LISBON, Portugal (CNS) – Meeting in a makeshift “Sistine Chapel” painted floor-to ceiling by students, Pope Francis, paintbrush in hand, left a mark on the hearts of young people by telling them not to shy away from the personal crises that come with a life of faith.
“A life without crises is like distilled water, it doesn’t taste of anything,” he told students gathered on August 3 at the centre of the Scholas Occurrentes educational initiative in Cascais, a town some 20 miles outside of Lisbon.
The Pope responded to questions posed by young people from different countries and faith backgrounds in an intimate setting with some 50 people, including Paolo, a 24-year-old Brazilian evangelical who asked the Pope for advice on navigating life’s hardships.
“I don’t want to be a catechist,” the Pope joked in response before explaining the Bible’s creation story, which he said showed how God created the cosmos from chaos. “That’s the journey of each person,” he said, “a life that stays in the chaotic fails, and the life that never felt chaos is distilled – everything is perfect – and distilled lives don’t give life.”
Earlier in the day, the Pope visited the Catholic University of Portugal, where he heard testimonies of young people centred on different teachings of his pontificate. Some 6500 university students, administrators and pilgrims chanted “Esta é a juventude do papa” – “this is the youth of the Pope” – as the Pope approached the stage in the university courtyard.
Speaking to the 700 Portuguese college students present in the crowd, Pope Francis reiterated that message of openness by telling young people that “Christianity cannot be thought of as a fortress surrounded by walls, which raises its bastions against the world”.
Likewise, he said, universities must go beyond their bubble and cannot just “perpetuate the elitist and unequal system of the world, where higher education is a privilege for the few”.
A college degree, the Pope said, cannot be earned solely for “personal well-being”, but is a “mandate to dedicate oneself to a more just and inclusive society.”
Recalling the testimony of Tomás, a 29-year-old theology student who discussed how the Pope’s encyclical on integral ecology had impacted him, Pope Francis told the students, “You are the generation that can beat this challenge” of climate change, but he noted that it is possible only with “a conversion of heart and a change in the anthropological vision that is at the base of the economy and politics”.
“To be a Catholic university, above all, means this: that each element is related with whole, and that the whole is found in parts,” he said before praying an Our Father in Portuguese with the crowd.
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 on his first day in Portugal.
“Now is the God-given time of grace to sail boldly into the sea of evangelization and of mission,” the pope told Portuguese bishops, priests, religious and pastoral workers after praying vespers at the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon on August 2, the first day of his trip to Portugal.
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.”
The Vatican announced later that after vespers Pope Francis met at the nunciature with 13 victims of “abuse by members of the clergy, accompanied by some representatives of Portuguese Church institutions in charge of the protection of minors. The meeting took place in an atmosphere of intense listening and lasted more than an hour, concluding shortly after 8.15pm.”
In February, an independent report commissioned by the Portuguese bishops’ conference found that at least 4815 minors were abused by members of the Church in Portugal between 1960-2022, sparking harsh criticism against the Church within the country.
Fifteen World Youth Day pilgrims from Ukraine, most of whom had lost a father or other close relative in the war, had a private meeting with Pope Francis on August 3.
“After listening to their touching stories, the Pope gave the young people a few words, demonstrating his ‘painful and prayerful’ closeness,” the Vatican press office said after the meeting in the Vatican nunciature in Lisbon.
At the end of the 30-minute meeting, the Vatican said, the Pope and the pilgrims recited the Lord’s Prayer for their war-torn nation.
Speaking to Catholic News Service in Lisbon, Ukrainian Archbishop Borys Gudziak of Philadelphia said the young people told Pope Francis about “what their families have experienced, what the country has experienced” since Russia launched its large-scale attack on Ukraine in February, 2022.
“It led the Holy Father to tears,” said the archbishop, who was not present in the nunciature, but was told about the meeting by people who were there.
Photo: Pope Francis greets the crowd as he leaves after celebrating vespers with Portuguese bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, seminarians and pastoral workers in the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon, Portugal, on August 2, 2023 (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)