A pilgrim in Portugal

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LISBON, Portugal - Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Portugal for a four-day visit and urged its traditionally Catholic population not to close the door to God and religion.

For a humanity too often lacking in love and without hope for salvation, the Gospel still represents "the source of hope," the pope said after landing in Lisbon May 11.

The pope's words reflected growing Church concern that secularization is making inroads in one of Europe's most traditionally Catholic countries. In a talk at Lisbon's airport, he reached out to non-Catholics and nonbelievers, saying the Church was ready to live in a pluralistic society as long as it can give witness to its beliefs.

"The Church is open to cooperating with anyone who does not marginalize or reduce to the private sphere the essential consideration of the meaning of life," he said.

The 83-year-old pontiff looked happy and relaxed as he disembarked form his Alitalia charter flight from Rome. The ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano had forced the sporadic closure of Portuguese airports in recent days and threatened to disrupt the pope's arrival, but the Lisbon airport reopened in time.

He was met by President Anibal Cavaco Silva, a Catholic, who said he hoped the pontiff would bring a message of hope, justice and solidarity to a country that is under serious economic pressure.

The pope's motorcade took him through a residential area of the capital, where thousands of people cheered, waved flags and tossed flower petals along the pope's path. Children released yellow and white balloons as the pope passed by.

The main purpose of Pope Benedict's trip was to visit the sanctuary of Fatima, where Mary appeared to three shepherd children in 1917. At the brief airport ceremony in Lisbon, the pope said he came as a pilgrim to pay tribute to an event that did not depend on the pope or any church authority, but came directly from God.

At Fatima, the pope said, "Heaven itself was opened over Portugal - like a window of hope that God opens when man closes the door to him."

He said Mary had come to remind people that a relationship with God is essential for human beings, part of man's search for truth, goodness and beauty. Faith in Christ, he said, has a logical impact in other spheres.

"From a wise vision of life and of the world, the just ordering of society follows," he said.

The pope said the separation of church and state in Portugal, which followed the Republican revolution a century ago, turned out to be a good thing for the church, challenging its members to live their faith more fully.

"Living amid a plurality of value systems and ethical outlets requires a journey to the core of one's being and to the nucleus of Christianity so as to reinforce the quality of one's witness to the point of sanctity," he said.

For the modern Christian, he added, this mission path can sometimes lead to the "radical choice of martyrdom."

The pope's visit came as cultural and political developments were challenging Portugal's Catholic identity. The country legalized abortion three years ago and appeared poised to legalize same-sex marriage later in May.

Speaking to reporters aboard his plane, the pope said secularization in Portugal was not something new but had taken a more radical turn in recent years. He said it was essential that the church engage in a dialogue with culture, making its voice and its social teachings heard.

President Silva's welcoming speech reflected the growing uneasiness of many Portuguese over the economic future. Portugal's slumping economy has prompted the government to enact an austerity plan, triggering resentment and a series of strikes.

Silva said the country's people were looking to the pope for a message of justice and solidarity, "particularly when the effects of a global economic crisis make themselves felt, at times brutally and unfairly."

"The Portuguese will listen to you," he told the pope.

Aboard his plane, the pope said the current economic crisis had made clear that financial markets cannot operate on pure pragmatism, without a moral and ethical dimension. He said the Church needs to pursue a serious dialogue so that its social teachings make an impact in the economic realm.

The pope was a guest of honor at an elaborate official welcoming ceremony at Lisbon's Hieronymites Monastery, a 16th-century complex from which many of the Portuguese explorers and missionaries set out on their expeditions. After taking a tour of the monastery, the pope entered the ancient monastic church to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

From there, his popemobile was accompanied along Lisbon's main streets by a horseback unit of the Republican National Guard to the presidential palace, where the pope held private talkes with Silva.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010