Pope Benedict XVI is on the road again. Less than a month after his visit to Malta he will travel to Portugal May 11-14 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the beatification of Francisco and Jacinta Marto, the shepherd children who received visions of Our Lady at Fátima.  

He will encounter a country with a rich heritage of Catholicism that, like its European neighbors, is suffering from the spread of a secular mind-set.  

Belief vs. practice  

The Catholic Church has a high profile in Portugal. According to statistics compiled in 2008 by the Vatican’s Central Statistical Office, out of 10.6 million Portuguese, 88.3 percent identify as Catholic. A 2005 Eurobarometer poll found that 81 percent of Portuguese believe in God, compared with 59 percent of Spaniards and 34 percent of Frenchmen.  

As for weekly Mass attendance, the number of Portugal’s Catholics in the pews on Sunday dropped from 42 percent in 2000 to 27 percent in 2005, according to the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) and the World Values Survey. This is a downward trend that the Church has seen in recent years in traditionally Catholic nations across Europe — a result of a contemporary secular culture that is all-pervasive and growing increasingly aggressive.  

As Catholic religious practice declines, the likelihood that voters will turn out to support the traditional moral stands of the Church also declines. In 2007, 59 percent of Portuguese voters cast ballots to permit abortion up to the 10th week of pregnancy. In February, Parliament passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. To be on the safe side, President Anibal Cavaco Silva submitted the law to Portugal’s Supreme Court for review; the justices declared it was not unconstitutional. Cavaco Silva is expected to sign the bill. 

Papal recognition  

Until 1129, Portugal was a province of Spain. That year, a 20-year-old nobleman, Alfonso Henriques, defeated his enemies at the Battle of Sao Mamede and claimed the title “Prince of Portugal.” It was an audacious move, but to give his claim legitimacy he needed recognition from some great power outside the Iberian Peninsula. So Alfonso wrote to the pope, declaring that he was the devoted liegeman of the pontiff and swearing to drive the Moors, who had occupied the Iberian Peninsula since the eighth century, from Portugal. In return, Alfonso asked the Holy See to recognize him as sovereign of Portugal. Pope Lucius II gave his blessing to Alfonso’s creation of a new nation and a new dynasty, and in 1179 Pope Alexander III reconfirmed Alfonso as king of Portugal.  

It was Portugal that first carried the Catholic faith to sub-Saharan Africa and to Asia. About the year 1415, Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator began to organize voyages that would follow the west African coast to India. Prince Henry’s primary goal was commercial, but he was also interested in spreading Christianity. The papacy encouraged these efforts: Between 1451 and 1476 the popes issued a series of bulls, or official statements, granting to the king of Portugal a monopoly over the exploration and colonization of all the lands and islands from Ceuta in North Africa to India, with the additional right to establish churches for missionaries and their converts.  

Unfortunately, while they established commercial outposts and mission stations, the Portuguese also revived a practice Western Europe had not seen in centuries — slavery. 

A modern phenomenon  

Nowadays, no Catholic can think of Portugal without thinking of Fátima. In 1917, three shepherd children, Lucia dos Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto, reported six visions of the Blessed Mother. Devotion to Our Lady of Fátima became one of the dominant religious phenomena of the 20th century. Typically, every year on May 13 and Oct. 13, the anniversaries of the first and last apparitions, a million pilgrims attend the Mass and participate in the procession at the Fátima basilica.  

This year Pope Benedict will be among the pilgrims. On May 12, after praying at the Chapel of the Apparitions, he will celebrate vespers in the basilica with Portuguese priests, deacons, religious and seminarians. The next day, Pope Benedict will celebrate Mass on the plaza outside the basilica.  

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of “Saints Behaving Badly” (Doubleday, $15.95) and Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Cardlinks series.

By the Numbers 

4,830- Number of parishes in the country 

3,797- Number of priests serving those parishes  

444 - Number of men studying for the priesthood  

129,230 - children and young people enrolled in Church’s grammar schools, high schools and universities.

Greatest Saint (sidebar)

Ten years after the death of its first king, Portugal’s greatest saint was born. Although known as St. Anthony of Padua, he was, in fact, Portuguese, born in 1195 in a house just steps away from Lisbon’s Cathedral of Santa Maria Maior.

St. Anthony joined the Franciscans and was sent as a missionary to Morocco. When he fell ill, his superiors ordered him to return home, but a storm at sea drove Anthony’s ship to Italy, and it was there that he spent the rest of his life. In Italy he became renowned as a preacher, as a priest who brought sinners and the unorthodox back to the faith, and as a worker of miracles.

Papal visit highlights (sidebar)

May 11- Arrival in Lisbon. 

Mass in the Terreiro do Paco in Lisbon. Commemorative message from pope on the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Cristo Rei Sanctuary in Almada. 

May 12 - Visit to the Chapel of Apparitions in Fátima. 

Celebration of evening prayer with priests, religious, seminarians and deacons in the Church of the Most Holy Trinity. 

Blessing of torchlight procession outside sanctuary of Fátima, followed by recital of Rosary in Chapel of Apparitions. 

May 13 - Mass on esplanade at Fátima sanctuary. 

Meeting with the bishops of Portugal in the conference hall of the House of Our Lady of Carmel. 

May 14- Mass in an open area on the Avenida dos Aliados in Porto. 

Farewell ceremony at Porto international airport.