In what was surely one of the shortest papal addresses in history, Pope Benedict thus greeted a group of young people as they gathered outside the Apostolic Nunciature in Lisbon at the end of his first day in Portugal.
“Thank you for your joyful witness to Christ, who is eternally young, and thank you for the kindness you have shown to his humble Vicar on earth by gathering here this evening. You have come to wish me good night and from my heart I thank you; but now you must let me go and sleep, otherwise the night will not be good, and tomorrow awaits us.”
Earlier in the evening, he celebrated Mass in the square is still commonly known as Terreiro do Paço (Palace Square), because it was the site of the Royal Ribeira Palace, destroyed by the great 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. Rebuilt and named the Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square), the square was, on 1 February 1908, the scene of the assassination of the penultimate King of Portugal, Carlos I, whose heir was mortally wounded. Two years later, the Republican party overthrew the monarchy.
Portugal has produced many saints in its history. Both St Anthony of Padua and ‘the Portuguese St Francis Xavier’ and great Jesuit missionary to India, St John de Brito, were born in Lisbon in 1195 and 1647 respectively. St John of God, founder of the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God, who care for the sick in countries around the world, is yet another Portuguese who devoted his life to God’s service. The Pope had these saints and many others in mind as he spoke at the Mass in Terreiro do Paço, saying:
“These words of the risen Christ take on a particular significance in this city of Lisbon, from which generations upon generations of Christians – bishops, priests, consecrated and lay persons, men and women, young and not so young – have journeyed forth in great numbers in obedience to the Lord’s call… Portugal has gained a glorious place among the nations for the service rendered to the spreading of the faith: in all five continents there are local churches that owe their origin to Portuguese missionary activity.”
Indeed, he listed some by name as examples of Portugal’s great tradition:
“This countless multitude includes not only Saints Verissimus, Maxima and Julia, martyred here during the persecution of Diocletian, Saint Vincent, deacon and martyr, the principal patron of the Patriarchate, Saint Anthony and Saint John of Brito who set off from here to sow God’s good seed in other lands and among other peoples, and Saint Nuno of Santa Maria, whom I added to the ranks of the Saints just over a year ago…”
There have been many times during the five years of Benedict’s papacy when he has spoken of Europe’s Christian heritage and has urged the Continent to look at its roots when legislating on behalf of the individual countries and on behalf of the European Union. This challenge to ‘go back to the origins’ was one of the major thrusts of Vatican II. It is also a challenge that the Holy Father offered the people of Portugal in the country’s role within the EU.
“Today, as you play your part in building up the European Community, you offer the contribution of your cultural and religious identity… Focussing her attention upon her own saints, this local Church has rightly concluded that today’s pastoral priority is to make each Christian man and woman a radiant presence of the Gospel perspective in the midst of the world, in the family, in culture, in the economy, in politics.”
The Holy Father did not lose sight of the fact that we live in an increasingly secular world in which, even in Catholic countries such as Portugal, it cannot be taken for granted that everybody has a religious faith and will act according to Christian principles:
“Often we are anxiously preoccupied with the social, cultural and political consequences of the faith, taking for granted that faith is present, which unfortunately is less and less realistic. Perhaps we have placed an excessive trust in ecclesial structures and programmes, in the distribution of powers and functions; but what will happen if salt loses its flavour?”
The Pope’s words were somewhat reminiscent of the Vatican II document on the Church in the Modern World. Since Benedict was one of the German theologians present at the time of the Council, he is fully aware of the struggle the Council fathers faced in abbreviating into a couple of sentences the global situation that is as real today as it was in 1965:
“Never has the human race enjoyed such an abundance of wealth, resources and economic power, and yet a huge proportion of the world’s citizens are still tormented by hunger and poverty, while countless numbers suffer from total illiteracy. Never before has man had so keen an understanding of freedom, yet at the same time new forms of social and psychological slavery make their appearance… humanity painstakingly searches for a better world, without a corresponding spiritual advancement.” Gaudium et spes: 4
Yet, in spite of the problems, joy and hope are to be found in becoming witnesses to Jesus and to his joy:
“Never doubt his presence! Always seek the Lord Jesus, grow in friendship with him. Receive him in communion. Learn to listen to his word and also to recognize him in the poor. Live your lives with joy and enthusiasm, sure of his presence and of his unconditional, generous friendship, faithful even to death on the cross. Bear witness to all of the joy that his strong yet gentle presence evokes, starting with your contemporaries. Tell them that it is beautiful to be a friend of Jesus and that it is well worth following him. With your enthusiasm, demonstrate that, among all the different ways of life that the world today seems to offer us – apparently all on the same level – the only way in which we find the true meaning of life and hence true and lasting joy, is by following Jesus.”