U.S. News

Pope to convey message of hope in Portugal

BARRY HATTON|Associated Press Writer

Pope Benedict XVI will deliver a message of hope for Europeans gripped by an economic crisis during his four-day trip to Portugal this week, a senior church official said Monday.

The pontiff intends to speak about "the joy of faith and hope" as a remedy for the gloom of financial hardship, said Carlos Azevedo, the auxiliary bishop of Lisbon and the visit's coordinator.

"The moral values guiding the economy and politics show that there is a spiritual crisis," Azevedo told a news conference, adding: "Europe needs to be awoken."

The pontiff, who arrives Tuesday in Lisbon, has been alert to the social problems caused by the economic crisis. His 2009 encyclical "Charity in Truth" specifically addressed the global financial meltdown and he has repeatedly urged leaders to ensure the world's poor don't bear the brunt of the financial pain.

Benedict says the downturn shows the need to rethink the purpose of the global financial system.

The pope will convey "a message of hope which says it is possible, if we are guided by ethical and spiritual values, to find paths to a new future," Azevedo said.

The pontiff will also visit the famous Catholic shrine at Fatima, in central Portugal, and Porto, the country's No. 2 city.

The timing of his visit has proved apt as Portugal, western Europe's poorest country, has become one of the main casualties of the continent's economic troubles.

Portugal's economic growth has been pedestrian for years, averaging less than 1 percent between 2001-2008, and the global downturn brought a steep contraction of 2.7 percent last year.

The result is that last year around 342,000 people took home the minimum salary of just €475 ($615) a month. That was roughly double the number who earned that much in 2006. The average Portuguese salary is estimated at around €900 ($1,160) a month.

A three-year austerity plan to ease the country's crippling debt load is expected to bring greater hardship to a people already feeling the pinch.

The Catholic church provides welfare programs and food handouts for the needy. Portuguese bishops last year called attention to what they called "scandalous levels of misery."

Benedict is also expected to address the drift in Portugal, and in much of western Europe, away from church teaching on key issues.

Portugal's center-left Socialist government passed a law in 2007 allowing abortion on demand. In 2008, it introduced a law allowing a judge to grant a divorce even if one of the spouses is opposed. In January, Parliament passed a bill seeking to make the country the sixth in Europe allowing same-sex couples to marry. Conservative President Anibal Cavaco Silvo now has to decide whether to veto or ratify the bill.

Azevedo said one of the pope's main themes in Portugal would be the need "to awaken slumbering Christians and also, to some extent, a Europe whose values have become somewhat decadent, to different values."

Portugal is nearly 90 percent Catholic, but only around 2 million of the country's 10.6 million people describe themselves as practicing Catholics.

Religious sentiment, however, runs deep. At least 500,000 people are expected to attend the pope's Mass in Fatima on May 13, the anniversary of the day in 1917 when three Portuguese shepherd children reported having visions of the Virgin Mary.

The visit to Fatima, where Benedict will spend two nights, is the centerpiece of his trip. On Friday morning he will celebrate a Mass in Porto's main downtown avenue before returning to the Vatican.


On the Net:

Papal visit in various languages: www.bentoxviportugal.pt.

Official Fatima shrine page: www.fatima.pt