Fish and poetry — the bishop and the sermon on fish, poets, madmen and civic responsibilities
One of Lisbon’s top clerical figures has lambasted the level of mediocrity in Portuguese governance, from the top to grass roots level.
Speaking at a lunch organised by the International Club of Portugal (ICPT), Dom Américo Aguiar, President of the World Youth Day Foundation (Lisbon 2023) and Auxiliary Bishop of Lisbon said it concerned him that young talented people feared to enter politics and local governance because they would be subject to character assassination and unbearable public scrutiny in a social media world.
The bishop spoke of a lack of leadership and statesmanship, a generation of young people who had lost faith and confidence in a society in which people weren’t working together for the common good, but were pitted against each other.
Dom Américo Aguiar was speaking as preparations gear up for the largest world event that has ever been hosted by Portugal – World Youth Day, the culmination of a week of actives in Portugal taking place between August 1-6.
“There has never been an event organised like this for more than 1 million young people at the same time, taking part in the same event. This is unique”, he said.
In terms of numbers the event will be “big and many”. It will be held at the Parque Tejo in the relatively new east district of Lisbon, contiguous to the site of Expo ’98 (now Parque das Nações), on abandoned parcels of land.
The land was chosen because it provided an opportunity to regenerate it for a future green park, the result of which will be that the local ‘junta’ or parish will double its green spaces “almost overnight”.
A culture of suffering
Recalling the battles at the time over the regeneration of land upon which the Belém Cultural Centre and Berardo Museum of Contemporary Art now stands (in West Lisbon), and an equally fierce opposition to the construction of one of Europe’s longest suspension bridges linking Lisbon’s north bank of the Tagus with the south (Vasco da Gama Bridge), he reminded that both, despite being controversial at the time, are now considered “indispensable”, as would Lisbon’s new international airport had it been built!
“Unfortunately, it’s part of our make-up, that the big important things in life always take the “path of suffering” he said, in a nod to Jesus’s passage to crucifixion, referring too to the ‘Old Men of Restelo’ who in Portuguese national culture refer to people who always complain at “new ways of doing things, only to turn out alright after all”.
“It’s taken as red that we have to suffer, so they (critics) now say that this event is not strictly for Catholics, it is an event to which the Pope has invited young people from all around the world. To date we have youth signed up in the first phase numbering 507,000 from 108 countries. Tell me what event could achieve this?”
The altar-stage — a work of Babylonian proportions
And such an event will need a huge space. Not as big as Babylon, but pretty substantial nevertheless. The Parque Tejo has an area that would fit six football stadia, or almost 4 km in length. And the event will cost a lot too: just in terms of food, the budget is €30 million plus tens of millions of euros for transport. “We want this to be a unique experience for young people”, he said.
So just how much is this monumental week of elevated spiritual touchy-feely ‘huginess’ going to cost Portugal and what will be the return?
Reports cited in the Portuguese press suggest around €36 million, but just who is paying for what is not completely clear.
What does seem clear, however, is the cost to the taxpayer of the altar stage planned for the site which was initially put at €3.2 million and then doubled, causing a major political embarrassment for Lisbon’s Mayor Carlos Moedas. It has now come down to more reasonable proportions.
Deputy mayor Filipe Anacoreta Correia stresses to Expresso that this will be an altar-stage like no other. “It has nothing to do with any other stage made in Portugal”, he explained, and it will ‘naturally’ be used after the event for other shows and spectacles.
According to the vice-mayor of Lisbon, the nine-metre high stage will have capacity for 2,000 people (1,000 bishops, 300 concelebrants, 200 choir members, 30 sign language interpreters, 90 orchestra members, staff and technical team), it will have two lifts and a central staircase, in an implementation area of 5,000 square meters (equivalent to half a football field).
Carlos Moedas himself has admitted that the whole World Youth Day project would be “very expensive”, particularly as it will be constructed according to specifications “indicated by the Catholic Church”.
Expresso suggests the municipality will end up paying around €17 million of the forecast €36 million, with projects like the ‘altar-stage’ having been assigned to construction company Mota Engil by ‘ajuste direto’ (direct agreement/ absence of tender). Mota-Engil can tell us about that when its new CEO Carlos Mota Santos addresses the ICPT on April 20.
On the other hand, think of the revenues that cafés, bars, restaurants and hotels will make that week! Since Lisbon has never hosted an event quite like this, it is hard to say. However, hotels and guest houses for that week are fully booked up. To give some idea, Lisbon cashed in €25 million when the city hosted the Eurovision Song Contest back in 2018. So, in this particular match a ballpark score could be taxpayers €-36M, retailers and hospitality €+25M — give or take a few millions.
Taking into account revenues from other cities up and down Portugal and the islands, ticket sales for Portugal’s public airline TAP, not to mention the country getting wall-to-wall publicity promotion that week internationally, the balance will almost certainly be positive from a business perspective. So all good there, then.
Ambassadors for Portugal
But it’s not just the coverage on TVs and social media. The idea, says Dom Américo Aguiar is that these hundreds of thousands of the faithful and the not so faithful but curious, will be “ambassadors for Portugal”. Some 300,000 will come the week before and will be spread out throughout the entire country, including Portugal’s island territories. For that last week in July Portugal will have tens of thousands of young people travelling by all means to get to Lisbon.
In the areas of health, police, safety, and security — all that is necessary is being put into place, everything scheduled to anticipate eventualities.
“We’re not very used to that, we’re more used to pulling everything together at the last minute. (This happened with Expo 98, the UEFA Cup 2004, and Eurovision in 2018, all of which looked a shambles in organisational terms until the 11th hour when it all came together and rose to the occasion like some monumental soufflés — the Portuguese have a word for this: “Em cima do joelho/on top of the knees”) “But we’re learning to organise an event of a magnitude we’ve never organised before”, said the bishop.
And adds: “We are doing the best we can, we want to learn, rectify, receive ideas, have people say we’re doing a good job, and to be answerable to the public. But we don’t have to be against each other. Someone has created the idea in our society that things have to be done setting people against each other. It has to be people working together”.
Elderly are not a burden
Dom Américo Aguiar admits “we have lots of challenges in our society”, and the way to go is not pitting people against each other.
“There are those who speak of a schism between old and young, grandparents and grandchildren; it’s nonsense.
“We have a societal agreement in which our grandparents and parents educate us and here we are. The best that we can do is not feel that it’s a sacrifice to look after them. We should give back with affection in recognition for what they’ve done for us. It is a generational agreement”, he said.
And added: The elderly cannot be seen as a burden, they are not. We’re all crazy over medical discoveries, which mean that we can live longer, and then see them (our elderly) as a problem. Someone must be mad here! Having our grandparents living longer is a cause for celebration for everyone, and we have to act accordingly”, he said.
In the bishop’s eyes All of these people should be seen as young people with “accumulated youth”.
And the Pope, he informed, has “high expectations” of this World Youth Day after the tribulations of Covid-19 confinement, economic hardships and struggle, and the fact “young people can join together and hug one another, and show love is a unique moment in their lives”. “Certainly World Youth Day in Lisbon will be memorable for them and the whole of humanity”.
No fish if you don’t go fishing
The Pope has said that we have to create the conditions in society for young people to have the courage and desire to dream. But Dom Américo Aguiar fears that today’s youth stumble blindly around lost and no longer have or believe in dreams.
We come across many that don’t have dreams. They lower their arms and slump their shoulders. We talk about their plans for work, their families, and marriage, and they shrug”, he said.
The President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has said “we are young while we still have dreams”.
“But we are running the risk of having a generation of young people who don’t have dreams, and don’t have the strength or courage to dream. They are frightened to dream. It is our responsibility in society, be that in the church, politics, or the economy to create the conditions so that our young people can dream”, Dom Américo Aguiar defended.
But at the same time they had to fight. “They can’t just sit on the sofa and expect their parents to do and provide everything. Support yes, but doing, that their responsibility”, he said. “Each of us has to understand that it falls to us to be the lead player in our own story”.
Poets and madness
And since, as they say, the ‘nights belong to poets and madmen’ we all have key moments in our lives when taking a big decision takes us close to the edge of a cliff, with the fear of the sheer drop below.
That can be a decision to get married, set up a business, make investments, or put ourselves forward as a political candidate. As such, decisions imply risks, and risks imply “a certain degree of madness” and “a certain percentage of poetry”.
“When people ask me as a bishop what worries me the most for the future, it is that within some electoral mandates (national, presidential, municipal or European), we won’t have candidates who want to stand”.
“Because the scrutiny, the character assassination, incompatibilities (read not competent), lack of respect, lack of stature means there will be no one who wants to stand except mediocrities. This will be the greatest crisis that Portugal, the Portuguese, and our society will have to face”, he warned.
“If we do nothing we will preside over the destruction of everything that means authority: the Church, the State, Politicians, Economists, Academics, no one will be left. Instead, we’re all swindlers, thieves, bad-intentioned, we’re all against one another and I accept that it might end like this and this (lack of civic responsibility) is what worries me in the near future”, he regretted.
Jobs for the boys or poverty in public service?
Dom Américo Aguiar asked: “if someone is invited to work as a public servant, because they are competent, and fulfil their job, finish their job, and then after six years can’t continue in their job” (the Bishop was probably referring to the ridiculous system in Portugal where all key civil servants have to quit their jobs each time a party in power changes), what are they going to live on? What area are they going to go to?
“The more incompatibilities (people without the necessary skills, profiles or experience to run the country), the more we’ll create serious problems for the future” he said, in a nod to people carrying out executive roles in the civil service who were career politicians rather than having the competence to do the job).
“The feeling that I have, is that either we do something, all together and not all against each other, or we will have problems organising ourselves to manage public governance and administration: the State, the parishes, the municipal boroughs and districts, and the government”.
“I travel the country and see people with qualities, capacities and skills and the curriculum, but don’t want to get involved. And those who are in politics are in it either because they are mad, or have some sense of martyrdom in their DNA, because it’s not to earn money, as far as I can see”*, concluded Dom Américo Aguiar, Auxiliary Bishop of Lisbon.
(*Editor’s note: Quite a few go into public service to line their own pockets, if the well-publicised corruption scandals over the past 20 years are anything to go by. Had the bishop tippled on too much wine at the lunch?)
Pictures courtesy of ICPT.