Portuguese Bishop: World Youth Day Attests to the Credibility of the Christian Faith

Bishop Nuno Brás da Silva Martins, the vice-president of the Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the EU, discusses the evangelizing potential of the global meeting in Lisbon.

Bishop Nuno Brás da Silva Martins alongside volunteers at World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon.
Bishop Nuno Brás da Silva Martins alongside volunteers at World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon. (photo: Solène Tadié / National Catholic Register)

LISBON, Portugal – The ongoing WYD held in Lisbon Aug. 1-6 is highlighting Portugal’s profound Catholicity in a context of massive secularization in Europe, but also the loss of its missionary dynamism. 

The demographic crisis, the shortage of priests, the confinement of faith to the family unit and a degree of complacency due to Portugal’s strong religious freedom are all factors at the root of this major challenge for the future of the country’s Church. In this respect, WYD represents a unique opportunity to rekindle a missionary fire, as Portuguese Bishop Nuno Brás da Silva Martins of Funchal notes in this interview with the Register. According to him, this vast movement of faith, which brings together hundreds of thousands of young people from all over the world every 3 to 4 years, helps them to be fully aware of the truth of the Christian message. 

The bishop, locally known as Dom Nuno Brás, has been at the head of the diocese of Funchal, located on the Portuguese island of Madeira, since 2019. Before that, he was a member of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication and of the Evangelization and Culture Commission of the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE). In March this year, he was elected vice-president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE). 

In this interview conducted during the WYD celebrations in Lisbon, he also discusses current bioethical issues in Europe and the meaning of synodality on the eve of the synodal assembly to be held in Rome next October.


In Portugal more than 80% of the population consider themselves Catholic. But according to several experts, it tends to be a primarily cultural faith that is not always lived out in daily life.

Yes, it is true, but then there are also those 20% who go to Mass every Sunday and try to live their faith life more intensely. Portugal was born Catholic. It remains Catholic, at least culturally. This 80% means that the point of reference in the Portuguese’s relationship with God is always Jesus Christ, within the Catholic Church. This is not to be forgotten. 

Then I’m really not sure if everything was so different in past centuries, if all of the Portuguese were truly Catholic. It’s just that nowadays, people feel like they can claim it more openly. 

But it is true that Portugal, as well as all of Europe, is experiencing this great loss of faith, and relationship with God. They have forgotten about God. This is so serious because the human heart is made for God. If the God of love, mercy and life does not fill it, then someone else will take over.


In one of your homilies at the WYD, you warned against today’s trend of creating false gods. What are these false gods? 

Obviously young people have idols in the world of sports, in Hollywood, in the pop music world. This trend is quite new; it is a result of the relativism of Western culture. When God is no longer the reference point then everyone becomes God. One pretends to be immortal, always successful. This anthropological crisis generates so much madness, such as preferring a rare plant to a man. One comes to deify nature instead of protecting it as part of creation. 


In this context of moral relativism, how can WYD revive missionary dynamism in Portugal and throughout the West? 

WYD is about the encounter, first and foremost, with God. This encounter with God is made even more concrete by the fact that other people are also a reference point in faith. Because the Christian faith is a very large one. The young pilgrims are being told, “You are a member of the Body of Christ. God offered you his eternal life.” One may think it’s too good to be true, that it’s madness, a figment of one’s imagination. However, they’ll have someone who shares the same faith next to them. 

Therefore, one will think, “Yes, it can be true.” And then, if there is not just one person next to them, but a whole multitude, they can also understand the reasonableness of the Christian faith. That’s what WYD is for, to show so many young people — who tend to experience everything with more intensity — that God is true, Jesus Christ is true, so is his love and sacrifice for us. Jesus Christ is God among us, and we experience him and feel him so close, touchable, audible. One becomes aware that even if one does not understand everything, it is all true.

Very often, they don’t know that they don’t know. And this is also one of the great missions of WYD — to awaken this will to know, this search for God. 

I have in mind the image of a frog standing at the bottom of a well. It was born there, grew up there, then it grows old and dies there happily and contentedly, because it thinks it has mastered the whole universe. Instead, it fails to know that outside its well there is the sky, trees, birds, humans, etc. What pains me is that even today, so many young people and adults live like frogs, thinking they have mastery over the world, ignoring a whole fundamental part of life. 


All this is also happening in the context of a serious demographic crisis affecting Portugal. What do you think should be done to address that?

We are one of the countries that are most affected by this crisis in Europe, with Italy. Our governments should think seriously about it, instead of thinking that we are going to solve everything only with more immigration. In order to implement a serious policy in Portugal, it would perhaps take a minister or a secretary of state devoted to this specific problem with reasonable policies to increase the population. Because if this continues, in 30 years there will be no more Portuguese people. But for some reason I’m convinced that something will happen in the meantime to prevent this from happening, I believe that in the face of this danger, change will arise.


Demography is also a key to understanding the deep vocational crisis in Portugal, where more and more women are asked to give Holy Communion to the faithful because of the shortage of priests. What else is at stake in your view? 

In the context of mass secularization, as Pope Francis has often noted, Christianity and the Church are often reduced to a humanitarian NGO without the Cross, without Jesus Christ, without God. It’s like a nice NGO, doing charitable works, but lacking a whole other horizon. Even within the Church, many have become like “well frogs.”


A fear of seeing the Church emptied of its substance out of ideological blindness during the synodal process on Synodality, which will continue until 2024, has been voiced by some observers and Catholic leaders. How can we steer the discussions at next October's Assembly to avoid believers around the world having the fate of “well frogs”?

I think the purpose of this synod is to put into practice Chapter II of Lumen Gentium on the People of God. This is not really new. The Synod is trying to say that we are all the people of God, with all its specificity. It means that it is God who gives birth to it, leads and guides it. God is the center. It is important to understand that the Holy Spirit not only speaks through the pastors. He also speaks and acts through all the faithful, and even beyond the boundaries of the Church.

Having said that, the life of the Church does not function as it does in democratic countries, with a majority deciding and a minority suffering. No, the life of the Church works through consensus, trying to reach unity, the truth, which is God. In this sense the most effective depiction for this synodality is the procession of Corpus Christi, i.e. God present in the Eucharist leading all his children to him. This is synodality. Of course then you have to sit down and discuss all together and reach a consensus, which does not diminish the truth. 


You have been very involved in the debates around the euthanasia law just adopted by the Portuguese government. How do you explain the fact that a majority of the population is in favor of this law — as several polls suggest — despite their religiosity?

This idea of a majority in favor of euthanasia in my opinion is a lie pushed by its promoters. Polls are easy to manipulate. There should be a referendum but the promoters of the law rejected it because I think they were afraid of the voice of the people. 

I am convinced that the majority, a large base of society, would have opposed it. From my experience, all the doctors, lawyers I met were against it.

The problem with these laws is that they offer a configuration to society that is quite different from the one the Church proposes, which is the defense of life from conception to its natural end. We can ask ourselves why we won the first referendum on abortion in 1998 and why we lost it in 2007. There was so much insistence and moral pressure that eventually so many people got tired and gave up.


A fairly similar process is taking place at the European level, with a substantial number of parliamentarians wanting to enshrine abortion in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. COMECE, of which you are vice-president, has very openly opposed this project. In your opinion, can it still have any weight in the ongoing discussions?

You certainly cannot say that abortion is a human right. There is no right to kill. This European project if it goes ahead will be collective suicide. They are imposing on us an ideology that is not reasonable, that is not humane, that kills all societies. Because it introduces a logic of death, a culture that resigns itself to death instead of fighting for life.

COMECE is in Brussels, close to the European Parliament, and is working hard to facilitate a pressure group, to convince Members of the European Parliament not to adopt this law. We are not always successful, and the weight of those pushing these projects, even the trivialization of biological changes, has more visibility and weight. But we have a means to fight and try to convince, and we will use it to the end.