ROME – Although Pope Francis hasn’t even formally confirmed his presence yet, the 2023 edition of World Youth Day in Lisbon is already generating controversy over a $5.4 million price-tag for the altar area from which the pontiff is expected to celebrate a closing Mass.

Last week Lisbon city officials published details for the massive 54,000-square foot altar and stage area, at a cost of 4.2 million Euro plus VAT, or value-added tax, for a total outlay close to $5.4 million. The contract has been awarded to Portugal’s largest construction company, Mota-Engil.

The expense has generated criticism in the local press and from opposition politicians, who’ve demanded that Mayor Carlos Moedas of Lisbon appear before parliament to answer questions about the awarding of the contract.

“If the housing crisis was an altar for World Youth Day, it would already be solved,” Fabian Figueiredo, from the Left Bloc party, said on Twitter. “The problem is not lack of money but spending priorities.”

“As a Catholic and a man of faith I am saddened by this display of unnecessary opulence at such a difficult time,” wrote Twitter user Manuel Barbosa as quoted by the Reuters news agency.

In an apparent effort to sidestep the controversy, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni has told news outlets that the organization of the August 1-6 World Youth Day is a local matter, and responsibility for the budget lies with the city council.

Moedas, however, has told reporters that plans for the altar/stage were worked out in meetings with the organizing committee for World Youth Day as well as representatives of both the church in Portugal and also the Vatican.

The altar-stage is designed to accommodate up to 2,000 people, including the pope and his party, 1,000 bishops and 300 other concelebrants, a 200-member choir, 30 translators into sign language, and a 90-member orchestra, along with guests, staff and technicians.

City officials say the work will be complete in roughly 150 days, and that the stage will remain and can be used for other events in the future, such as outdoor concerts and rallies.

Responding to the criticism over costs, Auxiliary Bishop Américo Aguiar of Lisbon has said that a meeting will be held this week with the Lisbon City Council as well as the local Urban Rehabilitation Society, which is responsible for the project, in order to try to reduce expenses by as much as possible.

Lisbon was chosen in 2019 to host the next edition of World Youth Day, originally set for 2022 but delayed a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.