Pope Francis has landed in Lisbon for a global gathering of young Catholics taking place in the shadow of Portugal’s huge clergy sexual abuse scandal and criticism of soaring costs for the event.
Hundreds of thousands of young people from around the world have descended on Lisbon to welcome Francis, whose plane, also carrying his entourage and reporters, touched down at Lisbon’s Figo Maduro military air base on Wednesday.
His first stop will be a welcoming ceremony hosted by Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa at the presidential Belém Palace.
World Youth Day was devised by the late Pope John Paul II for young Catholics in their teens or early 20s and is held every two or three years in a different city. This will be the first since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 86-year-old Francis is making his first trip since intestinal surgery in June and uses a wheelchair and cane.
In Lisbon, huge stages have been set up, screens installed and posters with Francis’s face plastered across the city.
The event in Portugal, which is about 80 percent Catholic, comes less than six months after a report by a Portuguese commission said at least 4,815 minors were sexually abused by clergy – mostly priests – over 70 years.
“There will be young people from all over the world and the reality [of abuse] is present in all continents,” said Filipa Almeida, 43, who was abused by a priest when she was 17.
“It’s a great opportunity for the Church to do something,” said Almeida, a co-founder of Coracao Silenciado (Silenced Heart) , an association which helps victims.
Al Jazeera’s Sonia Gallego, reporting from Lisbon, said Francis was expected to meet privately with abuse victims.
“The Patriarch of Lisbon [Cardinal Manuel Clemente] has said that he was fully committed to addressing the issue but there is no mention of it on the pope’s official agenda. Nevertheless, he is expected to visit and meet with victims of that scandal,” she said.
“But many groups here representing those victims say that they are angered and deeply frustrated by how the church has been dealing with or rather fails to deal with the distress that has been felt by those victims,” she added.
A huge billboard raising awareness of clergy sexual abuse was put up overnight in Lisbon hours before Francis’s arrival.
Some Portuguese have criticised the event’s costs in one of Western Europe’s poorest nations where millions are struggling to make ends meet due to low salaries, inflation and a housing crisis.
Al Jazeera’s Gallego said the event would cost about $175m.
“The Vatican did say it would contribute to at least half of that cost,” she said.
The Lisbon local government has rejected accusations by political parties and rights groups that it is removing homeless people from the city’s streets.
Francis will also visit Fatima, the town north of Lisbon where the Catholic Church believes that the Virgin Mary appeared to three poor shepherd children in 1917.