A Catholic Church that has grown weary in countries shaken by the clerical sexual abuse crisis and cultural trends toward secularism must look anew to Jesus to revive their “restless” enthusiasm for sharing the Gospel, Pope Francis said.
“Now is the God-given time of grace to sail boldly into the sea of evangelisation and of mission,” the pope told Portuguese bishops, priests, religious and pastoral workers after praying vespers at the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon on 2 August, the first day of his trip to Portugal.
Using a wheelchair, the pope entered the 16th-century monastery to great applause, and the cheers that erupted when he stood to greet those present resembled those echoing from the pop concert taking place across the street for World Youth Day.
Pope Francis was greeted by Bishop José Ornelas Carvalho of Leiria-Fátima, president of the country’s bishops’ conference, before leading the prayer. In his homily, the pope reflected on the passage from St Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus gets into the disciples’ fishing boat and invites them to let their nets down in deep water for a catch.
Just as those fishermen didn’t catch anything before Jesus’ arrival, “there are moments in our ecclesial journey when we can feel a similar weariness—weariness—when we seem to be holding only empty nets,” he said, noting how such a situation is common in countries with a long-standing Christian tradition but are now experiencing a “growing detachment from the practice of the faith.”
Often, he added, the reality of waning church participation in those countries is accentuated by the disappointment and anger people feel toward the church due to “our poor witness and the scandals that have marred her face and call us to a humble and ongoing purification, starting with the anguished cry of the victims, who must always be accepted and listened to.”
In February, an independent report commissioned by the Portuguese bishops’ conference found that at least 4,815 minors were abused by members of the church in Portugal between 1960-2022, sparking harsh criticism against the church within the country.
Brother Antão Caunan, a Hospitaller of St John of God who attended the vespers, told Catholic News Service he was “very joyful” about Pope Francis’ visit to Portugal, but hoped the pope would talk about the abuse crisis in his homily.
Brother Caunan is from Timor-Leste and for five years has been serving his religious community in Portugal, where, he said, the abuse revelations have “changed the perception of ordinary people toward the church” and eroded their trust in the institution.
The pope in his homily urged Portugal’s Catholic community to “bring those struggles and tears to the Lord, in order then to respond to pastoral and spiritual needs, together, with open hearts.”
Pope Francis said the first step is to develop a strong faith—and that cannot be done by reciting certain words, “blah, blah, blah,” or taking a nap in the sacristy, he said jokingly. He recommended partaking in silent adoration to “truly rediscover our taste and passion for evangelisation” that is “without ideologies or forms of worldliness.”
With several Missionaries of Charity sitting in the front rows near the pope, he recalled how Mother Theresa always went to adoration even through her most difficult crises of faith.
The pope also urged people to “work together in offering pastoral care,” offering the synodal principles of “communion, mutual assistance and shared journey. That is the aim of the current synod.”
Looking at the crowd, he said the church must announce the Gospel to everyone—”everyone, everyone, everyone”—and insisted the church “should not be a customs office to select who passes and who doesn’t.”
Maritza Barros, a youth coordinator in Madeira, Portugal, told CNS that some of the 1,000 young people she brought to Lisbon for World Youth Day are thought to be judgmental by their non-Catholic friends for believing in God, and that they respond well to the pope’s invitation “to make their faith accessible to all.”
The pope’s visit to Portugal, coupled with World Youth Day, will “brush the dust off the pews” for young people in the church.
Pope Francis urged church workers in Portugal to continue lowering their nets and being a light in a world that has “lost a sense of enthusiasm, the courage to dream, the strength to confront challenges and to be confident about the future.”
To a roar of laughter, the pope ended his homily by entrusting the Portuguese Catholic community to Our Lady of Fátima and St. Anthony, who was born in Lisbon but “was stolen by those of Padua.”