Pope Francis’ Major Reason for His Visit to Fatima

COMMENTARY: The Holy Father chose Aug. 5 for his visit to Fatima to link two of the great Marian shrines of the world.

A statue of Our Lady of Fatima is carried during a Rosary and Candle procession at the Our Lady of Fatima shrine, in Fatima, central Portugal, Friday, Aug. 4, 2023.
A statue of Our Lady of Fatima is carried during a Rosary and Candle procession at the Our Lady of Fatima shrine, in Fatima, central Portugal, Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. (photo: Francisco Seco / AP)

When Pope Francis visits Fatima on Saturday it will be an extraordinary manifestation, in both time and place, of the profound Marian piety which unites the Holy Father and his holy predecessor, St. John Paul II.

In his very first words as pope on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis told the immense throng: “Tomorrow I wish to go and pray to Our Lady.”

And so he did, traveling crosstown to the papal basilica of St. Mary Major in order to pray before the venerated image of Mary, Salus Populi Romani, “Protectress of the Roman People.”

The Holy Father has never stopped going there. He visits St. Mary Major before and after every foreign trip to ask Mary’s intercession and express his gratitude upon his return. He has made more than 100 visits, making St. Mary Major the most visited place by any recent pope, aside from the papal residences.

During the early months of the pandemic, when Pope Francis walked alone in the empty Roman streets to pray for his city, he visited St. Mary Major.

What is the relevance of his devotion to his World Youth Day (WYD) visit to Fatima on Saturday?

It will be the feast of the Dedication of St. Mary Major. (The dedication feasts of the four papal basilicas in Rome are marked liturgically throughout the Church.) Aug. 5 is also called the feast of Our Lady of Snows. According to a Roman legend, a miraculous snowfall on that summer August day indicated where the great church in honor of Mary was to be built. In 2020, the Holy Father visited St. Mary Major on her feast day.

Thus when dates were prepared for WYD in Lisbon, no doubt Pope Francis noted Aug. 5 among them and chose that for his visit to Fatima, linking two of the great Marian shrines of the world — St. Mary Major and Fatima. The Holy Father chose a Marian theme for WYD Lisbon — Mary went with haste — and thus a Marian feast day for the Saturday evening vigil is most suitable.

Fatima is linked inextricably with Pope John Paul II. After the assassination attempt on May 13, 1981, John Paul, noting that it took place on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, credited her with saving his life: “One hand fired the bullet, another guided it.”

He would make a pilgrimage to Fatima on the first and 10th anniversaries of the shooting (1982, 1991), to give thanks in person. He sent the bullet which wounded him to the “hand” that guided it in Fatima; the bullet was placed inside the crown of the Fatima statue.

John Paul would then return in the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 — his only trip that year, besides the biblical lands. On the trip he beatified Francisco and Jacinta Marto, and revealed the “third secret” of Fatima, which he read as a prophecy related to the assassination attempt.

Another aspect of that Jubilee visit is not as well remembered. Immediately upon arriving in Fatima on the night of May 12, 2000, John Paul presented a gift in the Chapel of the Apparitions. He lay before the statue of Our Lady of Fatima the ring that Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski had given to him upon his election as pope in 1978.

Cardinal Wyszynski was the towering primate of the Church in Poland for 33 years of war with the communist regime, 1948-1981. During the conclave of October 1978, Cardinal Wyszynski told his fellow Polish cardinal about the mission before him.

“At the beginning of my pontificate, Cardinal Wyszynski said to me: ‘If the Lord has called you, you must take the Church into the third millennium!’” John Paul revealed in 1994.

John Paul’s mission was in mortal danger on May 13, 1981. At the same time Cardinal Wyszynski was dying in Warsaw. The last conversation the two would have by phone would be from their respective hospital beds. Cardinal Wyszynski would die on May 28, his feast day since his beatification in 2021.

When, during the Jubilee Year, John Paul presented the ring given to him by Cardinal Wyszynski, it was another act of thanksgiving. He had completed the mission prophesied by the great Polish primate. He survived because of the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima.

Pope Francis will be a witness to all that when he visits on Saturday — and more. Aug. 5 marks the anniversary of the first Mass of Cardinal Wyszynski. Blessed Stefan was ordained on Aug. 3, 1924, and offered his first Holy Mass at Poland’s most important shrine, Our Lady of Jasna Gora, in Częstochowa.

A Marian feast in a Marian shrine for the future primate’s first Holy Mass.

A Marian feast in a Marian shrine for WYD Lisbon.

In between, a Marian feast in a Marian shrine for the ceremonial fulfilment of Blessed Stefan’s prophecy by John Paul II.

The bullet from Rome and the ring from Poland will be on hand to welcome the Pope of St. Mary Major on her feast day.