trip to Fatima for events that will last well into the night.
On May 13, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, the pope will celebrate Mass outside the shrine and afterward go inside to visit the tombs of the three shepherd visionaries. His visit marks the 10th anniversary of the beatification of two of the seers, Blesseds Francisco and Jacinta Marto.
There has been speculation that during the visit that the pope may announce the future beatification of Carmelite Sister Lucia dos Santos, the only one of the Fatima visionaries to survive to adulthood. She died in 2005 and two years ago the pope lifted the normal five-year waiting period to begin her canonization process.
As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, the pope was often a voice of caution when it came to apparitions and supernatural messages. In 2000, however, he played a central role when the Vatican published the so-called third secret of Fatima; Cardinal Ratzinger said the secret, written down by Sister Lucia after Mary’s appearances, made sense as a symbolic prophecy of the church’s 20th-century struggles against evil political systems.
The future pope at that time described such apparitions as “interior visions” that were not mere fantasy and that reflected Mary’s continuing role in the church: that of intervening in support of the saving mission of her son. These are typically fleeting appearances to humble people, he said, and they rely on powerful symbolic images and language rather than “lengthy speeches.”
In Fatima, the pope is expected to talk about the relevance of such visions in modern society. He will also pray for his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who believed that Mary had saved his life after he was shot May 13, 1981 – the feast of Our Lady of Fatima.
Pope Benedict will begin his visit in Lisbon, the capital, where he will be welcomed by President Anibal Cavaco Silva, who will later host the pope for private talks. Silva, a Catholic, is in a tough political spot. He must decide by May 19 whether to veto a same-sex marriage bill approved by lawmakers in February.
The pope has made it clear that he sees such legislation as part of Europe’s moral unraveling and as an attack on the natural order of creation. Speaking to diplomats in January, he denounced “laws or proposals which, in the name of fighting discrimination, strike at the biological basis of the difference between the sexes.”
Portuguese Social Democrats, led by Prime Minister Socrates, say they have enough votes to override a presidential veto on the same-sex marriage law.
About 90 percent of Portugal’s population professes Catholicism, but the church’s declining influence in public policy was seen in 2007, when abortion was legalized. The country’s dropping birth rate, one of the lowest in the world, also worries church leaders.
Portuguese bishops are looking to the pope to help the church reclaim its rightful voice in the public arena and to fire up the troops – the church’s pastoral workers. In one important and somewhat unusual encounter, the pope will address Catholics who work in the church’s social programs, offering him a chance to preach his message that Christianity is essentially love of God and love of neighbor, expressed in concrete actions.
Portugal’s economic problems have already triggered austerity measures and a series of strikes, as well as resentment over the expected dip in the standard of living. The larger questions being raised in Greece, Portugal and Spain concern the future of the European Union itself.
Pope Benedict has long maintained that Europe’s newfound unity will not survive on economics alone. He has also criticized the trend toward denying the Judeo-Christian roots of European culture.
As the pope said in 2007: “One cannot think about building a ‘common European home’ ignoring the identity of the people of our continent. In fact, it is a matter of a historical, cultural and moral identity, even more than a geographical, economic and political one.”
If, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, the recent economic woes have placed the future of the European Union at stake, one can expect the pope to weigh in at this critical juncture.