A Pilgrimage Ending in Fatima Reveals Many Catholic Surprises
Exploring Catholic Sites in Spain and Portugal
We laud magnificent Catholic churches of old, yet often mourn the barely attended Masses. But a spring pilgrimage my husband and I made to Spain and Portugal, revealed a Church still very much alive. The journey ended in the village of Fatima on May 13, where more than 650,000 pilgrims came from around the world.
Among the crowd was a vibrant, youthful presence, with many young people on street corners passing out brochures announcing Pope Francis’ Aug. 2-6 visit to Lisbon, Portugal for World Youth Day (WYD). His trip includes a visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima via a helicopter from Lisbon to pray the Rosary with sick young people.
Fatima was a heavenly ending to the prelude of architectural masterpieces and many surprises. Our first surprise was that some of the daily Masses were often full or at least well-attended; each one a reminder of our universal Catholic Church.
According to Pew Research, much of the global Catholic population has shifted to Latin America, Africa and Asia. In 1910, 65% of all Catholics lived on the European continent; but a century later, that dropped to 24%, while Latin America now hosts 39%. But the Church remains tied to Europe with the largest shares of Catholics mostly in southern and central Europe. Poland (87%), Italy (78%) and Portugal (77%) identify as Catholic, as well as a majority in Spain (60%).
We arrived first in the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal about 870 miles west of Lisbon and 3,500 miles from Tampa, Florida, via a cruise ship as a celebration of my husband Mark’s retirement. Census numbers show that 90% of residents are Catholic in these islands.
Here, we discovered Mother Teresa of the Azores and “Lord Holy Christ of the Miracles.” Today, most Catholics think of Calcutta’s Mother Teresa; but there was also Mother Teresa de Jesus da Anunciada (1658-1738). She was known for serving the poor and had an intense love for Jesus, the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother. The cause for her canonization was initiated in 1738 but stalled until its revival a few years ago.
She began a devotion to Lord Holy Christ of the Miracles that has spread to other parts of the world. Beginning in 1700, Mother Teresa orchestrated processions to petition God to calm the many earthquakes on the volcanic islands. She processed with a wooden bust of the image the Ecce Homo (Latin for “Behold the Man,” the words of Pontius Pilate in John 19:5).
During the procession of Dec. 17, 1713, the earthquakes had been unceasing, but when the statue fell from the stretcher it was carried on, the earth’s rumblings suddenly ceased. The procession continued with ecstatic praise. The statue became known as Lord Holy Christ of Miracles, displayed in the Convent of Our Lady of Hope and brought out for the annual May 14 procession.
An Unfinished Cathedral
After traveling through the Strait of Gibraltar to the ancient coastal city of Malaga in southern Spain, we visited the Cathedral of the Incarnation, which was never finished due to the American Revolution. This massive Baroque-Renaissance cathedral, constructed from 1582 to 1782 features 15 side chapels, a 125-foot domed ceiling, beautiful statues, stained glass and paintings. But it is missing one of two 300-foot planned bell towers due to the American Revolution.
Our tour guide explained, “Spain did not want the colonists to be treated like slaves.” The Malaga-born military leader, Field Marshall Bernardo de Galvez, led an armada and soldiers to help the American patriots fight against the British. He brought with him 400,000-gold realis, which would be worth $20 million today, money originally intended for the second steeple.
Galvez became a hero in both Spain and the U.S. The city of Galveston, Texas, is named for him. Each summer, Malaga, Spain, celebrates the Fourth of July, remembering Field Marshall Galvez and America’s Independence Day.
Chapel of the Holy Chalice
In Valencia, Spain, at the Valencia Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady, we encountered what is claimed to be the Holy Chalice — the cup Jesus used during the Last Supper. This claim is disputed, but the Vatican has designated Valencia as a “City of the Holy Grail.” Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI visited there and used the chalice during Mass. It is believed to have been taken by St. Peter to Rome, then later taken by a Vatican soldier to Spain in the first century. During the Muslim occupation of Spain, it was hidden for decades and reemerged during the14th century. Between the cathedral and the church right next door, Our Lady of the Good Remedies, there are 13 Masses offered a day.
Sagrada Família Basilica
A concentration of so much history and beauty can dull a traveler’s sense of wonder, but in Barcelona, our awe was reawakened by the Sagrada Família (Holy Family) Basilica. The otherworldly, Gothic church began construction in 1882, and it is hoped to be completed in 2026, the centennial of the death of its creator Antoni Gaudí, who was declared a “Servant of God” in 2010.
Pope Benedict XVI designated this church as a minor basilica on Nov. 7, 2010, during a visit, praising it as “a space of beauty, faith and hope which leads man to an encounter with him who is truth and beauty itself.”
The completion of all 18 spires will make Sagrada Família the tallest church in the world — 36 feet taller than the current record holder, Ulm Minster, a Lutheran church in Germany. Gaudí’s unconventional carvings in the building’s exterior reflect his love of nature, such as an evergreen tree and an assortment of fruit and wildlife. There are three exterior façades with scenes featuring the Nativity, Passion and Glory of God. Inside, the nave is lined with tree-like columns stretching to the sky into a stone canopy. The surrounding stained-glass windows dapple the walls with shimmering light to portray nature’s natural rhythms.
Eric Fleishman, a Lutheran visiting with his wife and young daughter from Wisconsin, commented to us, “It’s incredible. Being an architect myself, Gaudí’s creativity is such an inspiration. I work on churches and schools, so coming here is encouraging for what I do.”
Fleishman also noted being inspired by Gaudí’s focus and faith, trusting that the money would come. The church is not a parish church and takes no money from the diocese. It is completely funded by private donations and is now supported through the tours.
While in Barcelona, a pain in my abdomen that began during the cruise gradually worsened, and I ended up in a hospital for five days with diverticulitis. Pilgrimages are about transformations, and so it was for me, hooked up to antibiotics.
Rather than sit around, I insisted Mark continue to Zaragosa. Before he left, Mark called the church across the street for me, and three different priests visited and brought Holy Communion and anointed me — another powerful testimony to the blessing of our universal Church.
Mark continued to Zaragoza, Spain, the site of the first Marian apparitions, Our Lady of the Pillar. Mary, while still living in Jerusalem, mystically bilocated to the apostle James the Greater in A.D. 40; St. James was preaching there to Romans, Greeks and Jews.
Visitors can still touch the pillar of stone Our Lady appeared on, now in the Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of Pillar.
Mark came back for me, and after I recovered, we went on to Madrid at a slower pace, but continuing, nonetheless. We visited Almudena Cathedral, completed after 110 years of construction and consecrated in 1993 by Pope St. John Paul II. We attended Mass at the Church of the Holy Cross near our apartment and witnessed a devotion to St. Jude on Wednesday nights. Following Mass, the Rosary and other prayers are said, and people line up around the block to venerate a statue of St. Jude and ask for intercessions.
Across from our apartment, we stumbled upon another Mass at the Convent of St. Jerome, founded in 1607, where perpetual adoration has taken place since 1896. It’s an unassuming building although beautiful inside. Nuns worship from behind a grill from the balcony.
Miracle in Nazaré
Next, it was on to Nazaré, Portugal. We met up with two of our 10 children from Bismarck, North Dakota, and a third from Guatamala, as well as a brother of mine from Prague and Mark’s brother who recently moved to Nazaré. Located 40 minutes west of Fatima on the Atlantic coast, Nazaré has been a pilgrimage site for centuries. In 714, a Madonna wood carving believed to have been sculpted by St. Joseph was brought there for safety and placed in a small chapel overlooking the cliffs.
On Sept. 14,1182, the Knight Templar Fuas Roupinho came to pray. He was chasing a deer on horseback on a misty September morning. When the deer jumped off the cliff, the knight’s horse was about to follow. The knight cried out for the Madonna’s divine help. His horse stopped in a supernatural fashion, thus sparing Roupinho certain death. A horseshoe fused into a rock at the top of the cliff remained. It can now be seen in the small chapel on that spot.
This miracle inspired King Alfonso I of Portugal to construct the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazaré, on a cliff overlooking the city. It was finished in 1377. Atop the altar, visitors can still venerate the sacred St. Joseph-carved Madonna.
Fatima and the ‘Miracle of the Sun’
Then it was on to Fatima, with hundreds of thousands of people arriving during the days leading up to the feast on May 13. Here, in 1917, Our Lady appeared to three shepherd children: 10-year-old Lucia dos Santos and her cousins Jacinta Marto, 7, and Francisco Marto, 8. Their tombs are now in the Shrine of Fatima’s main church, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary.
“I am the Lady of the Rosary,” she told the children. She asked them to pray, do penance, make sacrifices to save sinners and to return to the Cova da Iria during the next five months on the 13th. Month after month, the crowds grew larger. At the last apparition, it was estimated to be anywhere from 75,000 to 100,000 people. Regardless of preconceived beliefs, everyone saw the miracle where the rain stopped, clouds parted and for 12 minutes, the sun seemed to leave its orbit and spin, throwing off colors of light scattered across the sky. Then a strange breeze swept through and instantly dried soaked clothing and the wet ground.
During this, the children saw a vision, described by Sister Lúcia in “Letter From Sister Lúcia to Her Bishop, Dec. 8, 1941,” “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.”
Pope Francis canonized Jacinta and Francisco on May 13, 2017. Sister Lúcia died Feb. 13, 2005, at age of 97. In a decree signed this past June 22, Pope Francis declared her “Venerable.”
Fatima was a perfect ending of our pilgrimage. We had experienced our Catholic faith that threads throughout history and still shines today, imperfect yet perfect, both waning and growing, and still beating in the hearts of Catholics throughout the world.
Video Stories of the Pilgrimage