HERALD Editor Michael F. Flach recently joined a group of Catholic journalists from the UNITED STATES as they toured Fatima and other religious sites in Portugal. The trip was sponsored by Regina Tours. Following is the first part of his report.


By Michael F. Flach
Herald Editor (From the issue of 10/27/05)

Pilgrims from all over the world begin gathering around 8 p.m. at Fatima’s Apparitions Chapel in preparation for the nightly rosary procession. Different languages unite in common prayer to help perpetuate the Blessed Mother’s message of peace delivered to three shepherd children nearly 90 years ago in a small Portuguese village.

The first two parts of the Fatima message included a vision of hell shown to the children, along with prophecies concerning the outbreak of World War II, the rise of communism and the ultimate triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, including a triumph over Russia if the country were consecrated to her Immaculate Heart.

Releasing the third part of the Fatima message in June 2000, Vatican officials said it described the violence and persecution that afflicted the Church and individual Christians under Nazism, communism and other totalitarian systems. According to the Vatican, the third part of the secret also predicted the 1981 attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II.

It’s hard to imagine that such a powerful message was delivered in such an unassuming place. The nearby village of Aljustrel remains relatively unchanged from the time that Jacinta and Francisco Marto and their cousin, Lucia dos Santos, called it home. Somehow the narrow streets accommodate the large tour buses carrying pilgrims to the modest homes where the children tended their family gardens and drew water from the well.

The children first saw three angelic visions beginning in 1916. The six Marian apparitions began in May 1917 and continued every month through October. Five of the Marian apparitions took place at the current site of Fatima’s Apparitions Chapel.

Every Portuguese will attempt to walk to Fatima from their homes at least once during their lifetime, said Gloria Bagao, the tour guide who recently hosted a group of Catholic journalists from the UNITED STATES

Francisco and Jacinta died in 1919 and 1920, respectively, during the flu epidemic. Lucia died in February 2005 at the Carmelite monastery in Coimbra, Portugal, where she spent the majority of her life as a cloistered nun.

Lucia lived in Aljustrel until 1920. But after the apparitions became public, she could no longer live the peaceful life of a shepherd. Curiosity seekers kept visiting her home. She first left Aljustrel to attend a boarding school in Northern Portugal. She entered the Religious Order of St. Dorothy in Spain when she was 18 and then later joined the Carmelites at age 41.

Pope John Paul II visited Fatima three times during his pontificate and Sister Lucia received permission to leave the cloister all three times. She also returned to Fatima in 1967 when Pope Paul VI visited the shrine.

Fatima’s first adoration chapel was built in 1919 but it was destroyed by an explosion in 1922. Construction started on the current basilica in 1928 and it was finished in 1931.

An estimated 6 million pilgrims visit Fatima every year. Large services are held at the outdoor altar. The square surrounding the basilica can fit 300,000 people. Some pilgrims approach the shrine on their knees either as penance for sins they have committed or in thanksgiving for blessings they have received.

Construction on a new basilica started in 2000 because the old basilica is not large enough to accommodate the large crowds that are attracted to the shrine. The controversial new structure, which will seat 12,000 people, is expected to be completed in 2007 for the 90th anniversary of the apparitions. The new Holy Trinity Basilica will contain 12 side chapels.

The shrine is surrounded by hotels, guest houses and religious goods shops. The crowd swells on weekends as Portuguese pilgrims travel by bus to spend time in prayer. Large groups can be seen enjoying a picnic lunch in the shrine’s parking lot and later napping under large shade trees. Despite its popularity as a tourist destination, Fatima remains at its core a holy place of prayer.

Copyright ©2005 Arlington Catholic Herald.  All rights reserved.

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