Lisbon, as a city, is the perfect metaphor for the plight of the modern young Catholic. There is every opportunity for devotion, reflection and prayer throughout Portugal’s capital, yet there is something else worldly and tempting to be found here, calling out and distracting, swaying one away from those other things.
The town is steeped with a rich, beautiful and old Catholic tradition. There are statues of saints scattered throughout its winding streets and churches just around every corner, available for viewing, attending, and prayer. However, most of these are in some state of decay, seem a bit lifeless, and (if my experience stumbling into St. Paul’s across the street for Mass on Sunday morning is any indication) pretty much vacant of young people.
In stark contrast is the Lisbon nightlife which is vigorous, tangible and exciting. My hostel lies at the bottom of a big hill — in fact, most of Lisbon is hill after hill after hill. There are massive highs and lows in Lisbon; sometimes one feels on top of the world, other times like you can’t help that it’s rolling all over you. During the day I walk east where an enormous city of endless old Lisbon site-seeing, and a lot of those churches, await me. But at night, I am told to ascend the hill north, in order to take in the clubs, bars and restaurants that new Lisbon has to offer.
It’s fascinating, this climb. The first time I walked it was daytime, and I witnessed a long, steep sloping street of broken glass and bottles, all the trash of the previous evening’s revelries. Two work men were dutifully sweeping away this evidence, save for a few sharp shards here and there. Most of the establishments I passed I found closed.
Later that night I climbed again; this ascent offering less broken glass and more open doors. The bars, clubs and restaurants were all open, awaiting and filling up fast — much more so than poor St. Paul’s on Sunday morning. And why not? The sounds and vibes of any number of these places offer young citizens and travelers a thousand times more energy than the darkened church I attended. And, even if it is the wrong kind, a type of salvation – from being alone. The hill offers an immediate hope of connection, and most of all a sense of being alive.
Fado music – Portugal’s unique and crazy mix of sounds, singing and soul — poured from many of the doorways; club music and laughter from the rest. How can the Church compete when it’s up against this? The energy and liveliness of these places completely trumps the vibe I had during my Portuguese Mass. And come to think of it, a lot of Masses I’ve attended back home too.
I worry about what could happen to me if I stayed here in Lisbon, or really anywhere since it isn’t so different than New York with it’s many churches and nightlife. Or Chicago. Or parts of Texas. Or anywhere else.
What does it mean when climbing a great hill at night through the dark is easier and more fulfilling than simply crossing the street at 11am on a Sunday morning for Mass, which can sometimes seem like such a struggle? Though Mass offers me peace and calm and love, I worry the hill could eventually win me over. Even as I write this I can’t wait ’til the evening rolls around and I can climb once again to the beat and sound of the city.
A part of me loves Mass, attends frequently, and prefers what it offers over the above stated nightlife. But I do have to wonder:
Why are so many churches losing their luster? Why do they often seem dark in the midst of these strange and earthly lights? Will the hill win me over? Has it already won over the rest of my generation?