On Wednesday, the head of the Catholic Church arrived in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon to participate in the first World Youth Day event since the coronavirus pandemic began.
More than 1 million young people from over 200 countries were expected to show up to the global Catholic gathering.
The five-day-long event was launched by Pope Francis’ predecessor to bring together young Catholics — teenagers and those in their early 20s — every two to three years. The last one took place in 2019.
Francis landed at the Figo Madura military air base on Wednesday morning, before heading to a welcoming ceremony hosted by Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.
The 86-year-old pontiff’s visit to Portugal is his first trip since undergoing intestinal surgery in June.
“I will come back rejuvenated” to Rome, Francis told reporters on the plane. He is planning to fly back on Sunday.
During an address to officials and diplomats at the Belem Cultural Center in Lisbon, Pope Francis called on Europe to push for an end to the war in Ukraine.
“For the world needs Europe, the true Europe. It needs Europe’s role as a bridge and peacemaker,” he said.
Francis says abuse victims must ‘always’ be ‘listened to’
Francis was also expected to meet with victims of clergy sexual abuse during his trip.
Thousands of allegations of abuse by members of the Catholic clergy against children across the world have shaken the Catholic Church to its core and led to believers abandoning the church in their droves.
Speaking to clergy at Lisbon’s vast Jeronimos Monastery on Wednesday, Francis said that the sex abuse scandals had “marred” the Church and sparked “disappointment and anger” among believers.
These scandals “call us to a humble and ongoing purification, starting with the anguished cry of the victims, who must always be accepted and listened to,” he said.
Thousands of cases, systemic cover-up
Overnight, just before the pope’s arrival, victims’ advocates put up a large billboard raising awareness of the extent of sexual abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church.
A Portuguese commission published a report six months ago saying that there had been at least 4,815 cases of sexual abuse of minors by clergy since 1950, mostly aged between 10 and 14. It also pointed to systematic efforts to suppress this information within the Church, as has been standard in most countries where such cases were investigated.
“There will be young people from all over the world and the reality [of abuse] is present in all continents,” Filipa Almeida — who was abused by a priest when she was 17 — told Reuters news agency. “It’s a great opportunity for the Church to do something.”
The event has also come under fire for its high cost in one of Europe’s poorest countries. Some 16,000 members of law enforcement had been deployed and roads and metro stations in the city of 500,000 people were closed down.
Reuters also reported that rights groups and political parties had accused the city government of removing homeless people from the street, a claim the government rejected.