Portugal’s Catholics have been without Mass since the bishops announced a suspension of attendance on 13 March – just before the Government itself decreed a state of emergency that limits the right to public worship.
As in many other countries, families have taken to watching livestreams of mass or other celebrations, and televisions and radio stations have upped their offer of religious broadcasts.
But now many Catholics are asking why the same ban doesn’t apply to political celebrations. For Portugal’s socialist government is allowing celebrations to go ahead for the anniversary of the Carnation Revolution on April 25, and for International Workers Day on May 1.
True, there will be strict limitations on the events. The April 25 celebrations will be low-key and in Parliament, with less than 100 people, among them MPs and guests. However, the Government has not placed similar limits on participation in the May 1 celebrations, only listing it as an exception to confinement measures in place until 2 May. The main trade union federation, CGTP, has said that it will not ask people to participate en masse, and that all its staff and volunteers will respect social distancing requirements.
Some Catholics have asked on social media why, if the trade unions can be allowed to maintain their activities, Christians were not afforded the same privilege during Easter at least.
Although bishops avoided getting involved in the discussion, many faithful voiced their discontent on social media and others began petitions against the political celebrations. Commentators compared it to the Spanish government’s insistence on going ahead with massive Women’s Day rallies in early March, which may well have worsened the spread of the pandemic.
Portugal, on the other hand, applied restrictions heavily and early, and has managed to keep the death rate much lower, compared to other European countries including Italy, France, Spain and the UK.
Prime-minister António Costa may have been aware of the annoyance of a significant part of the population: he decided to visit the Patriarch of Lisbon at his residence on Monday morning to discuss a schedule for reopening churches to public worship in May. Following the meeting, he was gushing in his praise for Catholic Church and its hierarchy, saying that they had been an excellent example of how to live the faith despite restrictions.
He said that the actual dates and methods of reopening churches would be best left to the bishops themselves. A meeting of the Bishops’ Conference took place on Tuesday, April 21, to discuss the issue. In a statement, the bishops said guidelines are being prepared, but did not disclose details.
Any recommendation, however, will come too late for those who enjoy traveling to Fatima for the celebrations of the May 13, the anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun, which crowned the apparitions in 1917. The local bishop, Cardinal António Marto, has already announced that these will take place without the faithful.
Many Catholics have rallied to be at the forefront of the struggle against the pandemic, volunteering to deliver food and other essential items to vulnerable citizens, and organising groups of young and healthy people to go and work at retirement homes where the virus has spread.