The War and the Religious Question in Portugal

In 1914, the Portuguese Republic, founded on 5 October 1910, had yet to succeed in effectively consolidating its rule. The aggressively anti-clerical policies enacted led to growing resentment among Catholics. Indeed, ideological Republicans, driven by their desire to build a "new man," did not stop at the secularization of institutions and indeed sought internal secularisation – of personal awareness and consciousness.[1] For these revolutionaries, modernizing the country depended on the destruction of the Catholic Church’s power. They thus developed an anti-religious evangelism that strongly contradicted their self-proclaimed rationalism.

One should never forget, however, that one important current of republicanism, without ever giving up on their ideological objectives, managed to conciliate republicanism with a non-dogmatic spiritualism and disproved of the rampant materialism of those who militantly demanded the abolition of all existing religion based on a divine Revelation. Beyond these ideological discussions, the majority of the population, especially rural communities mainly in northern Portugal, were simply not about to allow the preachers of liberty to interfere with either their beliefs or their acts of worship.[2]

The outbreak of war appeared to many, whether on the left or right of the political spectrum, as a decisive opportunity. For many Republicans, it represented an ideal occasion to break with international isolation, enabling the international major powers to legitimate their respective policies. They similarly hoped that the existence of an external enemy might bring cohesion to the country under the auspices of their own respective political faction.[3]

This was also the moment for action for militant Catholics. The Church did not want to remain on the margins and was keen to regain its lost influence.[4] However, these efforts triggered suspicion among the interventionists, reducing and simplifying political, religious and social issues to establish a line of continuity between the struggle for the founding of the Republic and the war against Germany.[5] Thus, they sought to portray leading Catholic figures as belonging to the pro-German camp.

It is important to remember that while France was the leader in anti-clerical republicanism and thus naturally gained the sympathy of most who shared such positions, France also remained the source of equally stimulating influences of a Catholic and conservative nature. Thus, in May 1916, the Catholic journalist José Fernando de Sousa (1855-1942) gave a conference speech at Liga Naval establishing a parallel between Joan d’Arc (1412-1431) – who represented France as the proclaimed “eldest daughter of the Church”[6] – and Nuno Álvares Pereira (1360-1431), the saintly Condestável who, at the end of the 14th century, preserved national independence. He was the hero who, inspired by divine protection, managed to attain victory. Worship of the Condestável would build up over the course of time, imitating Joan d’Arc-related events in France.

One should also recall that Belgium, a country often portrayed as a martyr, destroyed by invading forces, was frequently pointed out as a model of Catholicity because it had maintained a Catholic government party for decades.[7] The wave of violence on Belgian soil, highlighted by the press, had a powerful impact on believers; hence the rhetoric of warfare also affected Catholic factions and parties.

However, despite this interventionist propaganda and broad sympathy for the Allied cause, the vast majority of the population would have preferred their family members not to have been directly affected. As the eventuality of the Portuguese youth being sent off to the battlefields neared and was encouraged by the ecclesiastic hierarchy,[8] the worship of Rainha Santa Isabel (1271-1336), Holy Queen Isabel, increased. The queen had served as a mediator and pacifier in the conflicts then breaking out in Portugal. Nevertheless, news reports about prayers for peace attracted criticism from those who advocated war and were solely interested in victory.[9]

Although a minority, Protestants raised awareness of the suffering caused by the conflict very early. Some of the most influential leaders of the different communities were British. Their family members, while born in Portugal, signed up for the British army at the outset of hostilities. Some died. Hence, they felt correspondingly offended when the Catholics, in a replica of the accusations of sympathy for the Germanic cause, attributed responsibility for the conflict to the Protestant Reform, which, launched in Germany, had sown disunity in Christian Europe.[10]

The War Perceived as a Combat between Good and Evil

In light of the religious conflict in Portugal and following the country’s participation in the European war, some Catholics raised their voices and attempted to convey how the conflict represented God’s punishment for man’s errors, stemming from the abandonment of religious norms. For these believers, the moment had come for atonement through suffering and prayer. In June 1916, Álvaro Alfredo Zuzarte de Mendonça (1877-1967) confessed his hope that the war would providentially become “salutary atonement” that would lead to “ancient living, in obedience to divine precepts.”[11] An identical hope was proffered by Alberto Pinheiro Torres (1874-1962) who warned that the opportunity should not be overlooked. Portugal should atone for its sins, wake up “to the redemptive action,” and set out the foundations for Christian-inspired reforms.[12]

Protestants were also not far from this conception that pitted good against evil. Pastor Eduardo Moreira (1886-1980) expressed his faith in the beneficial effects of war, which had burned out some of the final energies of evil.[13]

Even those who did not experience Christianity in such militant terms were not immune to this vision of war as a struggle between good and evil. For example, Henrique Lopes de Mendonça (1856-1931), author of the text adopted as the Republic’s national anthem, portrayed the war as a crusade in defence of Christian civilisation (which the Portuguese had spread out around the world) against barbarism in a small brochure destined for the masses.[14]

Female Religious Organisations Supporting the Military and Their Families

Immediately after the German declaration of war, a female association, Assistência das Portuguesas às Vítimas da Guerra (Assistance to Portuguese Victims of War), was formed, dominated by aristocratic members and led by Maria Josefa de Melo, Countess of Ficalho (1863-1941). These women opted to set up a nursing school similar to many other European countries then at war. Nevertheless, the Portuguese government feared the potential impact and threw obstacles to the project’s process. The organisation dedicated itself to assisting combatants and extending care to their families in Portugal. The women’s motivation was more religious than patriotic, as the Countess of Ficalho herself testified.

Meanwhile, subsequent to the departure of the Portuguese military expedition to France, a new organisation was born: the Madrinhas de Guerra (Mothers-in-law of war). The group was led by Sofia Burnay de Melo Breyner (1875-1948) and consisted of Catholics who sought to provide cheer and boost soldier morale according to Christian principles. They collaborated with the chaplains who provided assistance to the Portuguese contingent dispatched to France.[15]

The actions of these female organisations received significant praise from the broader Catholic community. Pinheiro Torres, in the articles he wrote for the newspaper A Ordem, voiced the opinion that, to a greater extent than the men, women understood and complied with the national mission according to Catholic objectives.[16]

Religious Assistance during the Campaign

The presence of chaplains in the war theatre was an issue that proved anything but pacific. On the contrary, it generated a great deal of controversy in Portuguese society. The more extreme free thinkers were not prepared to deal with what they perceived as a step back in the process of secularisation and modernisation. Nevertheless, the Catholic leaders alleged that, at such a difficult point in time, when soldiers were facing such serious dangers and hazards, the presence of a priest was crucial to preparing for a good death. In addition, sending the souls of the departed was an essential task. Cardinal Patriarch António Mendes Belo (1842-1929) expressed this very concern on behalf of all Catholics. Across all of Portugal, a petition was signed calling upon the authorities to provide such comfort. However, anti-clerical radical sentiment was running high in the opposite sense.[17]

Only on 18 January 1917, a few days before the departure of the first contingent, was the normative decree published for regulating this highly controversial assistance. It enabled serving members of the armed forces to access religious assistance whenever they desired. This service was provided by Portuguese chaplains of various religions who, serving as volunteers, accompanied the troops and had a right to transportation, meals and accommodation but no payment.

The decree proved unable to please either side, the Catholics or their adversaries. However, the Catholic Church’s hierarchy accepted the role handed down to them. Furthermore, across the country, commissions were set up to collect donations; Catholic newspapers published lists of benefactors and their respective contributions. The coordination for all these different efforts and subsequently, for the chaplains’ work, belonged to the Comissão Central de Assistência Religiosa em Campanha (Central Commission of Campaign Religious Assistance), set up in Lisbon at the Patriarchal headquarters. The government’s refusal to subsidise the chaplains gave the Commission free choice in selecting fifteen candidates – the number was set by the government. They preferred those who, in periods of tension between the Republican state and the Church, had remained submissive to the bishops. In this team, over the course of a year – prior to the expansion authorised by Sidónio Pais (1872-1918) – only a single pensioner[18] was actually approved. The majority of these clerics were renowned for their lack of empathy with the regime in power. One of them, Avelino Figueiredo, had even spent three years in prison under the Republicans.

The numbers of Catholic chaplains deployed in France at the outset proved clearly insufficient given both the numbers of soldiers deployed and their geographic dispersal along the battlefront. In Portugal’s African colonies – Angola and Mozambique – no provisions for chaplains were made. Only in March 1918, due to the political changes introduced by the movement led by Sidónio Pais, was the decision taken to send four chaplains to Mozambique. One of them, Artur Tavares Dias, never returned, succumbing to the fevers then so very common in Africa.[19]

The Commission gave Canon José do Patrocínio Dias (1884-1965) leadership of the chaplains in France. However, in the mission’s final months, this responsibility was handed over to Luís Lopes de Melo (1885-1951), a priest with connections to the Centro Académico da Democracia Cristã (Christian Democracy Academic Centre) in Coimbra, where he would later go on to become the ecclesiastic assistant.

On the Front

Some setbacks awaited the first chaplains who set off for France as they sought to organise religious services that broadly followed the precedent set by their British peers. The animosity of the anti-clerical faction remained at the fore and was itself facilitated by the lack of defined roles and functions for the army chaplains. Even the more conciliatory members of the Republican movement, who supported the chaplains’ presence alongside combatants, still held an extremely restricted notion of these functions. The evolutionist M.P. Simões Raposo (1875-1948), who had defended the sending of members of the clergy to France in parliament, still maintained that the chaplains’ mission consisted merely of “cases of final instance,” that is, the final rites on death. Others held similar opinions. The Portuguese expeditionary force commander was given instructions to grant religious funerals only to those who pre-notified the military authorities of their desire to receive such a final rite.

The climate of intransigence gradually began to ebb away. The British army’s organisation of the different religious confessions’ chaplaincy services, with timetables for religious activities and services subject to official publication, may well have contributed towards lessening the level of restriction. A similar effect probably stemmed from their attending acts of worship in French communities away from the front line, which may well have surprised many expeditionary members who imagined they were arriving in a “free” and “democratic” France entirely free of such obscure belief systems.[20]

Against this backdrop of relative calm, the work of chaplains advanced with a certain degree of normality, especially when the soldiers were away from the trenches: mass was celebrated and the rosary and the Stations of the Cross chanted. Such occasions were capitalised upon to distribute medals, rosaries, miniatures of saints, and scapularis. Serving military members also received the Manual do Soldado Português Católico (Portuguese Catholic Soldiers Manual),[21] adopted by the Comissão Central da Assistência Religiosa em Campanha (Central Commission of Campaign Religious Assistance). It included prayers, extracts from the New Testament, words of advice and hymns. For acts of worship, chapels and churches were used, even after having suffering major war damage, in whatever villages Portuguese troops were stationed in. On occasion, inhabitants of these communities also attended. When absolutely no place of worship was available, chaplains used easily transportable structures (portable altars) that contained all the religious articles necessary for celebrating mass. Religious assistance could not be contained to this almost parishioner level of provision. It necessarily had to be expanded into hospitals and the vessels transporting the wounded back to Portugal and to the trenches.

Particular attention was paid to acts of worship that took place on the eve of any return to the trenches following a period of rest and recuperation away from the front line. As places in which death was constantly imminent, the numbers of devotees rose alongside those seeking the rites of confession and communion. Forecasting the impossibility of hearing each and every one of the thousands heading off to the front, the Vatican would grant special terms and endow soldiers with the status as persons in danger of losing their lives. The chaplain present granted general absolution, after reciting the act of contrition, with surviving soldiers, once out of danger, then subject to the need to go to confession. Thus, the chaplains could absolve entire battalions even while many soldiers, once out of danger, did not keep up their side of the confessional bargain.

Independently of the initiatives of the chaplains, who due to their limited numbers were not able to be present in all such moments and locations, such direct contact with death fostered a profound sense of religiousness. According to the account of João Ferreira do Amaral (1876-1930),[22] an officer in the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps (Corpo Expedicionário Português, or CEP), those soldiers unable to access their own chaplain participated in the religious services intended for the inhabitants of the local communities, singing along in Portuguese to whichever hymns they recognised. Several combat units had their celestial protectors and it was common to find soldiers gathered together around modest shrines or half destroyed Calvary scenes.[23]

Many soldiers showed their devotion to what was designated "Christ of the Trenches" in Neuve Chapelle – a cross in the image of Christ, flanked by wreckage and rubble. Despite all the surrounding damage caused by the extent of the bombardment, the cross still stood tall and thus nurtured a belief in the miraculous.[24]

One should never forget that among those called up were a handful of clergy members who were under the same obligations as all other soldiers. Little is known about what kind of actions they may have engaged in. However, in all probability, their presence to a greater or lesser extent offset the shortage of chaplains among the military units that would otherwise have been without any kind of religious support.[25]

The chaplains’ ministry extended beyond the strictly religious sphere.[26] Assisting the illiterate in reading and writing their correspondence back home was one such task. Attention was also paid to the leisure activities of soldiers similar to that already existing in the armies of other nations. Furthermore, homes and other facilities where combatants might read traditional moral literature, engage in games deemed honest, access correspondence materials such as paper, ink and envelopes, and purchase essential goods at modest prices, were steadily set up. At the core of all such concerns was a moral objective: keep soldiers away from the estaminets where, beyond the purchase of these items, there were also other distractions that were not always perceived as beneficial.

Naturally, contact with the British army proved fundamental to all such actions. Within this framework, the efforts of the Protestant organisation Triângulo Vermelho (Red Triangle) were generally admired. Setting up these soldiers’ houses was received favourably not only by the coordinating Commission, but also by other entities, such as the backers of the Catholic newspapers, the Madrinhas de Guerra, who sent books, newspapers, games and musical instruments. Whether or not related to these types of institutions, literacy classes were set up, along with musical and theatrical groups.

Within the scope of these leisure activities, one should also mention the organisation of excursions possible on days of rest. It is understood that Lourdes was the preferred destination chosen by these Catholic priests. Indeed, military of different nationalities who fought side by side in France visited this city. (Meanwhile and undoubtedly related to the war sufferings, events were taking place in Fátima, in central Portugal, transforming this location into what would become an important pilgrimage centre: from May to October of 1917, the Virgin Mary “appeared” to three little shepherds. As one of the seers told, Our Lady stated that the war would soon be over and soldiers would return home). The chaplains’ work was exhausting, requiring travel from place to place, which, especially during the early months of deployment, was conducted on foot. The rigours of the climate, different to that in Portugal, only worsened the situation. Of the fifteen who set off with the first party, two were not able to cope and were soon forced to return.

In April 1918, the Battle of the Lys, disastrous for the Portuguese Expeditionary Force, represented an opportunity for the chaplains in the field to demonstrate their qualities of serenity, courage and even of sacrifice. They were duly showered with public praise and medals.[27] Indeed, some months later, the entire body of chaplains, irrespective of whether they had been present in that battle, received a commendation “for the spirit of disinterest, abnegation and sacrifice” in the performance of their mission.[28]

Despite praise for the actions undertaken, including commendation from the overall force commander, General Fernando Tamagnini de Abreu e Silva (1856-1924), and despite all of the Catholics’ demands to the Ministry of War to increase the numbers of chaplains, it was not until April 1918 that the number was increased. At the end of the war, the number of chaplains who rendered active religious support in the field of war (not including the four on duty in Africa) was approximately thirty. One was Father Casimiro de Sá (1873-1934), well known for having served as a member of parliament in the Congress of the Republic (1911-1917).

The political transformations in Portugal after Sidónio Pais took power – involving the removal of the most aggressive anti-Catholic Church leaders from their positions – allowed for an expansion in the chaplains’ role. Decree no. 4489 from 4 June 1918 introduced important alterations and stipulated that such assistance would be extended to all establishments (even in Portugal) caring for wounded and injured soldiers who returned from France. The Cardinal Patriarch himself went to visit Lisbon’s military hospitals in June 1918 and allocated a priest to care for those in such institutions. The decree established that chaplains receive a salary in accordance with their post.

The sphere of religious assistance also extended to honouring the fallen. The solemn ceremonies that took place on 15 May 1918, presided over by Cardinal Mendes Belo, were endowed with considerable magnitude. The crowds flocked to the church at an event honoured by the presence of President Sidónio Pais, who made a specific point of attending alongside other members of both the government and members of the diplomatic corp. For the first time since the founding of the Republic, the most important members of the two power hierarchies appeared side by side in public.

The funereal prayer given by the Bishop of Portalegre, D. Manuel Mendes da Conceição Santos (1876-1955), became a true hymn to the war and to the soldiers who – according to the words of the preacher – maintained the independence of their homeland and Christianity with their sacrifice.[29]

As regards those soldiers held prisoner in Germany, religious support was handed over to the initiative of those detained. However, following the armistice and their respective liberation, the chaplains were charged with supplying clothing and shoes in addition to spiritually caring for the soldiers flocking into French ports in states of extreme misery. At the end of war, with tens of thousands of soldiers awaiting transport back to Portugal – an operation that advanced extremely slowly – the money deployed by the Commission coordinating the religious assistance sought to fulfil what under normal circumstances would have been the responsibility of the Portuguese state. However, Portugal was at that time plunged into a state that bordered on civil war following the assassination of Sidónio Pais.

Protestants and Religious Assistance

In a fashion similar to the Catholics, the Protestant churches felt the greatest sense of need to have their own representatives in the battle zone. In truth, Portuguese believers in non-Catholic Christian faiths were a minority. However (as happened with the religious majority), Protestant community leaders believed that the time was propitious for winning over new converts. In Tancos, throughout the period of military training prior to departure for France, thousands of bibles and evangelist material were distributed. Later, the same happened on the departure wharves, barracks and all other military focal points.

As regards their presence on the front line in France, the fact that a large number of preachers and religious figures were British would seem to have been favourable to their mission from the outset. They were able to count on the benevolence of the British command, although this actually made little difference on the ground. The British religious activist, Carlos Swan (1861-1934), a former missionary to Angola – and therefore fluent in Portuguese – encountered difficulties when he tried to organise the Christian Union of Soldiers among the Portuguese Expeditionary Force.[30] However, the decree issued on 18 January 1917 regulating the provision of religious assistance in the field stipulated that only Portuguese citizens could carry it out.

The departure of Portuguese Protestant chaplains required preliminary negotiations between the representatives of the different communities, who, in an effort to ensure equality of opportunity, established that the Protestants would alternate in missions. However, following the Sidonist revolution, the new authorities, closer to the Catholics, ruled that the non-Catholic believers represented such a reduced percentage of the military force that there was no justification for their chaplains’ presence.

The Protestant communities did not face these obstacles lying down. They proved able, via this alternative means, to establish a presence on the battlefields. Alfredo Henrique da Silva (1872-1950), one of the most influential of all Portuguese Protestant leaders and president of the Comité Nacional das Uniões Cristãs (National Committee of Christian Unions), undertook notable efforts to ensure his compatriots would be able to benefit from the services of the Red Triangle – the emblem and common term of the Uniões Cristãs da Mocidade (Young Men’s Christian Associations, or YMCA).[31] The YMCA organized pavilions with libraries, cinemas, games rooms and canteens for soldiers in the British army, as well as those of other nationalities. This charitable work relied upon important funding from the International America Committee.

Having achieved authorisation from Minister Norton de Matos, Alfredo da Silva set off for France, having obtained permission for Portuguese soldiers to access and benefit from these infrastructures provided by British establishments whenever they did not have access to their own facilities. In Paris, the Bureau do Triângulo Vermelho Português (Portuguese Red Triangle Bureau) was set up to care for the Portuguese expeditionary members in need and able to reach the city. The American committee selected Myron Clark (1866-1920) – an American who had lived for years in Portugal, where he had served in the Associação Cristã de Estudantes (Christian Association of Students) in Coimbra – to run the Red Triangle alongside the Portuguese soldiers in France. It should be noted that even the Catholic chaplains had no reservations about accepting the hospitality of Red Triangle whenever in Paris, which proved at least a non-hostile, if not actually friendly, relationship.

Volunteers were required to staff these facilities and Myron Clark put out an appeal to all evangelical Christians. Their response was not long in coming. The secretary of war received a steady stream of requests for authorisation for obreiros (staff workers) to be granted passports and visas. Nevertheless, the volunteers were advised that the assistance they were to provide was “without any sectarian character and maintaining absolute religious neutrality.”[32] Given the numbers of obreiros Protestants setting off for France, it might be stated that the enormous numerical disproportion between Catholics and Protestants soldiers would benefit the latter. In fact, they were subject to obligatory religious neutrality not demanded of the Catholics. Nevertheless, it should be recalled that their actions were not focused on organising religious services for their co-believers – there would only be six such services according to official accounts – but on taking their message to those who knew little about Christianity and who would receive religious texts and have the message explained to them.

As happened with the Catholics, the armistice did not bring an end to the actions of the Protestants, who, in 1919, demanded to set up some YMCA tents on Lisbon’s Avenida 24 de Julho to host returning soldiers.[33]


While World War One is generally considered a landmark in contemporary history, in Portugal the war proved determinant in the religious field, bringing about a change in attitudes and sweeping away pre-existing prejudices. Following contact with other peoples, many free thinkers held that belief in the supernatural was compatible with progress and that the words of the chaplain, on the eve of departure for the trenches, raised the soldiers’ morale. On another note, the natural way in which the British engaged with different religions represented a lesson for Portuguese priests who learned to respect missionaries of other confessions, while never giving up on combating their respective influence.

In April 1921, in the Portuguese ceremonies held in honour of the Unknown Soldier – indeed, the two soldiers, one fallen in France and another in Africa – chaplains were in attendance and demonstrated that cooperation during the conflict really had opened up new scope for mutual understanding. The Catholic chaplains expressed special pride in their dual role as priests and military. Their leader would be the Bishop of the Diocese of Beja, known as the bishop-soldier, a title he adopted with pride.

Among the population who, while far from the conflict and bloodshed, still experienced the suffering, driving intensification in religious belief in turn fostered a higher level of faith in divine intervention. What became termed the Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Fátima in 1917 seemed to have happened in response.

Maria Lúcia de Brito Moura, CEHR/Universidade Católica Portuguesa

Section Editors: Filipe Ribeiro de Meneses; Maria Fernanda Rollo; Ana Paula Pires