LISBON, PORTUGAL – Published in the Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad.
While churches went online, the weakest in society has become much more vulnerable, says the Jesuit padre Francisco Mota from Lisbon, Portugal. During the pandemic he has lost touch with a lot of people living on the street, the poorest migrants, and the elderly who find themselves in isolation.
“Usually I see them daily or weekly but now it can be months. And for most of them, I don’t even know if they are alive. I don’t meet them on the street, where I can ask: How are you doing? Do you need any help? What about your daughter, does she need any help? This is one of the hardest and most painful things that has happened the last year,” Francisco Mota told me.
I contacted Francisco Mota because I was puzzled by the role of the Catholic Church in Portugal during the pandemic. I did not hear much about the Church, and no one I talked to in Portugal had an anser. A few days later I met Francisco Mota in the far back of Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Encarnação, where 40-50 bags of clothes and food were ready to get shipped off to Mozambique. In normal times there would be 3 or 4 times as many bags. According to the 36 year old padre, the Church has mainly been busy doing stuff that only a few people see. Collecting donations, running a school for kids from poor families, trying to help the less fortunate. His words corresponds with those of a Danish homeless man I talked to a few years back. His assessment was that the problems with homelessness and addictions in Denmark would be ten times bigger was it not for all the church activities and organizations.
Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Encarnação is located in the Lisbon district Chiado, where tourists, betlers, and street musicians usually mingle on the same limited space on the cobbled streets. When I went to the church on a Thursday afternoon in early March 2021, one homeless woman was trying to get some sleep outside a closed shop while an old man was playing his guitar. None of the people passing by stopped to listen to the slow tunes or admire the architecture and narrow passages.
Francisco Mota and I also talked about the role of the Church during Christmas, when masses were held and people met with family and friends (which later led to a big surge in Covid-19 cases, hospitalisations, and deaths), and also how hard it is for Southern Europeans to be denied a social life.
He kept coming back to the most fragile in society. The ones that cannot go online and follow the masses, the ones that depend on food from the church and help to understand letters and bills. When more vaccines have been distributed, finding and picking up people who has been left alone is gonna take a long time.
“I think Christianity has done a lot – but we haven’t done enough. And we have to do a lot more. We need to dig deeper and go beyond. Not just in 2021. We are talking about the next 5-10 years,” he told me and continued.
“We have to get out there and search for people, who’ve ended in a bad place because of all this. There is a deep awareness in the church that we have to do more. But we still haven’t found out what exactly that means”.