Pope Visits a Once-troubled Lisbon Neighborhood and Says True Charity Must ‘Get Your Hands Dirty’

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Pope Francis visited a once-troubled and crime-plagued neighborhood in Portugal’s capital on Friday to draw attention to the charitable side of the Catholic Church and the need to protect the world’s most vulnerable people with concrete gestures that “get your hands dirty.”

The midway point in Francis’ five-day visit to Portugal began with the pontiff hearing confessions of some young people who were in Lisbon for World Youth Day, the big Catholic festival. It continues later Friday with a traditional Way of the Cross procession recreating Christ’s crucifixion.

Francis visited a community center in the city’s Serafina neighborhood, which sits beneath a giant 18th century aqueduct that is a symbol of the bounty that gold from Portugal’s Brazilian colony once afforded the country.

Two decades ago, drug and crime problems dogged the neighborhood, but Serafina has tried to put that past behind it thanks in part to efforts by church charity groups, including one that was created to provide an alternative to parents considering abortions or who otherwise couldn’t care for their children.

Speaking off the cuff to young people and the charity organizers, Francis said true service must be done with concrete gestures that make an impact. He said he couldn’t come to Lisbon to celebrate World Youth Day without visiting the center because “this is also youth, in the sense that you generate new life continually.”

Pope Francis speaks to representatives of some aid and charity centers in the parish of Serafina ahead of Sunday’s 37th World Youth Day in Lisbon, Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. Francis is in Portugal through the weekend to preside over the jamboree that St. John Paul II launched in the 1980s to encourage young Catholics in their faith. The Argentine Jesuit has picked up John Paul’s mantle with gusto as he seeks to inspire the next generation to rally behind his key social justice and environmental priorities.(AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

“With your conduct, your commitment and getting your hands dirty by touching the reality and misery of others, you are giving inspiration and generating life,” he said.

Francis has long said that true service and charity has to hurt, and that it’s not enough just to give a beggar a coin on the street. He has championed the charitable side of the Catholic Church, including boosting the Vatican’s own charitable efforts by providing showers and medical care to area homeless people while also sending regular truckloads of aid to Ukraine and other places wracked by conflict or natural disasters.

In Lisbon, Francis has also emphasized the inclusive message of the church that he has championed throughout his 10-year papacy, telling the World Youth Day opening ceremony on Thursday that “in the church, there is room for everyone.” He led the crowd of a half-million people in a chant of “everyone, everyone, everyone” to make his point.

That message has resonated in particular with LGBTQ+ Catholics, who have long felt ostracized by a church that considers homosexual activity “intrinsically disordered.” Francis, though, has offered a message of welcome to LGBTQ+ Catholics, starting from his very first World Youth Day in 2013, when he famously said “Who am I to judge,” when asked about a purportedly gay priest.

Dignity USA, a group of LGBTQ+ Catholics, has a delegation in Lisbon and said overall the reception has been positive, with a few moments of tension.

“We’ve been able to trade our rainbow pens, our rainbow prayer cards,” member Sam Barnes said Friday. There was an incident in which protesters tried to disrupt an LGBTQ+ Mass, but it went ahead after police were called in, said one of the participants, who gave her name as Victoria and said she was a transgender Catholic.

Pope Francis arrives to listen to the confessions of young people attending Sunday the 37th World Youth Day in Lisbon, Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. Francis is in Portugal through the weekend to preside over the jamboree that St. John Paul II launched in the 1980s to encourage young Catholics in their faith. The Argentine Jesuit has picked up John Paul’s mantle with gusto as he seeks to inspire the next generation to rally behind his critical social justice and environmental priorities.(AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

“It’s important that everyone, independent of their sexuality, can have their faith and their relation with God.” Victoria said, adding that despite such incidents she has felt very accepted in Lisbon.

In another incident captured on social media and broadcast on Portuguese television, two World Youth Day participants told a transgender participant to put away her flag.

In an interview published Friday by the Spanish Catholic magazine Vida Nueva, Francis referred to his frequent meetings with members of the transgender community and his message of welcome.

“The first time a group of transsexuals came to the Vatican and saw me, they left weeping, saying I had given them my hand, a kiss, as if I had done something exceptional for them,” Francis was quoted as saying. “But they’re children of God!”


This story corrects that the Way of the Cross closes the pope’s Friday schedule but not the festival.


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