Pilgrimage to Where the Sun Danced: Fatima, Portugal

Up to half a million people are expected to welcome Pope Benedict XVI at Our Lady of Fatima’s shrine when he visits May 13, the 10th anniversary of the beatification of Francisco and Jacinta Marto, the shepherd children who, along with their cousin, Lucia dos Santos, first saw Our Lady on this date in 1917.

Up to half a million people are expected to welcome Pope Benedict XVI at Our Lady of Fatima’s shrine when he visits May 13, the 10th anniversary of the beatification of Francisco and Jacinta Marto, the shepherd children who, along with their cousin, Lucia dos Santos, first saw Our Lady on this date in 1917.

No amount of prayer or spiritual reading can prepare one for the overwhelming experience of visiting the town of Fatima, which is named after a Muslim princess who lived there centuries ago. Princess Fatima converted to Catholicism and married the count of Ourem in 1158.

I had just finished, and mostly recovered from, my Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage across northern Spain when I, like many of my fellow pilgrims, made my way down the Portuguese coast to Fatima, which is about 90 miles north of Lisbon.

Mary’s Miracles

On Sunday, May 13, 1917, 10-year-old Lucia, 7-year-old Jacinta and 9-year-old Francisco were tending sheep in Cova da Iria (“Irene’s Cove”) near Fatima. The three received a vision of a woman who was “brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal ball filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun.” The woman was later identified as the Blessed Virgin, who referred to herself as “Our Lady of the Rosary.” As part of the apparitions, Mary also imparted three secrets, known as the Three Secrets of Fatima, to them.

On Aug. 13, 1917, the anticlerical and anti-Catholic provincial administrator, believing the children were lying and harbored seditious intent, imprisoned the young visionaries. He interrogated and threatened them with torture and death if they refused to reveal the Three Secrets to him. The children resolutely refused and were eventually released.

As proof of her visit, the Virgin Mary promised a sign for the last of her apparitions on Oct. 13. On that day, a great miracle occurred, which came to be known as “The Miracle of the Sun.” About 70,000 people, some believers, some skeptics, including newspaper reporters and photographers, gathered at the Cova da Iria for the promised miracle.

Lucia pointed at the sun and reported seeing Christ in glory. Many who were present reported seeing the sun change colors and rotate like a wheel. Others reported seeing the sun fall from the sky, while others saw it zigzag across the sky. The phenomenon was reported by people 25 miles away.

The Secrets

The secrets are similarly well known. The first secret was a horrifying vision of hell, which Lucia describes in her Third Memoir. The second was a prophecy of the start of World War II and included the Virgin Mary’s admonition to save souls from hell and the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart.

As a result, Pope Pius XII, in his July 7, 1952, apostolic letter Sacro Vergente, consecrated Russia to the Blessed Virgin Mary, writing: “The gates of hell will never prevail, where she offers her protection. She is the good mother, the mother of all, and it has never been heard that those who seek her protection will not receive it. With this certainty, the Pope dedicates all people of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of the Virgin. She will help! Error and atheism will be overcome with her assistance and divine grace.”

On March 25, 1984, Pope John Paul II, “united with all the bishops of the Church in a particular bond whereby we constitute a body and a college,” consecrated “the whole world, especially the peoples for which by reason of their situation you have particular love and solicitude.” Shortly thereafter Sister Lucia told the papal nuncio to Portugal that the consecration was fulfilled.

The Third Secret, which wasn’t made known until many decades later, was interpreted by the Vatican as foreseeing the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II by Mehmet Ali Agca. The fact that the attack took place on the anniversary of the first apparition at Fatima was not lost on the Pope: He wrote in Memory and Identity, “Could I forget that the event [Ali Agca’s assassination attempt] in St. Peter’s Square took place on the day and at the hour when the first appearance of the Mother of Christ to the poor peasant children has been remembered for over 60 years at Fatima, Portugal? For in everything that happened to me on that very day, I felt that extraordinary motherly protection and care, which turned out to be stronger than the deadly bullet.”

Sanctified Soil

It was thrilling to be on soil sanctified by Mary’s presence. The shrine can attract upwards of 1 million pilgrims on May 13 and Oct. 13. The crush of humanity was intoxicating, as was the impressive torch and candlelight procession. Any other crowd gathered for any other purpose wouldn’t be as reverential as the one gathered that evening. I didn’t understand the prayers in Portuguese, but I felt content silently reciting the Rosary there.

Igreja da Santissima Trindade (Portuguese: Church of the Most Holy Trinity), the new church, is the fourth-largest Christian church in the world. It was designed by the Greek architect Alexandros Tombazis and is clearly influenced by Byzantine and Orthodox art and design. It took three years to complete (2004-2007). It’s more than six stories high and both longer and wider than a football field, easily accommodating 9,000 worshippers. The church has a magnificent collection of religious art from dozens of countries.

After the apparitions, a spring appeared at the Cova da Iria, and the faithful still come to Fatima to retrieve the water, to which many miracles have been attributed.

As soon as I told family and friends about my planned pilgrimage, requests for holy water came flooding in (pun intended), so I armed myself with several plastic bottles. I collected water from the central spigot outside the Chapel of Apparitions. I also bought two enormous candles that were meant to be offered at the grotto. I lit one and kept the other as a memento of my visit.

My prized possession from my time at Fatima is a set of painted tiles of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts that many Europeans hang on the outside of their homes. Being at Fatima, the grateful pilgrim is convinced that the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts can transform the world with Christian love and bring about God’s Kingdom upon earth, one human heart at a time.

Angelo Stagnaro writes

from New York City.

Planning Your Visit

Pilgrimage information is available at Santuario-Fatima.pt