Obituary: Cardinal Antonio Ribeiro

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The Independent Online
ANTONIO RIBEIRO was for more than a quarter of a century Patriarch of Lisbon and head of the Roman Catholic Church in Portugal.

He led the Church through turbulent political times, taking over soon after the death of the dictator Antonio Salazar, and not long before the revolution of 1974 overthrew the old order and brought Portugal close to becoming a Communist-run state, before moving back towards a Western- style democracy. Ribeiro also had the difficult task of adapting the Church to a changing society after the Second Vatican Council.

Born to a poor family in a small village near the north-eastern city of Braga, he was an only child whose father, Jose, died when he was young. He was sent to seminary in Braga when he was 10 and stayed until he left as a priest aged 25. He took a doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University in Rome in 1959 and travelled widely through Europe before returning to Portugal.

He began a succession of teaching jobs in Catholic institutions and published several books on theology and the Church's social teaching. He became active in movements that sought to adapt the Church to modern times after the Second Vatican Council. He became a public figure through his weekly religious television programmes between 1959 and 1967, when he was appointed assistant bishop of Braga.

In 1969 he was transferred to Lisbon as assistant bishop to the then Patriarch, Cardinal Goncalves Cerejeira. Many felt that Cerejeira - who had held the office for four decades - was too close to the Salazar regime. Ribeiro's relations with the government were at times tense. When he took over the office of patriarch on Cerejeira's resignation in 1971, the change of style was immediately apparent. In the March 1973 consistory Pope Paul VI made Ribeiro a cardinal at the age of only 44, the youngest of the cardinals.

After the 1974 revolution, sparked by a military revolt, Ribeiro shared the concerns of many that the Communists were becoming too powerful, but his moderate, discreet approach won him broad respect. As democracy took root in Portugal once again Ribeiro largely stayed out of the political arena. He felt that, while the Church should make its position clear, it should not dictate to elected politicians what they should or should not do. It was only on such issues as abortion that he spoke out, calling on Catholics not to vote for parties that supported it.

Already suffering from cancer and in failing health, Ribeiro asked Pope John Paul II in 1996 to relieve him of his duties, but the pontiff turned down his request. However, he did grant him an assistant, Jose da Cruz Policarpo, who is widely expected to replace him as Cardinal.

Ribeiro's background - a pious village upbringing followed by years in Catholic education, - left him a little detached from the rest of Portuguese society. He was close to his mother and spent much time with her in the village. But those who got to know him found him friendly and approachable. He was able to reach a good rapport with the ordinary clergy.

Ribeiro saw his task as modernising the Catholic Church in Portugal, concentrating on the education of the clergy and laity, evangelisation and the involvement of laity in this work, but did not follow through reform. Highly cultured and articulate, he was too distant and private a man to tackle the problems facing the Church in a traditionally Catholic nation as it underwent vast political, social and religious change.

Antonio Ribeiro, priest: born Gandarela de Basto, Portugal 21 May 1928; ordained priest 1953, Assistant Bishop of Braga 1967-69; Assistant Bishop of Lisbon 1969-71; Patriarch of Lisbon 1971-98; named a Cardinal 1973; died Lisbon 24 March 1998.