Religion in Portugal | Portugal Visitor

Religion in Portugal | Portugal Visitor


Religious processions take place in many places in Portugal during Easter

Religion in Portugal

Portugal is a predominately Catholic country with over 80% of Portuguese people identifying as Roman Catholic. However, the majority are non-practising only attending church for such rites as baptism, marriage and funerals. Less than 20% of people regularly attend mass and the numbers are declining though they are still higher than for countries in northern Europe such as the UK and Germany.

Though now somewhat dated, a Eurobarometer survey in 2010 found that 70% of Portuguese “believe there is a God”, a much higher percentage than the UK, France or Germany.

Religion has played an important role in the history and culture of the country, and the thousands of churches in Portugal are the focal points of Portugal’s many religious festivals and pilgrimages (romarias).

Christmas and Easter (Santa Semana) are also both celebrated with much gusto in Portugal.

Thousands of pilgrims gather in Fatima.
Thousands of pilgrims gather in Fatima

History of Christianity in Portugal

Christianity began in Portugal during the time of Roman control of the country sometime in the 4th century.

The Roman city of Braga (Bracara Augusta), in the Minho region of north west Portugal, north of Porto, became an important religious center. It is known as the “Rome of Portugal” due to its rich ecclesiastical heritage. Indeed, the north of Portugal remains more “religious” than the south with rates of church-going higher in the north than the south of the country.

The Moorish period of Portugal’s history saw much of the south and center of the country dominated by Islam, though Christians were allowed to practice their religion upon payment of the jizyah tax. Many converted to avoid the cost.

Christianity provided much of the impetus for the Reconquista of the Muslim south. Crusaders from northern Europe and the various religious orders such as the Knights Templars provided the shock troops for the army of Afonso Henriques as he retook Lisbon and several towns in the Alentejo – Beja, Evora, Cáceres, Monsaraz, Moura, Serpa, and Juromenha.

Afonso needed the support of the church as he sought recognition as Portugal’s first monarch. He granted the church and the religious orders vast tracts of land and finally in 1179 the papal bull Manifestis Probatum recognized Afonso as a vassal to the pope and a king.

From this time until the 18th century, the church and state maintained fairly amicable relations. The “Age of the Discoveries” saw Portuguese priests, often Jesuits, sent out to Portuguese territories to establish churches and spread the religion in such far-flung places as Brazil, Goa, Japan and Macau.

The faithful hold aloft candles to show their devotion in Fatima.
The faithful hold aloft candles to show their devotion in Fatima
The Basilica de Nossa Senhora do Rosário de Fátima.
The Basilica de Nossa Senhora do Rosário de Fátima

Pombal & The Enlightenment

Things begin to change with the rise to power of the Marquis de Pombal. He expelled the Catholic Jesuit order in 1759, reformed education by removing it from the control of the church and severed relations with the Papacy in Rome.

In the early 19th century the Inquisition was abolished, religious orders banned and much of their property seized by the state.

The First Republic of 1910 went further and was particularly anticlerical.

Religion in Portugal.
Religion in Portugal has shaped both the history and culture of the country

Estado Novo

With the establishment of the Estado Novo and the dictatorship of the pious Antonio Salazar (who had trained as a priest in his youth), things swing back. Salazar promised the masses “Fado, Fatima and Football” and reversed many of the anticlerical policies of the First Republic. Cordial relations were re-established with the Vatican and the church regained control of religious instruction in state schools.

Convento de Santa Clara-a-Nova, Coimbra, Portugal.
Convento de Santa Clara-a-Nova, Coimbra, Portugal

1974 Revolution

Following the Carnation Revolution of 1974, Church and State were once again formally separated. The Catholic religion lost its special place in Portuguese society and freedom of religion was established. Protestant sects, first introduced by the English, gathered followers and nowadays accounts for around 5% of Christians in the country. Around 1% are followers of other faiths and include Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims.

Basilica de Nossa Senhora do Rosário de Fátima, Portugal.
The Basilica de Nossa Senhora do Rosário de Fátima during a religious gathering at night


The city of Fátima, in the Estremadura region of central Portugal, is the country’s most famous pilgrimage site. Fátima also rivals Braga as Portugal’s most important religious city and is certainly of more international importance and fame. Second only to Lourdes as Europe’s major pilgrimage center, the small town of just 8,000 inhabitants, welcomes millions of devotees a year who come to pray at the site of a miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary that occurred here in 1917.

The Basilica de Nossa Senhora do Rosário de Fátima (Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary) holds the tombs of Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco – the three children who saw the apparition of Mary in 1917.

The Basilica de Santissima Trindade (Basilica of the Most Holy Trinity) is at the other end of the huge square from the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary. The Basilica of the Most Holy Trinity is a contemporary building consecrated in 2007. In part, it was built to ease congestion at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary on pilgrimage days. In all the church took over three years to complete. The Capela das Apariçoes (Chapel of the Apparitions) marks the exact spot where three young shepherd children (Jacinta, Francisco and Lucia) reported having seen apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1917.

Igreja do Senhor dos Passos, Guimarães, Portugal.
Exterior of the church, Igreja do Senhor dos Passos

Churches in Portugal

Some of Portugal’s most important churches are in the capital, Lisbon. These include Lisbon Cathedral () in the Alfama district and the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage listed Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Belem.

The Convento do Carmo is an historic ruin in the Chiado district, which is the city’s most striking example of the devastation caused by the 1755 earthquake which struck the city.

The São Vicente de Fora also referred to as Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora (“Monastery of St. Vincent Outside the Walls”) is also in the Alfama district close to the National Pantheon (aka Igreja de Santa Engrácia), which holds the tombs of many famous Portuguese.

The Basilica da Estrela, in the Estrela district of western Lisbon, 2 km from Bairro Alto, is a fine late 18th century church.

Other famous churches in the country include the important pilgrimage site of Bom Jesus do Monte just 5 km outside Braga and the spectacular Sé de Braga (Braga Cathedral).

The UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Monastery of Santa Maria d’Alcobaça, the Monastery of the Dominicans of Batalha and the Convento de Cristo in Tomar all deserve a mention along with Porto Cathedral.

Religion in Portugal.
Religion in Portugal

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