Fatima Is a Taste of Heaven

Marian devotion is palpable at Portugal shrine.

Pilgrims process in Fatima, Portugal, Thursday night
Pilgrims process in Fatima, Portugal, Thursday night (photo: Mark Armstrong / NCRegister)

Being in Fatima, Portugal, on May 13, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, is a taste of heaven. Song and prayer fill the air as groups walk down the main street throughout the days and nights leading up to the feast day.

After my husband and I completed a whirlwind pilgrimage of spectacular churches and stories, we realized that nothing compares to Fatima. Those were places to see and learn; Fatima is a place to experience.

At the other Catholic sites, people from around the world — many not even Catholic or no longer practicing — come to view spectacular achievements of man glorifying God. Fatima is the glory of heaven — brought down by our Blessed Mother through three humble shepherd children tending sheep — that is felt even today. It is faith and the love of God and our Blessed Mother through people living the Fatima message, creating a peace and joy that is palpable among the estimated 600,000 here today — a small portion of the 4 million pilgrims who come every year. 


Story of Fatima

It was the event of May 13, 1917, that first brought Fatima to the attention of the world. 

At that time, the people lived primarily a simple life of farming and tending sheep. World War I was still raging. Three young children — Lúcia and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto — were tending sheep on the outskirts of Fatima. As was their habit after lunch, they prayed the Rosary in the shade of the trees that lined the place called Cova da Iria.

Suddenly, a flash of light in the sky made them think lightning was warning of an impending storm. There was another flash, and then a beautiful Lady, brighter than the sun and holding a rosary, stood over the top of a small oak tree.

She said, “I am the Lady of the Rosary,” and she told them to pray, do penance and make sacrifices to save sinners. She invited the children to return to the Cova da Iria during the next five consecutive months on the 13th at the very same hour.

During June, July, September and October, the Lady returned. In August, the apparition took place on a small farm on the 15th because government officials had detained the children two days earlier. They were deceived, jailed and then threatened with being boiled in oil if they did not recant their story of the vision. The children stood by their story — even in the face of death. 


Miracle of the Sun

Appearing to the children, the Blessed Virgin Mary said that she had been sent by God with a message for every man, woman and child. She appeared at a time when civilization was being punished by war and bloody violence. She promised that heaven would provide peace to the whole world.

The final apparition, which took place on Oct. 13, became known as the “Miracle of the Sun.”

Eyewitness reports estimate the crowd that gathered that day to be anywhere from 75,000 to 100,000. Some who had gathered were skeptics, anxious to show the Catholics to be fools for believing the Blessed Mother was appearing.

Regardless of preconceived beliefs, everyone saw the miracle.

At noon, the driving rain stopped, and the clouds parted. Many thousands of witnesses corroborated that, during the next 12 minutes, the sun seemed to leave its orbit and spin, throwing off colors of light. Everything on the ground reflected its radiance. Then it spun on its axis, and the rim became scarlet, and bursts of flames scattered across the sky.

Amazement turned to terror as the sun appeared to plummet to earth. People cried out and prayed, fearing it was the end of the world. Then a strange breeze swept through and instantly dried clothing and the ground — even all the puddles. People within a 20-mile radius saw the event.

Government officials from the anti-Catholic socialist regime, police officers and journalists, who were there not out of faith but to investigate, reported seeing the miraculous event. The two major newspapers carried the same reports of a miracle.

At this same time, the children of Fatima saw the following vision, as described by Sister Lúcia in “Letter From Sister Lúcia to Her Bishop, Dec. 8, 1941, Tuy, Spain”: 

When Our Lady disappeared in the immense distance of the sky, next to the sun, we saw St. Joseph holding the Child Jesus and Our Lady dressed in white with a blue mantle.  St. Joseph and the Child seemed to be blessing the world, making the Sign of the Cross.

Columnist Avelino de Almeida of O Século — Portugal’s most influential newspaper, which was pro-government and anti-religious — reported the following:

Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bare-headed, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws — the sun ‘danced,’ according to the typical expression of the people. During the apparitions, the children were asked to pray and offer sacrifices as acts of reparation souls.

“Pray the Rosary every day to obtain peace in the world and the end of war,” Lúcia reported Our Lady as saying.

Jacinta and Francisco died in 1919 as a result of the influenza pandemic sweeping Europe. In 1930, the Catholic Church officially recognized the apparition events as worthy of belief and granted a papal indulgence to pilgrims visiting Fátima. In 1935, the bodies of Francisco and Jacinta were reinterred in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, joined by Lúcia in 2006.

Pope Francis canonized Jacinta and Francisco on May 13, 2017, during the centennial of the first apparition. Sister Lúcia died Feb. 13, 2005, at her convent in Coimbra, Portugal, at the age of 97. 


Today’s Experience

Fatima is filled with a couple hundred thousand pilgrims, who are excited to be in such a humbly remarkable place.  

Groups in matching shirts walk through the streets, holding banners, singing and praying. The church bells chime to the tune of Ave Maria. Masses in different languages are held throughout the day at the main church and also in the Chapel of the Apparitions, the first edifice constructed in the Cova da Iria at the place of Our Lady’s apparition. The exact spot is marked by a marble pillar on which the statue of Our Lady is placed. A monument to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an adoration chapel, a segment of the Berlin Wall and a big holm-oak tree, where the children waited for Our Lady to appear, are all included on the grounds of the Cova today.

Groups large and small can be heard praying the Rosary together. There are even pilgrims traveling alone. After an English-speaking Mass at the Chapel of Apparitions, I approached Father Michael Wolfbauer, a priest in Foley, Minnesota, in the Diocese of St. Cloud, asking if this was his first time in Fatima.

“Yes, I’m just on a quick pilgrimage,” he said. “Yesterday, I was at the shrine of St. Cloud, which is in France; [he] is our patron of St. Cloud. They are celebrating the 1,500th anniversary of his birth there.” 

He added, “I am on my way to Krakow, Poland, to receive a first-class relic of Pope St. John Paul II, on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, the day we chose for our pilgrimage in honor of him being shot that day [and believed miraculously saved by Our Lady of Fatima]. I took a detour here on my own.”

Father Wolfbauer explained the relic will be used for their diocese’s Shrine of Divine Mercy. 

He looked around at all the people strolling about. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “I came for healing, and many do. The world needs healing, and the Blessed Mother is drawing people to places like this in such a beautiful way because we all need healing, and the world needs healing so much.”

He noted that that morning in prayer, he also lifted up the intentions of all the pilgrims here. “We are all on different journeys, offering our hearts,” he said. “It’s beautiful to see so many people come in so many different ways, all for the Lord.”

There is a gentle excitement of voices as throngs of people begin filling the streets headed to the Cova more than an hour before the annual candlelight procession begins. Two of our 10 children were able to join my husband, Mark, and me. A third who lives in Guatemala will join us on the feast day itself. May 13 is also my husband's and our son’s birthday, and both of them were born on Mother’s Day those years. This trip is a dream come true, a taste of heaven, where pure hearts believe and gather as Catholic brothers and sisters to remember and follow the message of Fatima.  

Praying and singing before the Rosary and candlelight procession was indeed one of the most blessed experiences of my life. 

Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us!