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Young Catholics from around the world flock to World Youth Day events in Portugal


This week, young Catholics are gathered in Lisbon, Portugal, to hear from Pope Francis and to engage in a week of celebration centered on their faith. The event is World Youth Day - even though it's more than a day, really, since it goes until Sunday. To talk about this moment in the life of the Catholic Church and its 86-year-old leader, Pope Francis, we're joined by Heidi Schlumpf, executive editor of the National Catholic Reporter. And she joins us from Chicago. Good morning.

HEIDI SCHLUMPF: Good morning, Leila. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: Thanks for being here. So, Heidi, what do we expect in Lisbon this week?

SCHLUMPF: Well, as you said, it is a celebration. And so I expect to see the pope very energized by a lot of young people, reportedly up to a million people...


SCHLUMPF: ...Celebrating their faith. But I think there's also going to be some realization that all is not perfect in the church. Some of the - go ahead.

FADEL: Oh, you mentioned all is not perfect in the church. I mean, the Catholic Church is seeing a decline in attendance - a lot of younger people who don't see the church keeping pace with the challenges and cultural changes of our time. How is World Youth Day part of that outreach maybe to change that?

SCHLUMPF: Yeah. As you said, the reality on the ground, even in Portugal, is where - even in a Catholic country like that, where 80% of the population identify as Catholic, but less than 20% attend Mass weekly. And so we also have reports - a recent report about sex abuse there. So I think what you're going to see Pope Francis doing is trying to energize young Catholics with his message, with themes that he's been giving throughout his pontificate about mercy, about openness, about the need to go to the margins of society.

FADEL: Has that been resonating?

SCHLUMPF: Yeah, I think it does. It really resonates with a lot of Catholics, I think, here in the United States. Over the 10 years in his papacy, Pope Francis has really been trying to continue the work of the Second Vatican Council, which really sought to bring the church into the modern world. One of his most famous sayings is, who am I to judge, when he was asked a question about a gay couple. So I think that message of openness and inclusion - while it has led to some polarization in the U.S. church because not everyone agrees with it, I think it really has helped to make the church more relevant.

FADEL: Now, there had been a question about whether the Pope would attend at all this year because of his health. How is his health?

SCHLUMPF: Yes. So, you know, the pope had hernia surgery in June, and there were some questions after that surgery about whether he would still make this trip to Portugal or whether he would finally start slowing down a little bit. Also, earlier this year, he had bronchitis. He suffers from chronic leg and hip pain. You often see him using a wheelchair or a cane, but he does seem determined to go forward. You mentioned he's 86. He will be the oldest pope to ever preside over a World Youth Day celebration.


SCHLUMPF: And it's likely it'll be hot and busy in Lisbon. He's going to give a lot of speeches. So I think we will be getting a glimpse of how he's doing physically as we watch him.

FADEL: Before I let you go, if you could just put in context how influential this week is. I mean, does this actually influence the Vatican - World Youth Day?

SCHLUMPF: Yes. So definitely I think that this is part of his legacy - the way Pope Francis connects with people. The church is in the middle of a three-year consultative process called a synod. And I think we're going to see a lot of connecting with people in practical ways. I don't see Pope Francis slowing down in any way yet.

FADEL: Heidi Schlumpf is executive editor of the National Catholic Reporter. Thanks for joining us.

SCHLUMPF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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