Faithful stream to Fatima for centennial of apparitions

April 19, 2017

By Christopher Gunty

FATIMA, Portugal – A century ago, three young shepherds in a small village in central Portugal were shocked when an angel appeared to them twice in the fall of 1916 – to prepare them for an even more momentous visit.

At Cova da Iria, what was then simply an area for grazing sheep, the children – siblings Francisco, age 9, and Jacinta Marto, 7; and their cousin Lucia dos Santos, 10 – saw a woman dressed in white and brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light. Our Lady told the children to devote themselves to the Holy Trinity and to pray the rosary to bring peace to the world and to end the war (World War I, 1914-18).

Eventually, the Blessed Mother would appear a total of six times to the children, on the 13th of each month from May to October 1917, except in August. That time, they had been detained on the 13th by authorities hoping to quash the news of the apparitions, so Mary appeared at another location nearby Aug. 19. A crowd estimated between 30,000 and 100,000 experienced the “Miracle of the Sun” Oct. 13.

The apparitions were deemed “worthy of belief” by the church in 1930.

Portuguese shepherd children Lucia dos Santos, center, and her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, are seen in a file photo taken around the time of the 1917 apparitions of Mary at Fatima. (CNS photo/EPA)

Brother and sister Francisco and Jacinta died in the flu pandemic in 1919 and 1920, respectively. Lucia was sent to school with the Sisters of St. Dorothy and eventually became a postulant of that order. In 1947, she joined the Discalced Carmelite Order at Coimbra, Portugal, and spread the word about Mary’s call to prayer for almost six more decades before her death in 2005, at age 97.

Pilgrims still stream to this town not far from the Atlantic coast. Huge crowds are expected this year, as the centennial celebrations formally begin May 13, when Pope Francis will celebrate Mass at a newly constructed altar outside the first basilica built at the site.

An “ordinary consistory” of cardinals present in Rome is scheduled for April 20, at which the canonizations of Francisco and Jacinta, among others, are expected to be approved.

Although it cannot be confirmed until the consistory is held, the pope is expected to canonize Blessed Francisco Marto and Blessed Jacinta Marto during a Mass at the Fatima shrine May 13, the 100th anniversary of the first time Mary appeared to the siblings and their cousin. The diocesan phase of Sister Lucia’s canonization cause was completed earlier this year. The three seers are all buried in the original basilica at the shrine.

A small chapel built decades ago on the site of the apparitions has been expanded into a glass-enclosed area that seats about 300, but can accommodate thousands more standing on the plaza. The original chapel now serves as a tabernacle for that chapel, in which several Masses a day are celebrated and a candlelight rosary service is held each evening.

Basilicas bookend the large plaza that is twice the size of St. Peter’s Square in Rome. The older Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, for which the foundation stone was set in 1928, seats about 800, and houses the graves of the seers. A round, modern Basilica of the Holy Trinity, built mostly underground, was dedicated Oct. 12, 2007, as part of the closing ceremonies for the 90th anniversary of the apparitions.

The new basilica contains several chapels, including a 24-hour adoration chapel.

As devotion to Our Lady of Fatima has spread over the years, the town of Fatima has grown as well, with more hotels – and souvenir shops – surrounding the shrine for many blocks.

Even so, the area expects to be crowded more than usual this year during the centennial celebrations from May 13 to October 13.

Pilgrims find occasions and places to pray in the Chapel of the Apparitions, or in one of the two basilicas, or at the nearby sites of the angel’s apparitions or Mary’s August 1917 appearance. A large grotto sees visitors lighting candles as prayer petitions day and night.

And frequently, dedicated pilgrims show their devotion to Our Lady by making a trek more than a tenth of a mile from the start of the plaza to the site of the apparitions, on their knees.

At a morning Mass in Fatima March 29, the celebrant noted that the three children heard and believed the message of Mary – to pray and to love those who do not know the Lord, a message given directly to them, but meant for all.

“Jesus prefaced the most perfect message at Calvary with miracles,” the celebrant said. Mary’s message at Fatima “is as clear as Calvary.”