FATIMA, Portugal — One hundred years ago, three children stood in a field as Mary, Mother of God, appeared to them “brighter than the sun” and instructed them to say the Rosary every day, “to bring peace to the world and an end to the war” that was tearing the European continent apart.
Six months after that, thousands of people reported witnessing the sun spin and dance through the sky as the three children received their last vision.
One hundred years later, I went to Fatima on pilgrimage, to celebrate the centennial of the start of the apparitions.
There, I joined hundreds of thousands of other pilgrims, who, like me, were in need of mercy and deeper conversion.
The experience was incredibly mystical and moving, though also very human and grounded. We pilgrims grumbled and suffered through both hot sun and freezing rain, hunger, thirst, deficits in sleep, and a lack of patience with our fellow travelers.
Still, while these mortifications may not have been explicitly chosen by us, they were chosen for us as part of the experience of being a pilgrim: a humbling reminder of our humanity and brokenness while we came to commemorate such a holy and blessed event.
One of the first pilgrims I spoke to was Sonia Herrera Quesada, from San Jose, Costa Rica.
She told me that while she and her husband had been to Fatima multiple times, she found this visit particularly touching.
“[My husband and I] have had the tradition, for many years, of coming here to Fatima, because we have a deep devotion to the Virgin, and we have been here some eight or 10 times. It’s something emotional to come to see the Virgin and the little shepherds,” she said.
Herrera Quesada referenced the three shepherd children who received the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima May 13, 1917: Jacinta and Francisco Marto and their cousin Lucia dos Santos.
Herrera Queseda added that she was especially grateful to God and to Mary for providing her and her husband the opportunity to be present for the canonization of the Marto siblings, which occurred during the centennial Mass on May 13.
Francisco (1908-1919) and Jacinta (1910-1920) are the Church’s youngest saints who aren’t martyrs.
“It’s an honor; it’s a joy,” she exclaimed, with tears welling in her eyes. “I never believed that I would be here today.
“For me, for my husband, it’s very — it’s very emotional.
“I can’t believe we’re here with the Virgin, and we have lived [this] experience the world has never seen before: the 100th anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady.”
The couple were among an estimated 500,000 pilgrims gathered in Fatima to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of a series of six Church-approved apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the Marto siblings and dos Santos.
The Fatima Tales
Some 45,000 of the pilgrims arrived at the shrine on foot. Pope Francis — who also visited the site as a pilgrim — joined in the celebrations of the Rosary and other vigil events May 12 and presided over the Mass and canonizations the next day.
Early on May 12, pilgrims started to flood into the small mountain town in central Portugal, many of them dripping wet with the morning’s rains.
According to the head of lodging operations on duty the night of the vigil, all of the sanctuary’s available beds, campsites and sleeping bags for pilgrims were claimed by 11 in the morning.
Hotels and room rentals had sold out months in advance.
As early as 8 in the morning, buses into Fatima were filled to capacity.
As has been the experience of pilgrims for centuries upon centuries, not even the holy gravity of the Fatima centennial could protect the pilgrims from the earthy — even perverse — reality of human brokenness.
As often happens at events such as these, small scuffles broke out among the pushes and shoves of the crowds. Old women grabbed youth by their clothes to move them out of their way. A group of younger women were harassed. An elderly man was physically picked up and moved from his seat so a younger priest could gain a marginally better view of the Pope’s arrival. Throngs of people shouted — each in their own native tongue — at the Portuguese National Guard while the beret-clad young men erected barriers around the square for security reasons.
Yet despite the pilgrims’ vast differences in background, language and nationality, one reality united the weekend’s pious and profane alike: our being humble pilgrims coming to honor Our Lady of Fatima.
The skies cleared, and Portugal’s hot May sun emerged as the hours until the start of the celebrations dwindled.
As the sanctuary square’s huge television screens showed the Pope’s plane landing, there were raucous chants of “Esta es la juventud del Papa!” (This is the youth of the Pope!)
Later still, as the attitude became even more prayerful, cries of “Viva o Papa!” punched through the sounds of chants and Fatima hymns.
At last, the popemobile entered the square, greeted by a cloud of handkerchiefs, hats and flags from as far away as Canada and Angola, Colombia and Australia.
Pope Francis, a fellow pilgrim, paid his respects to the Blessed Virgin and the events of 100 years ago.
And hundreds of thousands prayed there, with him, for deliverance and guidance, and for the reparation of the world’s sins.
After a while, the Pope left, and the pilgrims dispersed to eat — or at least to take refuge from the now-blazing Iberian sun.
During this break, I spoke to Joao, from nearby Lisbon, Portugal.
While he did not have far to travel to the celebrations, he told me that, for him, “It’s emotional to be here today, 100 years after the visions.”
Because of the anniversary’s significance, he decided to do something for the pilgrimage that he had intended to do for years: walk to the sanctuary.
“This year was the year for the opportunity,” he explained.
I also spoke to Stella, who came with a group of pilgrims from half a world away: Hong Kong.
She and other members of her parish decided to take advantage of the centennial of the apparitions to spend 15 days on pilgrimage in Fatima and elsewhere in Portugal.
“It’s a blessing from the Virgin Mary to be able to come,” she said.
Stella added that she and her fellow parishioners also prayed that the pilgrimage would bring blessings and spiritual fruit for the pilgrims “from the Virgin Mary and for Hong Kong, as well.”
After the respite, pilgrims returned to the square in front of the Sanctuary Basilica to pray the Rosary by candlelight. Pope Francis stood, praying, in front of the crowds, as the throng of pilgrims joined him, the light of their candles shining like countless stars in the dark night.
Several hours later, the candles were extinguished, one by one, and many of the pilgrims scattered and went to their lodgings for the night.
Others, though, lingered in the square and in the buildings surrounding the basilica. Many stayed because it was the only place available to sleep for the night that would be safe from the threatening rainclouds.
At several points in the evening, I encountered one group of pilgrims from China, who dragged their sleeping mats and pillows from building to building as each place was closed off for the night. After seeing them move for the third time, I asked their priest if they knew where they might find someplace to rest for at least a few hours. Bleary-eyed, the young priest said he didn’t know.
Others remained in the square not to sleep, but to pray. While their fellow pilgrims huddled in sleeping bags beneath porticoes, they shuffled off to Mass and liturgies throughout the dark of night and early hours of the morning.
As the sun rose, more and more people joined those who had kept watch through the night, preparing for Mass.
Parents shielded their toddlers from the rays of the rising sun as excitement buzzed around the plaza.
The pushing and shoving and impatience of the day before started to bubble up again as the Pope’s return drew close, but died down quickly as a call for the recitation of the Rosary echoed over the loudspeaker.
Patiently, the pilgrims responded and then remained silent after the Rosary’s end.
Celebrating Saintly Seers
At last Mass began. Cheers again filled the air: The Pope announced that Francisco and Jacinta Marto were officially saints. A flock of doves flew between the trees on both sides of the square just as Pope Francis started his homily.
For many of the pilgrims I spoke to, this was the highlight of their pilgrimage.
Father Tim Davison, from Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, told me that while it was his fourth or fifth visit to Fatima, this visit was “special because it’s the 100th anniversary and the canonization of little Jacinta and Francisco.”
“It has a special meaning, for sure,” he said.
Larry Baxter, also from Sts. Peter and Paul Church, added that the Holy Father’s visit for the canonizations only heightened the importance and connection he and his son felt to the site and the apparitions that occurred in Fatima.
Sister Ignacia, from the Congregation of Little Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi from Dar-es-Salam in Tanzania, was ecstatic to have made the pilgrimage to the Marian shrine and to have seen the canonizations in person.
“It is the first Mass we’ve been to with the Pope,” she told me. “We are very happy. Thanks be to God.”
Pascalina, another Tanzanian pilgrim from Dar-es-Salam, added that she thought it was “amazing” to see so many pilgrims from around the world come together for the anniversary.
Pilgrimage of Hope
Such hope was a hallmark of the papal pilgrimage to Fatima.
“Dear pilgrims, we have a Mother,” Francis said in his homily at the canonization Mass.
“Clinging to her like children, we live in the hope that rests on Jesus. … May this hope guide our lives! Confirmed in this hope, we have gathered here to give thanks for the countless graces bestowed over these past hundred years,” he continued.
“All of them passed beneath the mantle of light that Our Lady has spread over the four corners of the earth, beginning with this land of Portugal, so rich in hope.
“We can take as our examples St. Francisco and St. Jacinta, whom the Virgin Mary introduced into the immense ocean of God’s light and taught to adore him.
“That was the source of their strength in overcoming opposition and suffering.
“God’s presence became constant in their lives, as is evident from their insistent prayers for sinners and their desire to remain ever near ‘the hidden Jesus’ in the tabernacle.”
He thanked pilgrims for accompanying him on the blessed, hope-filled journey.
“Thank you, brothers and sisters, for being here with me! I could not fail to come here to venerate the Virgin Mary and to entrust to her all her sons and daughters. …
“Indeed, God created us to be a source of hope for others, a true and attainable hope.”
Adelaide Mena is a staff reporter for Catholic News Agency. She covered the papal events in Fatima for the Register.