Religion, particularly Catholicism, has played a significant role in social and political life throughout Portuguese history. Throughout most of Portugal’s history, few non-Catholics lived in the country. Restrictions and prohibitions on people’s freedom to practise their religion hampered those who did attempt to practise a non-Catholic religion. This changed after the Revolution of the Carnations in 1974; the constitution was rewritten to guarantee all people the right to practise their religion. Moreover, the Catholic Church and state were formally separated, ushering a new era of secularisation in Portugal.
Today, the vast majority of Portuguese identify as Roman Catholic (81%).1 However, most consider themselves as non-practising. For many, national and cultural identity is often linked to Catholicism, rather than purely a religious affiliation. Of the remaining population, 3.3% identify with some other denomination of Christianity, 0.6% identify with some other religion (including those who identify as Jewish or Muslim), 6.8% identify with no religion, and 8.3% did not specify a religious affiliation.2
Catholicism in Portugal
Christianity was introduced to Portugal when the country was part of the Roman Empire. In fact, the presence of Christianity and Catholicism predates the establishment of Portugal as a nation-state. Thus, Catholicism has played a significant role in shaping the country. As a branch of Christianity, Catholicism presents the doctrine of God as the ‘Holy Trinity’, consisting of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Like most Catholics, those Portuguese who are active in their faith accept the authority of the priesthood and the Roman Catholic Church, which is led by the Pope.
The traditional importance of Catholicism in Portugal is most evident in the physical organisation of nearly every village in the country. Village churches were often in highly prominent locations, such as in the main square or on a hilltop overlooking the village. Many churches were beautifully crafted in the 16th century during the height of Portugal’s expansion. These churches are still found throughout the country and are often the place where various celebrations take place, such as the annual village festas (festivals).
Catholic traditions that commemorate major life events such as birth, marriage and death are very important. One’s ‘baptismo’ (baptism) is particularly important. During one’s baptismal, an infant is given a ‘padrinho’ (godfather) and ‘madrinha’ (godmother). This couple is given the responsibility to care for the child’s spiritual and physical welfare should the parents of the child pass away. However, apart from major celebrations, church attendance is quite low. Generally, people who reside in cities and larger towns (particularly in Lisbon and the south) are less involved in the daily practice of Catholicism. On the other hand, those residing in central and northern Portugal tend to show their religiosity more. For example, attendance of Mass, honouring saints, processions and celebrating religious holidays are participated in more devoutly.
‘Romarias’ (pilgrimages) to regional shrines are also a core religious practice, especially in northern Portugal. One of the most common pilgrimages is to the village of Fátima, where it is believed that the Virgin Mary appeared several times to three children in 1917. Since this time, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have visited the holy shrine in Fátima, with the hope that the pilgrimage may bring about healing.
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