A pilgrimage to Fatima

The Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima - the focal point of the Sanctuary
The Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima - the focal point of the Sanctuary

The story

Lucia and her two cousins Francisco and Jacinta, ages 10, 9 and 7 respectively, were pasturing their flock one spring day when out of nowhere a brilliant light appeared before them. Thinking it was lightning they decided to head home. Again, as they went down the slope, the light appeared. This time, they saw on the top of a holmoak, a Lady more brilliant than the sun from whose hands hung a white rosary.

The scenes of the Apparition appear very lifelike at the Museu de Cera wax museum in Fatima

The scenes of the Apparition appear very lifelike at the Museu de Cera wax museum

It was May 13 in the year 1917. The place was the Cova da Iria in the parish of Fatima. The Lady told the children that it was necessary to pray much and She invited them to return to the Cova da Iria on the 13th day for each of the next five months.

The year before our Lady appeared, the children were visited three times by an angel who prepared them for what was ahead exhorting them to prayer and penance. In the coming months, the children met the Lady just as requested on the 13th of each month – except for August. The local administrator took the children, on August 13th, preventing them from the meeting. Instead, they went out on August 19th to meet the Lady at a different location called Valinhos. At the last meeting on October 17th, attended by not only the children but about 70,000 other people from all over the region, the Lady told the children that she was the Lady of the Rosary and asked that a chapel be built on the spot, in the Cova da Iria, in Her honor. She provided the miracle that she had promised earlier – those in attendance gazed at the sun without difficulty, which was spinning like a wheel of fire and appeared to be headed toward earth.

At Loca do Anjo, the angel appeared to the children twice the year prior to the Fatima Apparitions

At Loca do Anjo, the angel appeared to the children twice the year prior to the Apparitions

Francisco and Jacinta died shortly after the Apparitions, in 1919 and 1920 respectively, from the 1918 flu pandemic (aka the Spanish Flu). Lucia lived a long life in religious order until 2005.

During the Apparitions, the Lady told the children that people should pray the rosary and pray for the conversion of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In addition, She told them three secrets, which were not revealed until years later. One secret was a glimpse of hell. Another was the current war would end soon and another one would begin if people did not stop offending God and Russia did not convert. There is controversy surrounding the third secret. Stricken with influenza and pleurisy in 1943 (similar to what killed her two cousins), Lucia was convinced she was going to die. The local bishop ordered her to write down the 3rd secret, which she eventually did. The secret was delivered to the bishop in 1944 where it stayed until 1957 at which time it was delivered to the Vatican. The third secret was announced by Cardinal Sodano on May 13th in the year 2000. It had to do with the failed assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II’s life, which just happened to take place on May 13, 1981 (the 64th anniversary of the first Apparition). There is much controversy surrounding this secret. Lucia indicated the Lady wanted the secret announced to the public after 1960. Many people believed the Vatican was hiding the secret for some reason. To this day, there are many who believe what the Vatican announced in 2000 is not the real (or at least the full) third secret.

 

My pilgrimage

I had heard the story of Fatima in my religion classes when I was a young child. Fatima was in Portugal, which seemed so far away. It was on the other side of the world from my home in Southern California. I thought it would be nice to visit someday and see where the Apparitions took place.

The stations of the cross pathway meanders through the fields, in Fatima, where the children tended to their flock

The stations of the cross pathway meanders through the fields where the children tended to their flock

Well, someday finally happened. I just completed a three-day pilgrimage to the place where Our Lady of the Rosary appeared to the young children – Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta. I wanted to walk the areas that were impacted and listen to the stories of the Apparitions to, hopefully, get a feel for what it was like there almost a hundred years ago. Many times, when you are in a location of historical, and/or in this case spiritual, significance, it is hard to feel what it was like when history was being recorded or an event was taking place. Most likely, the area has changed and has been built up to accommodate the tourism the area brings. What got me to feeling like I was there were the stations of the cross walk (a little over a km from the sanctuary or an easy 20 minute walk). There weren’t many people when I started down the cobblestone pathway, which wound its way through the fields near Aljustrel where the children’s homes were located. There was nothing built up along the way. I imagined the children playing in the fields surrounding the walkway. At the end of the stations is the Loca do Anjo where the angel appeared twice to the children in the year before the Apparitions. I felt very peaceful there as I gazed upon a replica of the angel appearing before the three children. Further down the path is the town of Aljustrel, where the children lived. Proceeding a little ways into town, I came across the house where Francisco and his sister Jacinta lived and the location where a widely circulated picture of the three children was taken. It was during this two hour walk that I felt as close to the events as I could.

High Mass in the Fatima Sanctuary in front of the Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima

High Mass in the Fatima Sanctuary in front of the Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima

I arrived in Fatima, on the bus from Lisboa, to a constant drizzle on Thursday afternoon. There was a chill in the air. After a short hike to the hotel and checking in, I went off in search of the Sanctuary, which I had been reading about. As I entered the Sanctuary grounds, I just stood there gazing, in awe, at the enormity of this area. I was trying, in my first glimpse of this historical location, to take it all in. There’s an enormous rectangular square leading up to The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary (started in 1928 and not completed until the 1950s). I thought, to myself, the square has to be larger than the one at St. Peters at the Vatican. The square slopes downhill, reaches a low point and then rises back up until reaching the basilica, which is about 65 meters (213 feet) in height which gives the viewers an imposing feeling when one stands in the central square area, which extends back, past the Basilica of the Holy Trinity about a half-mile.

Being my first pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Fatima, I found it to be a place of faith and calmness. Everyone is there for the same purpose. There is a feeling of hope and belief as witnessed by the people, primarily women, crawling on their knees around the Chapel of the Apparitions (built in the center of the huge square on the site of the Apparitions in 1917). A large holm oak tree, next to the Chapel, was there when the Lady appeared to the children. Many of the pilgrims here appeared to be with a group; however, the Sanctuary is for individuals also. I felt very included wherever I went. I wandered into a room where people were waiting to have their confession heard. After confirming that I would like to go to confession (I thought why not), a lady guided me where to sit for a confession in English. I was amazed at the electronic board overhead that listed the priests in attendance, which room they were in and what language(s) they spoke. The lady in attendance guided each person where to go and when. In addition, during my time in Fatima, I said the rosary each day and attended Mass a couple of times at the Chapel of the Apparitions. As the weekend came, the crowds continued to grow. The culminating events were a rosary candle vigil (with each segment spoken in a different language), Saturday evening from 9:30 to about 10:30 pm in the Chapel of the Apparitions followed by an inspiring procession of the Image of Our Lady of Fatima around the enormous courtyard with thousands of pilgrims leading and following, each holding their own candle, all singing Ave, Ave, Ave Maria – the classic song dedicated to the Virgin Mary. On Sunday morning, a High Mass was conducted in the courtyard, in front of the main basilica in front of thousands of pilgrims many watching and listening from under the trees where shade was provided under a brilliant sunny day. Speakers, located throughout the Sanctuary, carried the words and the music for all to hear.

Thousands of pilgrims in the procession of the Image of Our Lady after evening rosary

Thousands of pilgrims in the procession of the Image of Our Lady after evening rosary

As I departed on Sunday, I was sad to be leaving the Sanctuary. What started as a visit to see and hear about some incredibly historical place, turned out to be one of the most spiritual events I have ever witnessed or participated in. I was swept up in the atmosphere of faith and hope. I was inspired. I am grateful that I had the opportunity not just to see; but, to be a part of this special place at least once in my lifetime. I hope to return in the future especially on one of the very special days – May 13th or October 13th.

 

Background information

Fatima is located in central Portugal, away from the coast, about an hour and a half drive north of Lisbon. It has a cool climate with a fair amount of rain from October through April. The warmest months are June through September.

The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary contains the tombs of Francisco and Jacinta. Its 15 altars are dedicated to the 15 mysteries of the rosary. The painting above the high altar depicts the Message of Our Lady to the children. Scenes of the Apparitions are represented in stained glass. The monumental organ, mounted in 1952, has about 12 thousand pipes.

At the end of the Sanctuary area opposite the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary is the enormous round and modern Basilica of the Holy Trinity. The main door is dedicated to Jesus Christ. It has 12 side doors with each one dedicated to one of the Apostles. This basilica can accommodate up to 9,000 people and includes multiple chapels inside. It is said to be the world’s 4th largest church. It is very different than the previously built Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary.

 

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What to see and do

Onsite at the Sanctuary of Fatima

  • The Chapel of the Apparitions was built, in Fatima, shortly after the Apparitions as requested by Our Lady

    The Chapel of the Apparitions was built shortly after the Apparitions as requested by Our Lady

    The Chapel of the Apparitions was built on the site of the 1917 Apparitions. It shelters the Image of Our Lady of Fatima, which is made of wood and measures 1 meter in height. The crown is gold, weighs 1.2 kg and has 3,000 precious stones and pearls. Its core contains the bullet that hit Pope John Paul II in the assassination attempt on May 13, 1981 (the 64th anniversary of the initial Apparition) at St. Peter’s Square. This chapel seems to be the busiest section of the Sanctuary due to the number of Masses throughout the day, people saying the Rosary in front of the Image of Our Lady and those crawling on their knees.

  • The Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima located at one end of the Sanctuary area is the focal point of the Sanctuary. As it rises up onto a hill, it appears as such an imposing structure visible to the entire area.
  • The Basilica of the Holy Trinity is a modern structure built to accommodate 9,000 pilgrims.
  • The Holm Oak near the Chapel of the Apparitions is the one the Lady appeared to the children near.
  • A section of the Berlin wall is located at the entrance to the Sanctuary. It is a memorial to the fall of Communism as promised at Fatima.
The site at Valinhos where Our Lady appeared to the children on August 19, 1917

The site at Valinhos where Our Lady appeared to the children on August 19, 1917

In the surrounding area, located about 1.2 km from the sanctuary, are the following sites. It’s a fairly easy 20-minute walk from the sanctuary to the beginning of the stations, which lead the pilgrim through the fields where the children tended to their flock.

  • The stations of the cross is on a cobblestone walkway. It’s an easy walk with a smooth center for wheelchair access. There are a couple of inclines that might make pushing a wheelchair challenging. Driving to Aljustrel and coming in the back way might be a little easier.
  • Loca do Anjo is the location where the angel appeared to the children on two occasions the year prior to the Apparitions. A replica of the angel’s visit with the children is located here.
  • Valinhos is the location of the Apparition on August 19th, 1917. This is the month the local administrator kept the children from making their appointment on the 13th of the month. An Image of Our Lady of Fatima marks the location.
  • The home of Francisco and Jacinta is in the town of Aljutrel, which is located at the end of the stations and past the Loco do Anjo and Valinhos.

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Museums in the area

  • Museu de Cera is a wax museum depicting the story of the Apparitions. It provided me with a nice visualization of the key moments in 1917.
  • Vida de Cristo Museu is a wax museum depicting the life of Christ. It’s very well done with beautiful life-like figures re-creating some of the key moments in Christ’s life.
  • O Milagre de Fatima is an interactive museum depicting the miracle of Fatima
  • Museu de Arte Sacra E Etnologia (Museum of Sacred Art and Ethnology)
  • House Museum Aljustrel

 

Planning your own pilgrimage to Fatima

Flying into Lisboa (as it is referred to locally) is the gateway to Fatima. For U.S. citizens, a valid passport is all that is required to enter the country. While here, take several days to see the beautiful and cultural city. It has many highlights.

To reach Fatima, there are several options if you are not part of a group where transportation is provided.

  • Bus is very easy and was the method that I utilized. Long distances busses depart Lisboa from Sete Rios which can be reached via the metro stop at Jardim Zoologico (price is less than 2 euros including the cost of the re-useable metro card), the Aerobus which can be accessed at the airport (for 3.5 euros) or a taxi which would be the most expensive option at 10 to 15 euros. The one and a half hour bus ride, which costs about 10 euro, is an excellent option because the Fatima bus station is located about a quarter mile from the Sanctuary and within walking distance of most hotels.
  • Train is not as good of an option because the train stops about 10 km outside of town so you will have to take a taxi to reach the Sanctuary. The train departs from the stations at Santa Apolonia or Oriente and is a relaxing hour and a half ride to the local train station. The cost is a little under 20 euros.
  • Car is a viable option. The multi-lane highways are in very good condition between Lisboa and Fatima. There is parking available at many hotels and on the Sanctuary grounds. On crowded days, such as the weekends, parking is at a premium meaning you might have to park on the local streets.

Hotels are plentiful and can be found on TripAdvisor. I stayed at the Hotel Anjo de Portugal, which TripAdvisor rates as its number one hotel in Fatima, for about 50 euro per night. Breakfast, with eggs/ham and cold accompaniments, is an additional 5 euro per day. I was extremely pleased with the hotel. The service was excellent. The facilities are new. The restaurant dinner (fried cod, vegetables, small whole potatoes and ice cream dessert accompanied by a full bodied Portuguese white wine) that I had one night was delicious.

Restaurants are plenty in the area. The other nights I had exceptional meals at:

  • Quatro Estacoes Restaurante, near the Museu de Cera, where I had rice, cooked with what appeared to be tomato sauce, mixed with shredded duck topped with slices of chorizo sausage, which is typical Portuguese for under 10 euros. The flavors blended very well together.
  • Bia Restaurante (located just down the street from my hotel) where I had veal chops with mushrooms in a cream sauce with chips (fried sliced potatoes) and a salad for about 10 euro.

If you are interested in the story of Fatima or going on a pilgrimage there, I suggest you start planning your trip in the near future. You might not go right away; however, you’ll be ready whenever the opportunity presents itself.

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