The three Fátima children – Lúcia, Jacinta and Francisco – were looking after sheep when the Virgin Mary descended from Heaven. Celestial lights flashed as she introduced herself and then requested that the children return five more times – each time on the thirteenth of the month – until October, at which time all would be revealed. The children reported their vision and, slowly, over the months, enthusiastic crowds grew at the appointed times – not put off in the slightest by the fact that the Virgin remained stubbornly invisible to anyone other than the three children.

The October gathering was the largest by far, with thousands in collective thrall to an event that became known as the Miracle of the Sun – a technicolour burst of light and fire, accompanied by wondrous healings. Of the three children, it was Lúcia only who was chosen to receive – and keep – the famed three Secrets of Fátima, directly from the Virgin. She revealed two in the 1940s – unsurprisingly apocalyptic visions and vague prophecies about world war – and wrote the third down in a sealed envelope entrusted to the Pope. After decades of speculation, the third secret was revealed in May 2000, another 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.

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