A year ago, on this very day, as pilgrims among the thousands that filled the Sanctuary of Fátima, not even in our wildest dreams – or rather nightmares – could we have imagined a day like today.
The empty sanctuary
Last year, like the year before, May 13 was an explosion of faith, of light. Last year it was a warm, sunny day, more like Summer than Spring. We talked, we prayed, we cried, we thanked, we begged, we sang, and in the end, when the image of Our Lady was taken back to its place in the Apparitions Chapel, we waved thousands of white handkerchiefs saying goodbye to Her, till we meet again next year.
Only this year, we met in our hearts, because we couldn’t go to Fátima. For the first time since the first apparitions in 1917, it was a celebration without pilgrims, with only the bishop and a few priests who were celebrating Mass, and a handful of faithful who were allowed to be there representing their countries. It was appalling to see the huge square of the sanctuary completely empty of people; it was eerie, something we’d never have thought possible. Unfortunately, we have recently learned that all is possible in pandemic times.
I watched part of the ceremonies on TV. It was recalled – something which hadn’t crossed my mind before – that the two little shepherds, now Saints Francisco and Jacinta Marto, died in 1919 of the Spanish flu, a terrible pandemic that cost the world millions of lives. Their cousin, Lúcia, who became a nun and passed away only a few years ago, survived to see the visions the Lady had shared with them turn into reality.
Due to the current pandemic, people were forbidden to do the pilgrimage to Fátima, and a few stubborn pilgrims who tried it were detained by the authorities. As for the other thousands, we stayed at home and watched, with tears in our eyes but no less faith in our hearts, how the image of Our Lady passed by a deserted square, never seen so far and, I sincerely hope, never to be seen again. I know it will be filled again on May 13 with people, laughter, prayers, the smell of burning candles, singing and above all tears of joy for being there, once more.
A slow comeback
Slowly, slowly, more people are walking on the streets. Last Tuesday when I went to Lisbon, to work at the office, I saw most people wearing masks, within safe distance of one another; but I also spotted a group of people too close to each other at a café terrace, especially a man and a woman, unmasked, less than a metre from each other and in animated conversation. Another man was wearing his mask on his neck and smoking a cigarette, and I even saw one or two whose mask only covered their mouths, not their noses…I wonder what instructions they have read…
The number of infections is now up to 28.132, but day by day the percentage of new cases is decreasing, as are cases who need hospital care and the number of deceased. Yesterday, for the first time, the number of people who have recovered was higher than that of new cases.
This is all very good but of course these are still numbers of the confinement period. Only by the end of May will we be able to start evaluating the impact of the comeback. If by then numbers are still following this trend, then I believe we’ll have reasons to be optimistic. It very much depends on how civically people will behave and how much of all these new, annoying habits we can incorporate in our lives: social distancing, disinfecting, washing hands all the time, taking off your shoes when you get home, etc, …going out is still a nightmare and I’m afraid it will continue to be so for a long time, unless we find we are lucky enough to be immune to the virus. I promise, in that case I would at least relax a bit from all the decontamination procedures that are driving me crazy!
Tomorrow, I’ll go back to Lisbon for another day at the office. I’ll put on my boots at the door (it’s been a rainy week), almost losing by balance in the attempt of not putting a foot out of the “contaminated” area at the entrance; I’ll put on my gloves so that the disinfectant will not make my hands drier than they already are; I’ll drive in the early morning listening to music and enjoying the fact that there is not much traffic, even if the roads are no longer deserted as when I first drove to work a few weeks ago; then I’ll put on my mask to go up on the elevator, in case I meet someone there; I’ll clean my desk with a disinfectant towel and take my things from my bag, where they are divided inside small plastic bags so as not to risk touching the money purse or the keys or other prone-to-contamination items …it will be more than fifteen minutes before I sit down and turn on my computer, and relax a bit of all these most unwelcome, but necessary procedures that are making our life so complicated.
In the midst of all this “disinfection”, once in a while you need to do a ”crazy thing”: last Friday, a wonderful summer-like day, I went for a walk along the beach with a friend. When we got to the bottom, and were coming back, she suddenly said: “What if we take off our shoes and walk back on the sand?” I immediately agreed and, shoes in one hand and mobile phone on the other in order to take a photo for posterity; not forgetting the disinfectant gel flask safely tucked into my jeans’ pocket, and there we went, with an exhilarating feeling, a mix of transgression and elation for feeling the sand under our feet. We stopped and looked at the sea, so close, so wild, so beautiful, so familiar, feeling the wind on our faces and the salt on our lips, and thoroughly enjoyed that moment – the simple pleasure, that we now value so much more, of walking barefooted on the sand.
Maybe, only maybe, this virus has come to remind us of the simple pleasures of life, so often the best of all, that we had forgotten in the vertigo of our frantic lives.