RELIGION
07/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pope To Tackle Secularism In Portugal Trip

By Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY (RNS) When Pope Benedict XVI travels to Portugal next week (May 11-14), the primary purpose will be to worship at the world-famous shrine to the Virgin Mary at Fatima.

Yet the pope is also likely to use the four-day visit to address top-level concerns, including the Catholic Church's crisis over clerical sex abuse, and the growing secularization of European society.

The pope will preside over observances at Fatima on Thursday (May 13) to mark the 93rd anniversary of the first of six reported apparitions witnessed by three shepherd children who reportedly saw, and heard prophecies from, the Virgin Mary in 1917.

Before visiting Fatima, Benedict will meet in the capital city of Lisbon with distinguished figures from Portuguese culture, including Manoel de Oliveira, 101, the oldest active filmmaker in the world, whose latest movie will be released this year.

In the past, Benedict has chosen encounters with European scholars and artists to urge a rediscovery of the Christian roots of Western culture.

At a briefing for reporters on Tuesday (May 4), the Vatican's top spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, suggested the state and future of Europe could be a major theme of Benedict's remarks in Portugal.

During his visit, Benedict will also speak to Portuguese bishops, and to representatives of the country's clergy, religious sisters and social workers.

Particularly in his meetings with bishops and priests, the pope may refer to the international scandal over clerical sex abuse, even though the recent focus of that scandal has been on Benedict's native Germany and other northern European countries, not Portugal.

Even if Benedict chooses not to raise the subject of sex abuse, it could well come up on Tuesday (May 11), when the Vatican has said the pope will hold an in-flight press conference en route to Lisbon.

The outbound leg of an international trip is practically the only occasion when reporters can ask questions directly of the pope. On Benedict's last such trip, to Malta in April, he instead made a brief statement that described the church as "wounded by our sins."

In his news conference and during the ensuing visit, Benedict is likely to criticize Portugal's pending legislation to legalize same-sex marriage. Parliament voted in February to give same-sex couples all the rights of marriage except the right to adopt children; President Anibal Cavaco Silva, a practicing Catholic, has yet to sign the bill into law.

Portugal is 84.5 percent Catholic, according to the 2001 census, but a 2005 survey found that only 27 percent of Catholics there regularly attend Mass.

Even so, the Fatima shrine is Portugal's most famous export to the wider church. The shrine of Fatima, built on the site of the visions, is one of Catholicism's most visited sanctuaries, drawing up to 5 million pilgrims every year.

Pope John Paul II credited the Madonna of Fatima with saving his life after he was shot in St. Peter's Square on May 13, 1981--the 64th anniversary of the first reported apparition.

In the so-called Third Secret of Fatima, revealed in 2000, the Virgin reportedly prophesied about a bishop "clothed in white" who "falls to the ground apparently dead, under a burst of gunfire." One of the bullets that failed to kill John Paul is now at the shrine, inside a crown atop a statue of the Virgin.

In 2000, John Paul beatified two of the visionaries, the sister and brother Jacinta and Francisco Marto, placing them one step from sainthood.

Their cousin Sister Lucia de Jesus dos Santos, who died in 2005 at age 97, is currently being considered for the same distinction. In 2008, Benedict exempted her from the usual five-year waiting period between a death and the start of the process toward beatification.