Religion in Portugal
Taking care of the family is a national duty in Portugal. It is an endless practice that doesn`t even come to an end when a loved one passes away. It`s All Saints Day today, and many people are heading to the cemeteries to pay respect to late family members. 1 November is one out of many Christian holidays observed by the Portuguese. Which is not a surprise if you imagine that a large majority of the Portuguese classifies themselves as Catholics.
The church may be losing its grip on society, but the catholic influence is still reflected in many habits. Few youngsters still attend church on a regular basis, but it is unusual to walk into somebody over the age of 15 who has not been baptized. Catholic schools or catholic universities are considered the most prestigious institutes of the country. Every village or city fanatically celebrates its patron Saint`s day: Saint Anton in Lisbon, Saint John in Porto and Saint Peter in Sinta.
`Younger religious people only go to confess when they really have something to confess, not just for the tradition`
Pilgrimages to Fatima or Santiago de Compostela, although sometimes by car rather than on foot, continue to be very popular. The same goes for first names. Almost every girl has Maria as one of her given names, while boys are often called Antonio (Anton), Jo?o (John) or Pedro (Peter).
Andr? (24) and Ines (24) are not religious but still attended a catholic secondary school. Although teachers at their school were traditionally priests, they themselves only followed one course taught by a priest. Officially referred to as Ethics, most of the contents related to the Bible. Parents who send their children to catholic schools do not necessarily have a religious motive for their choice. The prestige also counts, and some even consider the religious schools safer than the public and secular ones.
The religious education is not necessarily restricted to schools and universities. Scouting is also a catholic organisation and parents who insist on the religious tradition send their kids to Sunday school. Typically on Sunday afternoon, following the Holy Mass, the kids will go to class to learn about the bible. They will prepare for their First Communion, which takes place at the age of 12. It refers to the first time a child is supposed to understand the ritual of eating the holy bread, symbol for the body of Christ.
The preparation for the next stages continues throughout the following years, when the child is gradually prepared for a Christian adult life. Maria (30) recently had her daughter baptised and expects to send her to Sunday school as soon as she is old enough to attend.
Symbols and traditions
It doesn`t take much effort to tell that the Portuguese take pride in their religious orientation. Churches are scattered across the country and the same goes for statues of the saints. Many people wear necklaces with a cross-shaped symbol, a typical present your godparents give you when you are baptised.
The Catholic Church continues to offer confession services. If you choose to confess your sins, you will go to a priest and tell him about the bad things you have done and why. He will then tell you to pray for forgiveness. Nuno (26, photo) does not often practice confession anymore. He does tell me that some old people do it on a regular basis, while younger religious people only go when they actually have something to confess. Or, if they are young, in case one of their parents sends them to church. In the old days, the confession was done before people attended Mass, so they could be free of sin when they went for communion.
Nuno is from the Azores islands, where the role of religion continues to be significant. He explains that the rich history in natural disasters, combined with a very small population, have caused religion to maintain its influence on people`s lives.
On the mainland, church attendance is declining year after year. Young people prefer to stay in bed on Sunday mornings, rather than attending mass. One example of the reduced influence on society is the recent law that legalizes abortion. It has been approved by a second referendum, after having been canceled at a first try. At the time, the church mobilized a sufficient number of believers to vote against. They did not manage to get the same results during the second round.
Although the church officially does not tolerate the use of contraception, it has not been able to do anything about the government`s campaign to promote the use of condoms. Traditional church weddings are becoming less common, and being an atheist is no longer something to be ashamed of. Alternative religions are tolerated but not everybody may be familiar with them. Both the big cities and the southern provinces are more liberal towards religion, or life in general for that matter, than the strictly catholic North.
Buddhism is popular in certain social groups, and so is the Islam. Muslims are not necessarily immigrated newcomers to Portugal. The Southern part of Portugal used to fall under the rule of the Moors, who organised their lives according to the Koran rather than the Bible. The Islam still today has a minor presence in Portugal. Recent cases of terrorism have caused some fear about the Islamic presence. Most of that can be blamed on mutual ignorance about each others` belief, rather than anything else. At present, Portugal is sufficiently open-minded to successfully deal with the different religions present on its soil.
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