The familiar story of this rural part of Portugal dates to May 13, 1917, when three shepherd children were tending their flock in the Cova da Iria parish of Fatima, near the town of Vila Nova de Ourem (which has since become the Diocese of Leira-Fatima). After praying the Rosary, which was their midday custom, the children — 10-year-old Lucia dos Santos and her younger cousins, Francisco, 9, and his 7-year-old sister, Jacinta, Marto — were amusing themselves by constructing a little wall from stones. Suddenly, a brilliant light, which they thought was lightning, flashed from the sky, and they quickly prepared to return home. But when a second flash lit up the slope they were descending, they saw “a Lady more brilliant than the sun.”The hallowed ground at Fatima is visited annually by more than 4 million pilgrims. This year, during the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima, unprecedented numbers of pilgrims will converge on this special place, from every corner of the world.
The Lady, who wore a white mantle, edged in gold, held a rosary in her hands. She urged the little shepherds to do penance, say the Rosary every day and devote themselves to the Holy Trinity, in order to bring peace and an end to the world war that was raging on the European continent at the time. She said that it was “necessary to pray much” and invited them to return to this spot on the 13th day of five consecutive months.
A small chapel soon arose there, and, by 1927, the foundation was laid for the spectacular present basilica. Word of the apparitions spread all over the world and magnetized Catholics to the holy site. It is estimated that at least 2 million of the faithful visited in the decade after 1917.
By 1930, Fatima received official Church recognition of the apparitions, and pilgrims were granted a papal indulgence for their pilgrimages. Subsequent years witnessed the growth and additions of many other buildings, hotels and restaurants to accommodate the hordes of visitors.
Sts. Francisco and Jacinta died shortly after the apparitions ended — as Our Lady had told the children — but Lucia went on to become a nun and serve as a champion of the Fatima message. She returned to Fatima during four papal pilgrimages, all taking place May 13. The first was with Paul VI in 1967, followed by John Paul II in 1982, when he gave thanks for surviving the 1981 assassination attempt.
She returned in 1991 and again in 2000, when Jacinta and Francisco were beatified. Sister Maria Lucia of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart died Feb. 13, 2005.
Today, the children’s sheep-grazing fields are very different.
Highway signage leads visitors to the highlights of the area, including the beautiful Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima that stands at the spot where it all began. Now, the complex also consists of an enormous colonnade, consisting of 200 columns, half-columns and 14 altars. It also houses a Way of the Cross in ceramics. The Prayer Area is a massive square, bordered by trees and the huge, modern, circular Church of the Most Holy Trinity, which was dedicated Oct. 12, 2012. Dominating the dramatic prayer space are smooth, linear paths, where pilgrims, including many of the sick, seeking special intercessions, “walk” to the basilica on their knees. The new white basilica seats 8,633 worshippers, while its presbytery holds 100 celebrants.
With so much to see and do within the complex and surrounding areas, it is easy for visitors to “overbook” their activities in Fatima. But pilgrims should allow ample time for true immersion in the Marian spirituality that is palpable here — contemplative time to sit quietly in the Basilica of Our Lady and pray, to visit the tombs of the children and to consider the powerful revelations that took place here 100 years ago. There are plenty of daily tours, Masses, celebrations, Stations of the Cross and blessings of the sick in multiple languages, of course.
Then, before you leave the area, be certain to visit nearby Aljustrel, to see the tiny, rustic abodes — faithfully restored — of the children, which highlight the reality and poverty of their personal lives.
My personal visit was laced with an intense sense of wonder that dates back to early grade school, when I first learned about the miracles and apparitions. I never lost my curiosity about the poor shepherd children and why they were chosen — and my visit was indeed blessed.
Travel Via Lisbon
Plan your visit well in advance. Consult travel websites for group pilgrimages
that are scheduled during the entire celebratory year. Some even offer interesting
side trips, with stops at Lourdes, France, and other famous religious
For individual travelers, the easiest way to get to Fatima is from Lisbon,
which is an hour and a half away. Most pilgrims spend a few days in this
gracious city of wide, mosaic tile-decorated sidewalks, leafy boulevards,
waterside attractions, and plentiful restaurants and boutiques. In fact, with
the overwhelming rush to book hotels in Fatima, travelers are urged to
consider staying in Lisbon and nearby cities, such as Sintra, where a visit to
its ancient castles, such as the Moorish Castle, National Palace of Sintra and
Romanesque Revival Pena Palace, is de rigueur.
Wherever you go, locals are welcoming, roads are smooth and public transportation
is easy. In Lisbon, guests enjoy an optimum of touring choices, including
visiting dozens of remarkable churches, often elaborately decorated
with walls of painted tiles. Be sure to stop at the Church of Santo Antonio,
named for the patron saint of Portugal. He is known by reference to Padua
only because he lived the last months of his life in Italy.
— Marion Laffey Fox
Portuguese National Tourist Office
866 2nd Ave.
New York, NY 10036