Fatima and Lourdes: Ave Maria…
In October a group of Southern Cross pilgrims, led by Bishop Joao Rodrigues of Tzaneen, returned from a pilgrimage to Portugal, Spain and France. In the first of four articles, GUNTHER SIMMERMACHER looks at the Marian focus of the journey.
Bishop Joao Rodrigues made the point repeatedly: It is a firm belief in the Catholic Church that when our Blessed Mother Mary shares her intercession with our prayers before God, then we can be confident that our needs will be answered.
The need expressed in the main theme of our pilgrimage to Portugal, Spain and France’ prayer for the success of the sainthood cause of Benedict Daswa, was answered a few days after our return when the Vatican’s theologian consultors voted unanimously to recognise Daswa as a martyr.
To that end, the itinerary included sites of reported Marian apparitions in Fatima, Lourdes, Zaragoza and Paris and of saints whose work was centred on praying the rosary, specifically the great Carmelites St Teresa of Avila and St Therese of Lisieux.
Bishop Rodrigues, who heads the Tzaneen diocese which runs the Daswa cause, framed his illuminating homilies around the daily themes of the novena for the cause, which was at the centre of our prayer intentions.
The pilgrimage took us to Lisbon, Santarem, Avila, Alba de Tormes, Madrid, Zaragoza, Tours, Lisieux and Paris, but the two pillars were Fatima and Lourdes.
Both are sites of the two most famous Marian apparitions, even if Guadalupe in Mexico attracts the biggest number of pilgrims of any Catholic shrine in the world.
There are some distinct similarities between Fatima and Lourdes.
Both are in self-contained sanctuaries surrounded by hotels and shops, though Lourdes’ commercialism is much more rampant than that of Fatima.
Both sanctuaries have beautiful basilicas at one end and controversial modern structures at the other. If Fatima’s Paul VI Pastoral Centre from 1982 is unloved, Lourdes underground St Pius X church is quite loathed by many. It’s easy to see why: it bears more than a passing resemblance to a parking garage.
To enter it, one descends a concrete ramp which looks no different from that of any generic parking garage, other than the exhibition of artworks on the wall. The doors to the church might just as well have been lifted from a warehouse, and the church itself is stark, spare and dark as unradiant light drops off the concrete walls.
No doubt some people like that structure, built in 1958 to hold 25000 worshippers. Others will be puzzled that this most modernistic church should be dedicated to a stridently anti-modernist pope.
Both Fatima and Lourdes have nightly candlelight processions during which the Lourdes Hymn is sung (Immaculate Mary, your praises we sing. You reign now in Heaven with Jesus our King…). But where in Lourdes the procession is stately, Fatima’s is possessed of a certain unruly joyousness.
Perhaps this is because in Lourdes the mysteries of the rosary are recited during the torchlight procession, while in Fatima the procession begins only after the recital of the rosary is completed.
On that subject, in Fatima our group had the particular joy of nominating a member to lead the English part of the rosary. And so pilgrim Mary Nembambula, who knew Benedict Daswa personally, came to represent South Africa at the Apparition Chapel.
In Fatima and Lourdes the obvious focus is very much on Our Lady. Both sanctuaries have huge statues of the Blessed Virgin in strategic places of their sanctuary.
But while in Fatima the visionaries have a measure of prominence, in Lourdes there is not much to explicitly suggest the presence of St Bernadette, other than stained glass windows in the Pius X basilica and an out-of-the-way museum.
While Fatima’s Sr Lucia dos Santos and the short-lived siblings Francisco and Jacinta Marto are buried in the sanctuary’s Holy Rosary basilica which is presently being renovated for the centenary of the apparitions in 2017 St Bernadette’s remains rest in far-away Nevers, in the convent where she died.
Lourdes’ grotto of the apparition, upon and against which three marvellous churches are built, like a triple-layered cake, makes no particular reference to the visionary.
A pilgrimage to Fatima must include an excursion to nearby Ajustrel, where the houses of the families of the visionaries still stand (as does the wall against which the famous photo of the three was taken), and the adjacent areas where some of the apparitions took place.
The main difference between Fatima and Lourdes, however, is this: Fatima is a place of penitence, Lourdes one of healing and, spiritually, the latter requires the former.
In Fatima some people walk a long stretch on their knees, and not only the black-clad widows of stereotype, but also young, elegantly dressed people.
In Lourdes many sick people – on crutches, in wheelchairs, even on gurneys – seek a physical healing, or absent that, a purification of the spirit which might help them to go on living with their condition.
It is a touching sight to see the front of the sanctuary filled with row upon row of faith-filled people in wheelchairs at the culmination of the afternoon Blessed Sacrament procession.
And this is the thing about Fatima and Lourdes, and other sites of reported apparitions and sundry devotions, whether they have been approved by the Church or not: These places are sanctified by prayer and by the accumulated faith of the people who come there.
In this way it is unimportant whether or not one believes the apparitions or other private devotions to be true. Through the potent concentration of faith in these sites, the presence of God, of Christ and of our Blessed Mother is made manifest. The mantle of faith which envelopes these places infuses one’s own prayer and facilitates an encounters with the Divine.
Next week: Pilgrimage in the footsteps of St Teresa of Avila.