LISBON – Pope Francis led an estimated 800,000 people in a meditation on the scourges of violence, poverty and intolerance Friday at World Youth Day, as the Portuguese government weighed in on an incident of intolerance directed at LGBTQ+ pilgrims attending the big Catholic youth festival.
Lisbon's central Eduardo VII park was packed for Francis' evening Way of the Cross prayer, one of the most solemn events in the days-long gathering. St. John Paul II launched these festivals of faith in the 1980s to try to inspire the next generation of Catholics, and young people from around the world have flocked to Lisbon in droves for Francis' first edition since the coronavirus pandemic.
Francis had to quiet them down as the crowd erupted in the traditional World Youth Day chant of “This is the youth of the pope,” when he arrived on stage at sunset. He seemed to want to get right down to the seriousness of the dramatic re-creation of Christ's crucifixion, urging them to "think of your own suffering, your own miseries, fears, desires."
Saying there was no greater love than dying for others, as Jesus did, he urged them to not be afraid of loving. “Loving is a risk, but a risk worth taking.”
After he spoke, the crowd was led in prayer though a series of meditations that touched on problems facing young people today: violence, addiction, social media pressures, broken families, economic crises, intolerance and alienation.
The prayer took place against the backdrop of an incident of intolerance against LGBTQ+ Catholics attending World Youth Day that took on greater weight Friday when the Socialist government issued a statement demanding that pilgrims respect one another.
According to participants, a group of about 10 people, reciting the Lord's Prayer in Latin and holding up crucifixes, tried to disrupt a Mass being celebrated in a Lisbon church for members of the LGBTQ+ Catholic community. According to the presiding priest, the Rev. Jose Nunes, the LGBTQ+ group was wary of possible trouble and had tipped off the police, who were keeping watch and led the protesters away after the Mass incident, Nunes told Portuguese radio station TSF.
Police did not immediately respond to an AP request for details of the incident.
In a statement Friday, Portugal's secretary of state for equality and migrations, Isabel Almeida Rodrigues, called for respect of the human rights of LGBTQ+ people, noting that such principles are enshrined in the Portuguese Constitution.
“Bearing in mind that unfortunately this was not a unique episode in this World Youth Day — which summons all people to a common goal in the fight against hate speech and violence against all people — it is important to remember that people LGBTI+ are among the most stigmatized groups of people and the target of episodes of violence, based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and sexual characteristics,” the statement said.
Minority rights and liberal issues have been a political banner of Portugal’s center-left Socialist Party. In power for the past eight years, the government has pushed through laws allowing abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia in this mostly Catholic country.
The incident at the Mass came as Francis has emphasized the inclusive message of the church that he has championed throughout his 10-year papacy. During the World Youth Day opening ceremony on Thursday, he told the crowd that “in the church, there is room for everyone.” He led the crowd of a half-million people in a chant of “todos, todos, todos” or “everyone, everyone, everyone” to make his point.
That message of inclusivity has resonated in particular with LGBTQ+ Catholics, who have long felt ostracized by a church that considers homosexual activity “intrinsically disordered.” Francis, though, has offered a message of welcome to LGBTQ+ Catholics, starting from his very first World Youth Day in 2013, when he famously said “Who am I to judge,” when asked about a purportedly gay priest.
Dignity USA, a group of LGBTQ+ Catholics, has a delegation in Lisbon and said overall the reception had been positive, with a few moments of tension, including the Mass incident.
“We’ve been able to trade our rainbow pens, our rainbow prayer cards,” member Sam Barnes said Friday. But a transgender participant in the Mass, who identified herself as Victoria, said the liturgical protest was an unfortunate reminder of the problems LGBTQ+ Catholics face.
“It’s important that everyone, independent of their sexuality, can have their faith and their relation with God,” Victoria said, adding that despite such incidents she has felt very accepted in Lisbon.
In another incident captured on social media and broadcast on Portuguese television, two World Youth Day participants told a transgender participant to put away her flag.
The Mass had been organized by the Centro Arcoiris, an offshoot of a much larger Portuguese LGBTQ+ Catholic group called Sopro. They set up a “Rainbow Center” to welcome LGBTQ+ pilgrims to World Youth Day, outside the official organization.
In an interview published Friday by the Spanish Catholic magazine Vida Nueva, Francis referred to his frequent meetings with members of the transgender community and his message of welcome.
“The first time a group of transsexuals came to the Vatican and saw me, they left weeping, saying I had given them my hand, a kiss, as if I had done something exceptional,” Francis was quoted as saying. “But they're children of God!”
The Rev. James Martin, an American Jesuit who runs an outreach program for LGBTQ+ Catholics, said he had dined in Lisbon with the Arcoiris group the night before the Mass was disrupted. He said they had been looking forward to the liturgy, which he did not attend.
Recalling that the incident occurred on the same day as Francis' “todos, todos, todos” comment, Martin tweeted: “LGBTQ people are part of todos.”
A previous version of this story was corrected to show that the Way of the Cross procession closes the pope's schedule on Friday, not the festival.
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