The practice of religion in Portugal showed striking regional differences. Even in the early 1990s, 60 to 70 percent of the population in the traditionally Roman Catholic north regularly attended religious services, compared with 10 to 15 percent in the historically anticlerical south. In the greater Lisbon area, about 30 percent were regular churchgoers.
The traditional importance of Roman Catholicism in the lives of the Portuguese was evident in the physical organization of almost every village in Portugal. The village churches were usually in prominent locations, either on the main square or on a hilltop overlooking the villages. Many of the churches and chapels were built in the sixteenth century at the height of Portugal's colonial expansion and might and were often decorated with wood and gold leaf from the conquests. In recent decades, however, they were often in disrepair, for there were not enough priests to tend them. Many were used only rarely to honor the patron saints of the villages.
Much of the country's religious life had traditionally taken place outside the formal structure and official domain of the Roman Catholic Church. This was especially true in rural areas where the celebration of saints' days and religious festivals were popular. The most famous of Portuguese religious events was the supposed apparition of the Virgin Mary to three children in 1917 in the village of Fátima in the province of Santarém. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have visited the shrine at Fátima in the belief that the pilgrimage could bring about healing.
Rural Portuguese often sought to establish a close and personal relationship with their saints. Believing God to be a remote and inaccessible figure, they petitioned patron saints to act as intermediaries. This system of patronage resembled that operating in the secular realm. To win their saint's goodwill, believers presented the saint with gifts, showed that they gave alms to the poor, and demonstrated upright behavior, hoping that the saint might intercede on their behalf with God.
Women tended to practice their religion more than men did, as evidenced by church attendance. In addition, the Virgin Mary, who was the most popular of the spiritual mediators, was often revered more than Jesus and served as the patron of religious processions. The image of the Virgin, as well as that of Christ, were commonly displayed, even in labor union offices or on signs in demonstrations.
The Roman Catholic Church sometimes criticized religious folk practices for dividing people from their God. The church could not monitor all folk customs, however, and such practices continued even in the 1990s. Moreover, the church recognized that many Portuguese felt at least as much loyalty to their saints and customary religious practices as they did to the more formal church. For these reasons, it was not unusual that the church tolerated and sometimes even encouraged these practices as a way of maintaining popular adherence to Roman Catholicism.
Other aspects of Portuguese folk religion were not approved by the official church, including witchcraft, magic, and sorcery. Formal religion, folk beliefs, and superstition were frequently jumbled together, and in the popular mind all were part of being Roman Catholic. Particularly in the isolated villages of northern Portugal, belief in witches, witchcraft, and evil spirits was widespread. Some persons believed in the concept of the "evil eye" and feared those who supposedly possessed it. Again, women were the main practitioners. Almost every village had its "seers," practitioners of magic, and "healers." Evil spirits and even werewolves were thought to inhabit the mountains and byways, and it was believed that people must be protected from them. Children and young women were thought to be particularly vulnerable to the "evil eye."
As people became better educated and moved to the city, they lost some of these folk beliefs. But in the city and among educated persons alike, superstition could still be found, even in the early 1990s. Sorcerers, palm readers, and readers of cards had shops, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, but not exclusively so. In short, a strong undercurrent of superstition still remained in Portugal. The formal church disapproved of superstitious practices but was powerless to do much about them.
In contrast to that of Spain, Portuguese Catholicism was softer and less intense. The widespread use of folk practices and the humanization of religion made for a loving though remote god, in contrast to the harshness of the Spanish vision. In Portugal, unlike Spain, God and his saints were imagined as forgiving and serene. In Spain the expressions depicted on the faces of saints and martyrs were painful and anguished; in Portugal they were complacent, calm, and pleasant.
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