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Pope Francis is expected in Lisbon on August 2, 2023 for World Youth Day Image Credit: AFP

Vatican City: Almost two months after undergoing hernia surgery, Pope Francis heads to Lisbon Wednesday for a five-day trip for World Youth Day, a major Catholic event expected to draw a million pilgrims.

The 86-year-old Argentine pontiff has a typically packed schedule in Portugal despite his health issues, which saw him spend nine nights in hospital in June - his third stay in hospital since 2021.

An outspoken Jesuit who loves being among his flock, Pope Francis is hugely popular among young Catholics and is likely to address issues they particularly care about, such as climate change. He is also expected to talk about the war in Ukraine.

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World Youth Day, a week of religious, cultural and festive events held every two or three years, is also an opportunity for the Catholic Church to show it is still relevant after many followers were left alienated by decades of scandal over clerical child sex abuse.

Church organisers are expecting about one million pilgrims from across the globe, although the Portuguese government has suggested it could be up to 1.5 million.

In his first trip abroad since his surgery, the pope is due to make 11 public pronouncements and hold numerous meetings, and on Saturday will visit the shrine of Fatima north of Lisbon.

Americo Aguiar, the auxiliary bishop of Lisbon who is organising the event, said some elements of the programme might change, however, depending on the health of the pope, who regularly uses a wheelchair.

"We are aware of the limits of the pope," Aguiar told AFP, saying organisers were doing their best to adapt, including reducing the amount of times the pontiff must get in and out of a car.

Around 16,000 members of law enforcement, civil protection and medical staff are being deployed for the visit, officials said.

Roads and metro stations will be closed, presenting a challenge for the city of 550,000 inhabitants already busy with summer tourists.

Meeting abuse victims

The pope arrives in Lisbon on Wednesday, the second day of World Youth Day, meeting with officials, diplomats and religious figures before a series of encounters with young people on Thursday and Friday.

On Saturday morning Francis will visit the rural pilgrimage site of Fatima, where in 2017 he declared sainthood for two young shepherds who a century earlier had visions of the Virgin Mary.

That evening the pope will lead a vigil in Lisbon's waterfront Parque Tejo, ahead of a mass held at the park Sunday morning.

Preparations are already well underway for the visit, with World Youth Day flags in green, red and yellow adorning the main square.

Pope Francis is also expected during his visit to meet privately with victims of sexual abuse by members of the Portuguese clergy.

A report published in February by an independent commission found at least 4,815 children were sexually abused by clergy members - mostly priests - since 1950.

The inquiry, based on testimony from over 500 victims, concluded that the Church hierarchy in Portugal "systematically" tried to conceal the abuse.

The results of the inquiry, which was commissioned by the Church in the country, has been a damning blow to the institution in Portugal where 80 percent of its population of some 10 million people identify as Roman Catholic.

Distant relationship

But among some groups of Catholics, faith is still strong, particularly among students, noted Jose Pereira Coutinho, a sociologist at the Catholic University of Portugal.

Americo Aguiar said the pope himself was hugely influential.

"Many young people I've met don't regularly go to mass on Sunday... Pope Francis is a huge draw for these young people who have a very distant relationship with the Church," he told AFP.

"This calls for a different model (of engagement) on our part."

Initially scheduled for August 2022, but postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Lisbon World Youth Day is the 16th international edition of what has become the largest gathering of Catholics worldwide.

The brainchild of late Pope John Paul II, this year's event is the fourth presided over by Pope Francis, who became head of the Catholic Church in 2013.

The last three events took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013, Krakow, Poland in 2016 and Panama City, Panama in 2019.

Lisbon is the pope's 42nd overseas visit and will be followed by a trip to Mongolia in early September and Marseille in the south of France on September 23.