The simple farming village of FÁTIMA changed forever on May 13, 1917, when – according to the witnesses themselves – the Virgin Mary announced herself to three young children. It was the first of six apparitions that transfixed first Portugal and then the Catholic world, which now regards Fátima as a fixture on its pilgrimage calendar, second only to Lourdes in France. As Fátima’s celebrity has increased exponentially, so has its size and importance. Farming village no more, Fátima has a basilica that attracts millions – not to mention hotels, pilgrims’ hostels, cafés and restaurants, as well as souvenir shops that each year explore new levels of tackiness.
Quite what you make of it all depends largely on your beliefs – it is, after all, a place built entirely on faith. To see it through the eyes of believers you really need to come during the major annual pilgrimages (May 12–13 and October 12–13), when hundreds of thousands of people gather here from throughout the country. Most walk and 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 final part of their journey shuffling penitently down the esplanade on their knees. 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.
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.