The volcanic ash cloud which has been causing flight disruption over parts of southern Europe appears to be dispersing just in time for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Portugal tomorrow.

Airports in Portugal, Spain and Italy were forced to close over the weekend but have now reopened and as of midday today Rome time, the Vatican said “no changes to the program are forecast”. Portuguese authorities say the cloud of ash remains in the south western part of the country but they predict it will steadily drift southwards, so hopefully it will also mean the Holy Father can return to Rome without problems.

As well as visiting the Marian shrine of Fatima, the Holy Father will be stopping in Lisbon and Portugal’s “second city”, Porto. Before reciting the Regina Coeli at the Vatican yesterday, the Holy Father asked for prayers for his visit, adding: “I in turn assure you of my prayers to our Lady of Fatima for the whole People of God. May she intercede for us all, and draw us closer to Christ her Son.”

He said Fatima is the main destination of his trip, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the beatification of the shepherd children Jacinta and Francesco. “With a single heart and a single soul we invoke the intercession of the Virgin Mary for the Church, in particular for priests and for peace in the world,” the Pope said.

The veteran Vaticanista Sandro Magister has published today this helpful summary of the apparitions at Fatima and the three secrets that were revealed to the three shepherd children. It includes Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s theological commentary on the ‘third secret’ of Fatima, given in 2000. 

The Holy Father’s visit also comes at a time when Portugal is undergoing cultural changes which are challenging the nation’s Catholic identity. Politicians are looking to legalize same-sex marriage and Church leaders are generally concerned about a falling away from the faith, especially among the country’s youth.

The Pope’s visit will also be timely as Portugal risks falling into the same economic crisis that has afflicted Greece in recent weeks. The Pope will no doubt take the opportunity to stress one of his most heartfelt and prophetic concerns: that Europe mustn’t ignore its Christian roots and that the continent’s unity cannot be built on economic ties alone.