Just nine days before his creation as a cardinal, Bishop Américo Manuel Alves Aguiar was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Setúbal, south of Lisbon. The Holy See Press Office made the announcement on September 21, 2023. Since 2019, he had been auxiliary bishop of the diocese of the Portuguese capital, where he was the coordinator of the recent World Youth Day. His transfer to a small diocese comes as a relative surprise, but he assures us that he is preparing for this new mission “with an open heart.”
Studies and ministry
Born on December 12, 1973, in the Diocese of Porto, Américo Aguiar entered the seminary in 1995. He had previously served as a town councilor for a small town in the Porto region under the Socialist Party. He studied theology at Catholic University of Portugal and obtained a master’s degree in Communication Sciences in Lisbon.
Ordained on July 8, 2001 for the Diocese of Porto, he has held various positions including parish priest, scout chaplain, communications manager, vicar general, and director of the bishop’s office. He then joined the Bishops’ Conference as Chairman of the Board of Directors of Radio Renascença and Director of the National Secretariat for Social Communications.
Pope Francis appointed him auxiliary bishop of Lisbon on March 1, 2019, and he received episcopal consecration on the following March 31. He was responsible for organizing this year’s World Youth Day, originally scheduled for 2022 but postponed by a year due to the pandemic. This 37th edition of the event saw Pope Francis visit Portugal from August 2 to 6, 2023.
Controversy surrounding the WYD
This first post-pandemic WYD was a success in terms of attendance, with one and a half million young people from all over the world taking part in the final weekend.
However, the event did have some controversy. The transport and accommodation conditions of certain groups was one of the issues. Also, some commentators felt too much attention was paid to the festive dimension of the gathering, to the detriment of times of silence and prayer. The distribution of Communion and the storage of consecrated hosts in plastic containers also raised eyebrows in the media and among participants, with some criticizing the Organizing Committee.
At the beginning of the summer of 2023, the name of Bishop Américo Aguiar appeared in the press and on social networks for controversial comments he made during an interview with the Portuguese media RTP on the preparations for the WYD. “We don’t want to convert young people to Christ or to the Catholic Church,” he said, astonishing many Catholics. In the interview, Bishop Américo Aguiar explained that young people of all denominations were invited to WYD, as had been the case in previous editions.
Acknowledging that this statement, taken in isolation, could give rise to “perplexity,” he later explained to the American media outlet The Pillar that he didn’t “see WYD as an opportunity for active proselytism.” Rather, “the goal is that each person, after going home, might feel called to conversion, […] marked by the experience of having met these young people who want to bear witness to the living Christ.”
His newest appointment
The announcement of his cardinalate in 2023, on the eve of World Youth Day in Lisbon, underlined the good personal relations that the young bishop has forged with the Argentine pontiff. His place in the consistory on September 30 had given rise to rumors of his possible transfer to Rome as prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, or his promotion as patriarch of Lisbon. The incumbent Cardinal Manuel Clemente had announced that he would be leaving his post after the WYD.
His appointment to a relatively small diocese, with just 60 diocesan priests serving a total population of around 780,000 people, had been the subject of articles in the Portuguese press for several days, but came as a relative surprise. He explained that he had taken up his new post “without a written pastoral program” but “with an open heart.” Bishop Aguiar said he was following in the footsteps of Setúbal’s first bishop, Manuel Martins (1927-2017), who was born in the same town as him and whom he had known personally.
This suffragan diocese of Lisbon was one of the host dioceses for WYD pilgrims during the week of the final gathering, along with Santarém. The town of Setúbal itself, which has a population of around 120,000, is located some forty kilometers from Lisbon.
Second-youngest cardinal in the world
At just 49, he is now the second-youngest cardinal in the world — behind Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, Apostolic Prefect of Ulaanbaatar. With years ahead, he could be entrusted with new responsibilities in the future, after a few years’ experience as a bishop in charge of a diocese. He will remain cardinal elector until his 80th birthday, on December 12, 2053, and could therefore be required to take part in several conclaves.