The editor of The Catholic Miscellany, Deirdre C. Mays, joined a group of Catholic journalists from the United States as they toured Fatima and other religious sites in Portugal. The trip was sponsored by Regina Tours.
Fatima is a place of silence and sanctuary. That may be hard to imagine since millions of pilgrims visit its tiny Apparitions Chapel in the center of a basilica in the hopes of answered prayers on their journey of faith.
The message of peace and hope brought to the world by the Mother of God through three shepherd children in 1917, however, is undeniable.
Mary appeared to Lucia de Jesus, 10, and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto, 9 and 7, who watched their flocks in a place called Cova da Iria in the parish of Fatima, located in the town of Vila Nova de Ourem. Between April and October of 1916, an angel appeared to them three times, urging them to prayer and penance. As the three finished their prayers on May 13, 1917, a woman appeared “who shone brighter than the sun” and held a rosary. She appeared above a small holm oak tree; the spot was later to become the Capinha das Aparicoes (Apparitions Chapel). She told the children to pray and said she would return on the same day over the following five months.
The fourth apparition took place Aug. 19 in Valinos, near the children’s home in Aljustrel, because the children and been removed for questioning by the town administrator on Aug. 13. Word of the apparitions spread, and at the time of the final apparition on Oct. 13, an estimated 70,000 people were present. Our Lady appeared to the children, telling them she was the Lady of the Rosary and that a chapel was to be built there in her honor. The apparition was followed by a miracle of the sun spinning. It was witnessed by the crowd.
Francisco and Jacinta did not live to adulthood. The boy died during a flu epidemic three years after the apparitions, and his sister died a year later. Lucia, the main visionary, died in 2005 after living her life as a cloistered Carmelite. She entered the Carmelo de Santa Teresa in Coimbra and lived long enough to see the disclosure of the third secret of Fatima and her cousins’ beatification.
The message of Fatima, which is that of the Gospel, was permanent conversion, prayer, a sense of collective responsibility, and the practice of reparation.
The first two parts of the message included a vision of hell, the end of World War I and the start of World War II, the rise of Soviet communism and its eventual fall if the country was consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
In June 2000 the Vatican released the third part of the message, which has been interpreted to describe the violence and persecution that afflicted the church and individual Christians under Nazism, communism and other totalitarian systems. Pope John Paul II also believed the third part of the secret predicted the 1981 attempt to assassinate him, which happened on the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. The bullet with which he was shot has now been placed in the crown of Mary’s statue in the Apparitions Chapel.
Visitors to Fatima will be overwhelmed by the sincere displays of faith they will see at the basilica. Women, and sometimes men, crawl on their knees in penance or thanksgiving down the well-worn path of limestone that runs the length of the plaza. It is the size of a football field and can accommodate up to 300,000 people.
Every Portuguese person will try to walk to Fatima from his or her home at least once, according to Gloria Bagao, a tour guide who hosted a group of Catholic journalists from the United States.
Candlelight rosaries are held every evening, and the orange glow in the darkness creates an ethereal atmosphere.
The nearby village of Aljustrel remains relatively unchanged, and tour bus drivers adroitly navigate the narrow streets to the simple houses of the visionary children and their families. Some of the children’s cousins remain on the property to greet pilgrims.
Fatima’s first adoration chapel was constructed in 1919 but was destroyed by an explosion in 1922. Construction of the current basilica began in 1928 and was completed in 1931.
Each year Fatima is visited by an estimated 6 million pilgrims. In order to meet the needs of the large crowds, construction of a new basilica started in 2000. The Holy Trinity Basilica will seat 12,000 people and will have 12 side chapels. It is expected to be completed in time for the 90th anniversary of the apparitions in 2007.
Pilgrims to this beautiful country will have no difficulty finding accommodations; the shrine is surrounded by hotels and guest houses. Souvenir shops packed with rosaries, candles and holy water look more like religious shops.
Regardless of why they come, pilgrims and visitors to Fatima will find this a truly Catholic place where Mary’s message of peace, prayer and hope is alive and well.