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Fatima: A century of devotion

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FATIMA, Portugal — Just weeks before the visit of Pope Francis to Fatima, the small Portuguese town is humming with last-minute preparations for the thousands of pilgrims expected for the 100th anniversary of the Marian apparitions and the canonization of two of the three shepherd children who saw Mary.

Hotels sparkled with fresh paint, some still in the thick of construction. Souvenir shops were open with fresh stacks of postcards and wax body parts for placing as intentions in the candle fire pit next to the shrine. The huge outdoor altar and sanctuary built for the papal Mass is finished, strictly off limits to the early tourists, and lit at night with a narrow cross on the back wall.

The peaceful atmosphere lends itself to imagining life in 1917, children tending to their chores in the rolling hills and an unexpected encounter that would become a part of history complete with secrets, predictions and a faith devotional for all time.

Life in Fatima will be busy all year as the tour guides herd group after group wanting to visit during the centennial. Hotel rooms are sold out even in nearby towns.

From the early morning Mass at the outdoor shrine, where the original Fatima statue is encased in glass, to a late-night candlelit rosary, a day in Fatima is an immersion in the town made famous by three shepherd children and what they saw. The peaceful atmosphere lends itself to imagining life in 1917, children tending to their chores in the rolling hills and an unexpected encounter that would become a part of history complete with secrets, predictions and a faith devotional for all time.

The Fatima story

Lucia dos Santos, 10, and her cousins Jacinta, 7, and Francisco Marto, 8, were herding sheep in Cova da Iria near their home in Fatima May 13, 1917. The children said they saw a woman “brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal goblet filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun,” according to Lucia’s memoir.

The woman wore white edged in gold and held a rosary. She asked the children to pray the rosary every day to bring peace to the world and an end to World War I.  

Lucia told her cousins they should keep this to themselves, but Jacinta told her mother about the woman they saw. Although she did not believe the story, she told her neighbors and the village soon knew of the children’s vision.

As instructed by Our Lady, the children returned to the same place a month later June 13, the feast of St. Anthony, the patron of their local parish and of Portugal. During her second visit, Mary again told them to recite the rosary daily for peace. She told Lucia to learn to read and write, and that Jacinta and Francisco would go to heaven soon, but that Lucia would stay longer to spread Mary’s message.

When Mary appeared July 13, she shared three secrets with the children. The first part was a vision of hell. The children saw a huge fire under the earth, and heard shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which frightened them.

Mary then told them that God wanted the world to devote itself to Mary’s Immaculate Heart so souls would be saved and there would be peace. She asked that Russia be consecrated to her, and assured if this was done, Russia would be converted and a period of peace would be granted to the world.

The third part was about a man in white passing through a big city half in ruins, afflicted with pain and sorrow, praying for the souls he met along the way, and then being killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him. Mary instructed them not to share this vision with anyone. The third secret of Fatima was not made public until June 26, 2000, when Pope John Paul II asked the Vatican to release it.

Soon, thousands came to Fatima and the nearby town of Aljustrel to see for themselves. On their way to the Aug. 13 meeting, the children were arrested and interrogated. They repeated the accounts of the apparitions, but refused to share the secrets. Mary appeared to the children six days later in the nearby town of Valinhos, where she asked them again to pray the rosary and foretold a miracle coming that October.

A crowd of about 30,000 accompanied the children Sept. 13, but did not see her, witnessing what was described as a bright globe and the falling of white petals, which vanished before hitting the ground.

Oct. 13, the sixth appearance, followed heavy rains and large crowds lining the road. Those gathered began to pray the rosary, and Mary appeared to the children asking that a chapel be built there in her honor as Our Lady of the Rosary.

Lucia shouted to the crowd to look at the sun, and what is called the “Miracle of the Sun,” is noted in most Fatima devotions, though some scientists have debunked it.

Thirteen years later, after an investigation, the bishop of Fatima declared the apparitions “worthy of belief” in October 1930.

As foreshadowed, a year after the apparitions, Jacinta and Francisco became victims of an influenza epidemic. Francisco died April 4, 1919, at age 10, and Jacinta died Feb. 20, 1920, at age 9. Their cause for canonization was debated for years on the question of whether non-martyred young children can understand heroic virtues. Pope John Paul II approved their cause and declared them venerable in 1989, and beatified them in 2000. Pope Francis will canonize them May 13 in Fatima.

Lucia entered the Carmelites and died at age 97 in 2005. Her sainthood cause is now under study at the Vatican.

The Fatima sanctuary

A short ride from the center of Fatima is Aljustrel, the village where the children lived. The quaint stone homes, some whitewashed with red tile roofs, hug the edge of the road that winds through. Now a museum, pilgrims can walk through Francisco and Jacinta’s home, where they lived with their parents and siblings. A short walk away is Lucia’s home, also open to the public.

Across the street, Lucia’s niece, Maria dos Santos — now an elderly woman, sat by the front door of her home. Dressed all in black and fingering a rosary, she greeted the visitors with two weathered hands and a kiss.


Lucia’s niece, Maria dos Santos (at left), now an elderly woman, sits by the front door of her home across the street from Lucia’s home. Dressed all in black and fingering a rosary, she greeted the visitors with two weathered hands and a kiss. CHRISTOPHER J. GUNTY | COURTESY

 When asked if she was ready for all the crowds that would come to see her on the anniversary, she joked that she would be out that day.

Nearby in Valinhos, statues mark the places where an angel appeared to the children in 1916. A milky white marble statue of Mary marks her Aug. 19, 1917, apparition there. Now an easy walk along a stone path with Stations of the Cross, you can breathe in the fresh air and imagine the children wandering among the cork oak trees and lush green grass.

Back in the center of Fatima and often the first stop for pilgrims, the Chapel of the Apparitions marks the spot where Mary appeared to the children. Surrounded by glass on three sides, the chapel feels as if you are outside — available to Mary. The beautiful statue of Our Lady of Fatima, in white with gold edges, draws eyes to her serene face despite being encased in glass and to the far left of the altar.

Our day started with an early morning English Mass at the chapel as the sun peeked over the trees and slowly lit Mary’s face, and ended with a candlelit rosary in the dark of night where soft flickers of pilgrims’ candles dotted the esplanade, which is twice as big as St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

The iconic white church topped with a cross resting on an ornate gold crown — the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, completed in 1954 — houses the tombs of the three children, the girls on one side and Francisco on the other side of the main altar.

Opposite the old basilica is the newer Basilica of the Holy Trinity built in 2007 with a distinctly modern look. Underground chapels offer opportunities for private prayer or adoration.

Other highlights found in the square are a section of the Berlin Wall, to memorialize the fall of Communism, and a striking figure of Pope John Paul II commemorating his visits there.

One of the bullets used in the May 13, 1981, assassination attempt against him was placed in Mary’s crown there. The pope said he believed his life was spared by “a mother’s hand that guided the bullet’s path.”

As the church puts an even more official stamp on the Fatima apparitions and the saintliness of the shepherd children who died long ago, it’s helpful to remember the church considers these as devotional aids. As then-Pope Benedict wrote in a theological commentary upon the release of the third secret, “In the private revelations approved by the church — and therefore also in Fatima — this is the point: they help us to understand the signs of the times and to respond to them rightly in faith.”

The sight of countless pilgrims making their way to the Chapel of the Apparitions, dozens of them walking on their knees, is a sign that the messages of Fatima, though a century old, are still being heard.

Read more

For the text of the three secrets of Fatima, go to the website of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — bit.ly/FatimaSecrets. (You might enjoy the theological commentary provided by the then-prefect of the congregation Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI.)


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017