Back in 1917, Fátima was a parish in the municipality of Ourém, in the interior of Portugal, that no one had heard about. Today, it is a very well known name, both in Portugal and all over the world.
Curiously, the legend goes that Fátima was the name of a Moorish princess of many centuries ago, who fell in love with a Christian knight, converting to Christianity so that they might marry. And the name stayed on.
The story of Fátima is inseparable from that of the apparitions of Our Lady to the three little shepherds. They were deeply religious and highly mystical – in fact they had already had some visions of an angel, which they had kept strictly to themselves. On the 13th of May 1917 – 99 years this week – Lúcia, Francisco and Jacinta were guarding their sheep in a place called Cova da Iria. It was around noon and they had said their prayers, when they watched what seemed to them as lightning.
Afraid that it might start raining, they gathered their sheep and began to leave the spot, but suddenly, upon a holm oak tree, they saw an apparition: “A beautiful Lady, dressed in white, full of light. Her face was neither happy nor sad, but serious. Her hands were joined together as in prayer, from which hung a rosary. Her mantle was white”. The Lady told them she came from Heaven and also that she would be conveying some messages to them in the near future. She told them they should pray for the end of wars and also for the conversion of Russia (1917 was the year of the Bolshevik revolution…).
Many people began going to the place of the apparitions, but only the little shepherds saw the Lady. People only saw them as if they were in a trance –but nothing more.
From May to October the Lady appeared to them on the 13th of every month; however, on the 13th of August they were not allowed to go to Cova da Iria, as the anticlerical, republican authorities had detained them for questioning and only released them a few days after. They wanted to force them to speak out the secrets the Lady was telling them, but the children revealed incredible inner strength and courage unusual for their years, and they kept an unabated silence. In fact, the secrets would only be revealed many years after: the first two in 1941 by Lúcia in a written document; and the third one would only be officially released by Pope John Paul II in 2000. According to the official Catholic interpretation the three secrets involve hell (a vision of what awaited sinners was shown to the little shepherds), World War I and II and the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II.
As the apparitions continued, people witnessed a series of atmospheric phenomena: a sudden chill in the air, the disappearance of the sun in the middle of the day until stars shone in the sky, and several others.
The children having revealed the Lady had foreseen a miracle would take place on the 13th of October, some 50.000 people gathered at Cova da Iria on that day. The children talked to the Lady who told them a church should be built on that spot – and then they had a glimpse of the Sacred Family as the Lady disappeared. At the same time, the crowd was witnessing what became known as “the Miracle of the sun”…a well documented but never scientifically explained phenomenon, described by witnesses in the following way: “The rain that was falling stopped, and the sun came out of the clouds as a ball. It began rotating and spinning in high speed like a disc. It trembled, making sudden incredible movements”. Still according to some testimonies “the sun danced in the sky”.
The crowd was astonished, some people cried, some fell on their knees thinking it was the end of the world…but everyone felt they had witnessed some sort of miracle.
As a matter of fact, the phenomena were seen over an area of around 900 square kilometres!
As for the little shepherds, Francisco and Jacinta (brother and sister) died within three years and Lúcia, their cousin, went on to become a nun of the Carmelite order.
Over the years, many things have been said and written about the apparitions of Fátima – believers flock there during the whole year but mostly on the 13th of May, either by car or bus, on foot or even on their knees, keeping some promise to Our Lady made long before, and non believers say it is a farce and a story fabricated by the Catholic Church to oppose the anticlerical sentiment of the First Republic, that had begun in 1910 with the revolution that overthrew monarchy in Portugal.
I, for one, stand with the believers.
Strangely enough, I didn’t have a very religious education, even if my family were Catholics by tradition. My parents were married in Church (not so my grandparents, who only married in Church when Mom was in her twenties!) and I was baptised, but that was it. I didn’t even go to cathechesis. However, in my teens I found my faith was very strong, and somehow I felt there was something special about the story of Fátima, so I prayed to Our Lady, and through many moments of my life I felt that praying, and believing, gave me the necessary strength to face life’s challenges, as when one believes one never feels alone.
Many years later, when I wanted to have a child and could not, I promised Our Lady of Fátima that if I ever had a child I would baptise him or her in Fátima, thanking Her for that special grace. And when I was awarded that grace – not once, but twice – I kept my promise and put my two boys under the protection of Our Lady – and I do not have words to explain how emotional it was to be there, with my babies, first Afonso and then Pedro, in what had already become a very special place to me. Many miracles have been attributed to Our Lady of Fátima, and I have my own miracle to be thankful for.
Over the years I’ve been to Fátima many times. Sometimes there are many people, sometimes less. I always go and pray at a very small chapel where there is always a nun praying, in total silence. There, I feel completely at peace, and in all these years I have thanked Our Lady for the many blessings that have been bestowed upon us. I have told many friends and acquaintances all over the world about Fátima and I have even taken some foreign friends there. I remember once a Swiss friend, who was coming to Lisbon for a conference, telling me about his Brazilian wife who would be coming with him and who, being devoted to Our Lady of Fátima, wanted to visit. I felt so happy that I told him I would love to take them there and that I did. She was thrilled and I loved showing her the sanctuary and my favourite chapel as well. We took some candles and burned them as an offering, as is the custom, and I felt that I was bound to those friends forever, because a faith shared is a very, very strong bond. A few years later I visited them while on a business trip to Zurich and they kindly took me to another Marian shrine, that of Our Lady of Einsideln. I was so very grateful to them for their meaningful gesture.
As I write this, thousands of people have been going towards Fatima this week for the 13th of May pilgrimage. Pope John Paul II came not once, but twice, and next year, for the 100th anniversary of the apparitions, Pope Francis will also come to Fátima. Just the other day on TV they were showing that there are hardly any hotel rooms available in Fátima for May next year…some people will say it’s a huge business and that many will profit from this, but then I tell them: “Faith is something that you cannot explain. You either have it, or not! It’s not something you can force someone into feeling – it’s just there”.
I consider myself lucky to be a believer, and to have faith. I was not even taught to have it, it just dawned on me. How fortunate I was, I am. I believe that something very special happened in Fátima almost 100 years ago, I believe in the messages conveyed – and one I find most inspiring is the one where Our Lady asks us to believe and to pray (for peace and the end of wars) – I believe the little mystical shepherds spoke the truth…and I also admire those three children for the incredible courage they displayed, while being persecuted and terrified by the harsh, anticlerical authorities of the day. They must have had a very strong inner purpose not to be diverted from what they believed was their mission – to pass on the messages of Our Lady. And, if only for that incredible story of courage of three young children, it would have been worth to tell this story.
But, as it is, there is more, so much more to this story – and so I have always believed. With all my heart.
In case you want to find out more about Our Lady of Fátima: