The group of teenage pilgrims traipsing through Lisbon during this week’s big meeting of Catholic youth from all over the world seemed to have taken to heart Pope Francis’ call for them to shake things up.
It would be better, one girl said, if the church were “more inclusive of all relationships, gay rights and all that.” A boy holding a portable speaker playing pop hits added he would be all for “girls being priests.” Another girl, with an Irish flag draped from her shoulders, said that she would like to hear “women say Mass.”
“More people would then practice the Catholic faith,” said Alexandra Beattie, 17, who, like the others, was a student at St. Ciaran’s College, in Ballygawley, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. “Yeah,” said Niamh Quinn, also 17, “people would come in and it would only produce good things because the message is good — love one another.”
Francis, 86, has sought to breathe fresh air into the church during his decade as pontiff, and at the World Youth Day celebrations this week in Portugal he has stressed that “the church has room for everyone.”
“Todos, todos, todos,” he said, using the Spanish and Portuguese word for everyone, and then urged a boisterous crowd of 500,000 people on Thursday evening to say those words together in their own languages.
But at such a vast gathering, the ideological translation of “everyone” shifted markedly depending on who uttered it. For all the pope’s calls for unity and fraternity, World Youth Day emerged as yet another picture of a fragmented global institution with often contradictory interests pulling at its future.
Some young people, like the Irish teens, said concrete changes needed to happen. Others said the church needed only to shift emphasis to inclusivity, while keeping its same rules. Others, especially from Africa and other parts of the global South where the church’s future seems to be unfolding, wanted to avoid changes altogether.
How the views of young people mesh with those of the broader Catholic following was another question looming for the church. Much of what the Irish teens wanted to see would amount to a revolution for a 2,000-year-old institution.
Surveys in the West have shown young people increasingly comfortable with gay marriage and other cultural shifts contrary to church doctrine. In recent years, with Francis’ health ever fragile, he has introduced overhauls that give more roles to women and lay people, while still walking a fine line of keeping the church’s traditionalists in the fold.
He has also ordered a global polling of the issues his flock cares most about ahead of a major multiyear meeting of bishops from around the world in October.
A working paper for the meeting, released in June, outlined a broad discussion that reflected Francis’ vision for a more inclusive, decentralized and transformed church, that broached issues such as priestly celibacy, outreach to LGBTQ+ communities, and the possibility of women becoming deacons, an ordained position in the church.
“It’s just a matter of time,” said Tim Wenzel, 25, a pastoral worker in the church from Saxony-Anhalt, in Germany, who held a tall German flag as he watched the pope’s address to pilgrims, outside the Parque Eduardo VII, where Francis was visibly delighted by the dancing and singing and expressions of enthusiasm bursting around him.
Mr. Wenzel expressed optimism that the upcoming meeting in Rome would make lasting changes and agreed with many in the German church, among the world’s most liberal, that gay relationships should be blessed by priests.
“We are blessing everything, but not people who love one another?” he said. “This will happen.”
Like many here, he also said that holding bishops accountable for their role in enabling sex abuse was a prerequisite for the church’s survival moving forward, and he hoped the role of women in the church would expand. “Women as deacons,” he said, “as a minimum.”
But that was far from a universal view. If anything, the stronger current running through the sea of young people was a reluctance to open the door too wide.
To “accept the doctrine of the gays,” said Edward Fuday O’Neil, 31, from Sierra Leone, would be suicidal for the church in Africa. “For us Africans, it doesn’t work, it is not in the picture of our culture.”
He said the most important thing was for the church to “regain its momentum and popularity” against the challenge of rising Pentecostal and Evangelical churches in the region. To do that, he said it was key to “indoctrinate young kids coming up” in Catholic schools.
Mr. O’Neil spoke outside the Catholic University of Portugal, where Francis on Thursday morning urged students to “work for a more just and inclusive — that is, truly progressive — society,” by rejecting the perpetuation of the “present global system of elitism and inequality.”
The school has inaugurated a new academic chair dedicated to the “Economy of Francesco,” which embraces the pope’s view of promoting an economy emphasizing social good over profit margins.
Marta Sousa Coutinho, 24, a researcher in social innovation attached to the new chair, said that Francis’ view that economic questions were inseparable from issues of sustainability and protection of the environment “was not radical.” It just needed young people “to make it real.”
But she suggested change might be slower inside the church on other issues, like gay marriage and the role of women. “People need to talk more before change,” she said.
Others were even more reluctant.
Eliana Louredo, 26, a volunteer from Lamego, Portugal, said she was in a group that met with the pope on Wednesday and said he emphasized that the church accepts “all, all, all.” But she said that acceptance meant listening, not necessarily changing church laws.
Yadimir María Crespo, 22, from the Dominican Republic, balked at the mere mention of women taking on more official roles in the church, and said she preferred to support the existing nuns.
“The women in the church are doing what they have to do,” she said, adding that the nuns could be helped by laywomen like herself “in the places they cannot be. Like in a pub. You can be evangelized in a pub.”
Or on Lisbon’s streets. In a small square in the Graçia neighborhood, Giulia Fabbretti, 26, an Italian set designer who had been living in Lisbon for four years, watched with bemusement as a Christian-themed rapper sought to rile up a handful of young pilgrims.
“This next song is called ‘Thank You God,’” he said. “It’s a banger. Here we go.”
Ms. Fabbretti said she was raised Catholic in Perugia and that her grandmother was devout, but she heard nothing from the church that spoke to her, and that “they are not really open to discuss the problems inside the church, LGBTQ stuff — they are saying they are open, but they are closed to it. If they are trying to talk to other people they can’t do it. It’s for themselves.”
For the church, the meeting was a chance to connect young people from different countries to strengthen their faith. A Spaniard gave high fives to the Italians in the streets. Some pilgrims from Africa rested shoulder-to-shoulder with Americans in the park. Chants of “this is it, the youth of the pope” reverberated around the park as a break dancer spun on the stage.
Still, some noticed that not all Catholics were welcomed to the party.
“It’s still not really open for everyone,” said Sameule Martini, 17, from Treviso, Italy. His cousin Valentina Martini, also 17, agreed. “Gay people,” she said. “There are a lot of old people running the church and they have an old mentality and say no to them.”
They talked about other changes they would like to see in the church, including, Ms. Martini said, a bigger role for women, including at the top. “I wouldn’t mind seeing a papessa one day.”