Richard Owen in Fatima
The gay marriage legislation was recently passed by the Portuguese Parliament and is due to be signed into law by President Cavaco Silva, a conservative Catholic. Portugal will be the sixth European country to take such a step after Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Norway.
Ninety per cent of Portuguese define themselves as Catholic, but Portuguese society is increasingly secular, with well under a third saying they attend mass regularly.
The Pope was speaking after an overflowing open air mass attended by half a million people at the Marian shrine at Fatima, 120 kilometres north of Lisbon, which began in the rain and ended under sunny skies.
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Meeting Catholic charity workers at the shrine, the Pope said the Church’s social doctrine offered an answer to the world’s current “socio-economic, cultural and spiritual crises”.
He offered “deep appreciation” for the efforts of those who helped “people wounded by the drama of abortion”. “Defence of life” and “indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman” were responses to “some of the most insidious and dangerous challenges to the common good”.
Meeting Portuguese bishops, he said the Church could work with a “mature laity” in a complex and changing world, but some politicians, intellectuals and media professionals showed “disdain for the religious and contemplative dimension of life”. There was unfortunately no lack of believers who were “ashamed” of their faith and willing to “lend a hand to secularism”.
The mass, the highlight of the Pope’s four day trip to Portugal, which ends tomorrow, marked the anniversary of the day in 1917 when three shepherd children reported seeing visions of the Virgin Mary as the sun “spun” in the sky.
They claimed the Madonna confided to them three “secrets” foretelling the Second World War, the conversion of Russia to Christianity and the attempt on the life of John Paul II in 1981.
The then Pope believed the Virgin Mary helped save him from the attempted assassination, which took place on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima.
In his homily Benedict XVI dressed in white and gold vestments and sounding hoarse, said “We delude ourselves if we think that the prophetic mission of Fatima has come to an end”.
On the plane from Rome to Lisbon on Tuesday he told reporters the so called Third Secret of Fatima referred not only to the attack on John Paul II by a Turkish gunman on 13 May 1981 but also to the “sufferings of the Church” in general, including the current crisis over clerical sex abuse.
He has not referred directly to the sex abuse scandals in his speeches since setting foot in Portugal, where few abuse cases have so far come to light. However in a policy reversal he acknowledged in his remarks on the plane that the abuse scandals derived not from a conspiracy by the Church’s enemies and the media, as Vatican officials had claimed, but from “sins inside the Church itself”.
At a candlelit evening prayer service on his arrival at Fatima from Lisbon on Wednesday the pontiff said he was bringing the suffering “of a wounded humanity, of the problems of the world” to the shrine, constructed in the 1950s.
Praying before a statue of the Madonna, the Pope referred to the bullet that his predecessor had placed in the statue’s crown in gratitude for her intervention.”It is a profound consolation to know that you are crowned not only with the silver and gold of our joys and hopes but also with the ‘bullet’ of our anxieties and sufferings,” he said.
The cult of the three shepherd children and their visions was first opposed by then-anti clerical Portuguese authorities and viewed with scepticism by the Church. However it flourished after the miraculous nature of the visions was authenticated by the Vatican.
On a visit to Fatima in 2000, Pope John Paul II disclosed the Third Secret and beatified two of the shepherds who had reported apparitions and who died young.The third of the children, Lucia Dos Santos, became a nun and died five years ago. She too is heading for beatification, the step before sainthood.
Many Portuguese pilgrims at Fatima today had walked over a hundred miles (160 km) from towns and villages, and some travelled the last few hundred metres on their knees. Others flocked to Fatima from Spain. Eavan O’Donoghue, an English teacher in Valencia, said she had seen the Pope before “but Fatima holds a special meaning”.
In his homily today, the Pope, 83, told pilgrims they would be returning in seven years time to mark the hundredth anniversary of the apparitions, but did not say whether he expected to be present himself.
He said the “human family” appeared all too ready to “sacrifice its most holy bonds on the altar of the petty egoisms of nation, race and ideology”.
Earlier he told hundreds of priests, nuns and seminarians at the sanctuary that dedication to their calling required “courage and trust”. He told the clergy to be wary of “those situations where there is a certain weakening of priestly ideals or dedication to activities which do not fully accord with what is proper for a minister of Jesus Christ.”
Benedict XVI is the third Pope to visit Fatima, following three trips by John Paul II and one by Pope Paul VI in 1967.