Lisbon — A beaming Pope Francis arrived in Lisbon on Wednesday for a gathering of some one million youths from around the world as the Catholic Church reflects on its future, greeted by Portuguese leaders and children bearing flowers.
The 86-year-old pontiff underwent major abdominal surgery just two months ago, but that did not stop his 42nd trip abroad, an event-packed visit with 11 speeches and around 20 meetings scheduled.
The Argentine Jesuit, whose direct and spontaneous style has proved highly popular with young people, is expected to address youth-focused themes, from ecology and social justice to the war in Ukraine.
“I will come back rejuvenated” to Rome, Francis told reporters in Italian aboard the plane.
I ask you to accompany me with prayer on my Journey to Portugal for World Youth Day. To the Virgin Mary, shining star of the Christian journey who is highly venerated in Portugal, I entrust the #WYD pilgrims and all the young people of the world.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) August 1, 2023
The five-day event, called World Youth Day, comes as Francis attempts to galvanise young Catholics at a time when secularism and priest paedophilia scandals cause some to abandon pews in Europe.
The pope, who now uses a wheelchair or walking stick to get around, arrived at Lisbon’s military airport at 9:45 am (08:45 GMT).
Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, a conservative practicing Catholic, met him at the plane, along with two children who gave the pontiff a bouquet of white flowers.
In return the pope gave each child a rosary.
He will then sit down with the president at Belem Palace before delivering his first speech at a nearby culture centre before diplomats and local authorities.
Several hundred pilgrims gathered outside the palace to welcome the pontiff, many beating drums or waving their national flags.
“We are the pope’s youths!” they shouted.
🕊 PRECISAMOS PROTEGER NOSSOS JOVENS PELO MUNDO
“Pope Francis arrives at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport and boards the papal plane as he begins his Apostolic Journey to Portugal to take part in World Youth Day in Lisbon.” #WYDLisbon #PopeFrancis pic.twitter.com/mAlJ61qSwD
— VIRGÍNIA 🦋 (@vimeirim) August 2, 2023
“He knows how to get our ear and makes us very happy,” Samuel Namaver Delcif, a 17-year-old student from the United States, told AFP, adding that the first Latin American pope was able to “connect with different people”.
“He likes contact, to joke… he makes a lot of soccer references, basketball references.”
Organisers expect a million people from over 200 countries for the week of festive, cultural and spiritual events, which opened Tuesday with a huge mass on top of a hill overlooking the city and the Tagus river.
Pilgrims carrying flags thronged the streets of the capital, where roads were hung with banners and posters featuring the event’s yellow, green and red logo.
With under two months to go before a global gathering in Rome on the future of the Church, the festival also serves as a barometer of young Catholics’ opinions on hot-button issues.
Francis has tentatively outlined potential reforms to the Church during his papacy, including on the place of LGBTQ people and women, and whether priests can marry.
The pope, elected by his peers in 2013, will spend Wednesday meeting authorities and clergy in the country, where 80 percent of the 10 million inhabitants identify as Catholic.
He may talk about the clerical child sex abuse scandal in Portugal, which was the subject of a shock report published in February by a commission of independent experts.
It found “at least” 4 815 children were sexually abused by clergy members in the country – mostly priests – since 1950, and the crimes were “systemically” hushed up by Portugal’s church hierarchy.
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According to the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference and a local organising committee, Francis will meet abuse victims privately, though it has not yet been included in the official programme.
A closing mass will be held by the pope on Sunday at a waterside park on the outskirts of Lisbon.
Around 16 000 members of law enforcement, civil protection and medical staff are being deployed for the pope’s visit, officials said.
World Youth Day, created in 1986 by John Paul II, is the largest Catholic gathering in the world and will feature a wide range of events, including concerts and prayer sessions.
This edition, initially scheduled for August 2022 but postponed because of the pandemic, will be the fourth for Francis after Rio de Janeiro in 2013, Krakow in 2016 and Panama in 2019.
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