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In Portugal for WYD, Pope urges Europe to recover its ‘youthful heart’

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Pope Francis and Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa arrive at the Belém Cultural Center in Lisbon, Aug. 2, 2023, for a meeting with government and political leaders, diplomats and representatives of civil society. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

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LISBON, Portugal — Arriving at the edge of the European continent for World Youth Day, Pope Francis urged Portuguese officials to return to their maritime roots by setting sail toward new horizons of hope and helping build a Europe “capable of recovering its youthful heart.”

“It is my hope that World Youth Day may be, for the ‘Old Continent,’ we can say the elderly continent” — he ad-libbed with a smile — “an impulse toward universal openness.”

At a meeting at the Belém Cultural Center in Lisbon shortly after his arrival in the Portuguese capital Aug. 2, the pope addressed Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, other government and political leaders, diplomats and representatives of civil society.

In the face of injustice, wars and the climate and migration crises, he said, the world “needs Europe’s role as a bridge and peacemaker.”

The pope fought through coughs at the beginning of his speech but otherwise appeared in good health. And on the flight to Portugal, he walked up and down the aisle of the plane to greet journalists rather than remaining seated, as he has done on some occasions.

Before leaving his residence, the pope kicked off the 42nd international trip of his pontificate by meeting with a group of young people from a rehabilitation facility unable to travel to World Youth Day and with three pairs of grandparents with their grandchildren.

On the three-hour flight to Portugal, the 86-year-old pope told journalists that his trip to World Youth Day will “make me young again,” and that young people “will continue to shake things up” in society and the church, a callback to his 2013 speech to young people during his first trip as pope to World Youth Day in Río de Janeiro.

Two Portuguese children gave the pope flowers under overcast and drizzling skies upon his arrival at the Figo Maduro Air Base in Lisbon where he was welcomed on the tarmac by the Portuguese president.

People cheered as the pope passed them in a small white Toyota, and they waved flags — mainly Portuguese, Brazilian and Vatican flags — along the four-mile route leading to the National Palace of Belém, the official residence of the president of Portugal. There, the pope had a half-hour meeting with the president.

Addressing Portuguese officials and representatives of civil society at the Belém Cultural Center, the pope posed a question to Europe: “Where are you sailing, if you are not showing the world paths of peace, creative ways for bringing an end to the war in Ukraine and to the many other conflicts causing so much bloodshed?”

He repeated his question to the West in general, “On what course are you sailing?” he asked, noting its “highly sophisticated weapons, which do not represent investments for the future but a depletion of its authentic human capital: that of education, health, the welfare state.”

Speaking off-the-cuff, the pope said an economist recently told him that the “best” investment one can make is in arms manufacturing. “There is more investment in arms than in the future of children,” he said.

“Where are you sailing, Europe and the West, with the discarding of the elderly, walls of barbed wire, massive numbers of deaths at sea and empty cradles?” he asked returning to his prepared text. He also criticized the “hasty but mistaken remedies” to life’s problems offered by Western societies, “like easy access to death, a convenient answer that seems sweet but is in fact more bitter than the waters of the sea.”

The pope lamented the developed world’s “creeping utilitarianism” which abandons the unborn and elderly, recalling “the great challenge of welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating those who come from afar and knock on our doors, and the isolation felt by so many families that find it hard to bring children into the world and raise them.”

“Lisbon,” however, “gives us a reason to hope,” the pope said.

“At a time when we are witnessing on many sides a climate of protest and unrest, a fertile terrain for forms of populism and conspiracy theories, World Youth Day represents a chance to build together,” he said.

Pope Francis identified three areas where he urged people to work together: caring for the environment, creating a promising future for young people and promoting fraternity.

The ocean just beyond Lisbon’s coast “reminds us that human life is meant to be an integrated part of an environment greater than ourselves, one that must be protected and watched over with care and concern for the sake of future generations,” he said. Yet humanity is “transforming the great reserves of life into dumping grounds for plastic.”

“How can we claim to believe in young people, if we do not give them healthy spaces in which to build the future?” the pope asked.

Pope Francis also listed many of the problems young people encounter as they enter adulthood: “lack of jobs, the dizzying pace of contemporary life, hikes in the cost of living, the difficulty of finding housing and, even more disturbing, the fear of forming families and bringing children into the world.”

Reflecting trends across the West, Portugal has suffered from declining fertility rates for decades, now reaching 1.4 births per woman according to the World Bank — well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

“The future,” Pope Francis said, “calls for reversing the fall in the birth rate and the weakening of the will to live,” which he said involves “correcting the imbalances of a market economy that produces wealth but fails to distribute it.”

On fraternity, the pope said that young people, “with their pleas for peace and their thirst for life,” are an example of breaking down barriers between people with different opinions and creeds.

World Youth Day organizers expect more than 1 million people to travel to Lisbon from more than 200 countries for the six-day international gathering. Pope Francis was scheduled to celebrate the closing Mass Aug. 6.

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