FÁTIMA is the fountainhead of religious devotion in Portugal and one of the most important centres of pilgrimage in the Roman Catholic world. Its cult is founded on a series of six supposed apparitions of the Virgin Mary, the first of which, on May 13, 1917, was to three peasant children from the village who were confronted with a flash of lightning and “a lady brighter than the sun” sitting in the branches of a tree.
Since then, Fátima’s celebrity has increased exponentially, and where once was a simple farming village now stands a vast white basilica fronted by a gigantic esplanade capable of holding more than a million devotees. Hotels, pilgrims’ hostels, cafés and restaurants have sprung up in the shadow of the basilica while each year the souvenir shops explore new territories of tackiness. Quite what you make of it all depends largely on your beliefs – it is, after all, a place built entirely on faith. However, the crowds create an undeniable atmosphere, at its most intense during the great annual pilgrimages of May 12–13 and October 12–13. At these times, several hundred thousand people congregate, most arriving on foot from throughout the country. For a few weeks before the dates each year, it’s common to see pilgrims in reflective jackets, marching along Portugal’s highways in the blazing heat, with some completing the journey on their knees in penance. The death of the last surviving child witness, Lúcia, in 2005, was marked as a national event – amid blanket media coverage she was buried in the basilica in February 2006, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the entire country came to a halt to watch.Read More
Miracles, secrets and pilgrimages
Miracles, secrets and pilgrimages
The three Fátima children – Lúcia, Jacinta and Francisco – were tending sheep when, according to Lúcia’s memoirs, the Virgin Mary appeared and announced: “I am from Heaven. I have come to ask you to return here six times, at this same hour, on the thirteenth of every month. Then, in October, I will tell you who I am and what I want”. News of the miracle was first greeted with scepticism – the Virgin having an uncannily exact grasp of the temporal calendar – and only a few casual onlookers attended the second appearance, but for the third apparition, on July 13, the crowd had swollen to a few thousand. Although only the three children could see the heavenly visitor, Fátima became a cause célèbre, with the anticlerical government accusing the Church of fabricating a miracle to revive its flagging influence. The children were interrogated but refused to change their story, and by the date of the final appearance, October 13, 1917, as many as 70,000 people claimed to have witnessed the so-called Miracle of the Sun: a blinding, swirling ball of fire, shooting beams of multicoloured light to earth and, just for good measure, curing lifelong illnesses.
Only to Lúcia were revealed the three Secrets of Fátima. The first a message of peace and a vision of Hell that – during World War I – struck the required populist chord. The second declared, “Russia will be converted and there will be peace” – all this just a few weeks before the Bolshevik takeover in St Petersburg, though not, perhaps, before it could have been predicted. After decades of speculation, the third secret was revealed in May 2000, a typically vague prediction that apparently predicted the attempt on Pope John Paul II’s life in 1981. Lúcia’s fellow witnesses both died in the European flu epidemic of 1919–20, while Lúcia herself later retreated to the Convent of Santa Teresa near Coimbra. Cocooned from the outside world as a Carmelite nun, she was known by all in Portugal as Irmã (Sister) Lúcia. The elderly bespectacled nun made an unlikely pin-up, but her image is as ubiquitous in Fátima as that of the Virgin herself, set poignantly against the fading, black-and-white childhood photographs of Jacinta and Francisco, cast forever in a supporting role by their early deaths.