What We Saw in Fatima
The centrepoint of The Southern Cross’ pilgrimage to Portugal and Spain in May was the visit to Fatima to mark the centenary of the apparitions. GÜNTHER SIMMERMACHER shares his impressions.
The apparitions of which we are celebrating the 100th anniversary this year did not really occur in the Portuguese town of Fatima, but on a nearby field which belonged to the family of the oldest of the three child visionaries, Lucia dos Santos.
The dos Santos family, like their relatives, the Marto family to which Francisco and Jacinta belonged, were peasants and lived a very simple life, by our modern standards. But they were relatively well-off in terms of land and livestock ownership. When Our Lady appeared to the children — “brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal goblet filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun” — they were tending the sheep on a field owned by the dos Santos family known as Cova da Iria; the August apparition at Valinhos also took place on land owned by the family.
The Marto and dos Santos families lived in a village name Aljustrel, about 2km from what we now know as the Fatima sanctuary. Their houses are now museums. Charmingly, real sheep still live in the pen at the dos Santos home. The respective houses are not tiny, but — again, by our modern standards — not really big enough to accommodate such large families. The visitor is struck by the idea that a tiny room with one bed was shared by the five Marto boys, including Francisco (whose deathbed is also preserved).
It’s against an outside wall of the Marto home that the most famous picture of the three children was taken. Many tourists miss it, and the guides aren’t too keen to show it, because the inevitable photo sessions are a drain on time — and with the wall being on a narrow but quite busy thoroughfare, it is not the safest place.
That photo is a lovely study of the three children. Francisco looks hesitant and contemplative, much as he has been described by those who knew him. It’s clear that the girls were in charge. Lucia looks serene but defiantly sure of herself.
It is Jacinta who is the most interesting character. Her body language, with her hand resolutely on her side, and that fiery look in her eyes suggests that this little girl had a feisty side. Those who knew her described Jacinta as sweet and shy. But when Lucia was ready to crack under the pressure of those who doubted the children’s testimony, little Jacinta and Francisco insisted that they stay firm, for to deny the apparitions would be to lie.
During the long suffering that would culminate in Jacinta’s death in a Lisbon hospital on February 20, 1920 — less than a year after Francisco died of the Spanish flu — the nine-year-old girl exhibited that resolution we see in the photo. She bore her great pains bravely and with great faith. The night before she died, she asked the hospital chaplain for Communion and the last rites; but to her mother she said that she’d soon be better and returning home. Having received the last rites, she died alone, as was her wish.
To be boiled in oil
It is remarkable that the three children stuck by the account of their experiences, even with the local priest and Lucia’s mother expressing their unswerving disbelief, and even at the brutish hands of the civil administrator who interrogated the children individually and threatened to boil them in a vat of oil (telling each that he had already done so to the others).
Portugal at the time was ruled by an anti-clerical government which took power in 1910. For them, any expression of religious fervour represented a political threat. That explains why the mayor detained the children for interrogation and threatened them with a gruesome death if they didn’t confess to lying. As we know, the children stood by their witness
That abduction and interrogation took place on August 13, as the children were walking to Cova da Iria for Our Lady’s fourth apparition. Having missed the appointed time, that month’s vision took place a few days later at a different place, Valinhos, just about half a kilometre away from the dos Santos home. Today, the site of that apparition falls in the middle of a beautiful Stations of the Cross which culminates at the Hungarian Calvary, a large monument above a chapel, built in 1964 by Hungarian Catholics.
Between those two places is the Loca do Cabeço site where the angel appeared to the children in 1916 to prepare them for the events that would happen the following year.
All this today falls under the boundaries of Fatima, which even today is still a rather small town of 11,000 people.
The name Fatima sounds Muslim because it is. The story goes back to the time of the reconquest of Portugal from the Moors in the 12th century. Fátima was the name of a Muslim princess kidnapped by a knight, Gonçalo Hermigues. The Catholic version of the story is that Fátima fell in love with her kidnapper and converted to Christianity in order to marry him. She was baptised and given a Christian name, Oureana. The Muslim side of the story says she was forcibly converted.
The village of Fatima itself was founded only in 1568. While it bears the Muslim name of the princess, the municipal region that governs Fatima is Ourém, which popularly is believed to be a corruption of Oureana. The truth is rather more prosaic: after the reconquest in the 12th century it was called Portus de Auren, from which Ourém (the “m” is pronounced as a nasal “n”) is derived.
How devotion grew
Perhaps the new Fatima basilica might have been named after Pope Benedict XV, the Bishop of Rome at the time of the apparitions and during World War I — if that pope was a canonised saint.
The 1914-18 war is important in the context of the apparitions. Portugal had just entered the war on the French front a few weeks before the first apparition. There’s a personal note in that for me: on April 10, 1917—Good Friday and six days after the country’s troops had arrived in France—my grandfather was among the German soldiers who conquered the Portuguese position between Armentières and Festubert. “So even Portugal, that small country with a great history, was at war with us,” he later wrote in his memoirs, A Soldier For The Kaiser (which can be ordered at www.soldierforthekaiser.com or as an eBook on Amazon).
Our Lady addressed the war, as well as the instability in Russia that would lead to the Bolshevik revolution just three weeks after the final apparition. The children actually thought that Our Lady was asking them to pray for a girl called Russia. During the Cold War, Fatima became a focal point for anti-communist activity; the Hungarian Calvary is one expression of that. All manner of things — the content of the so-called Third Secret of Fatima, the question whether popes have consecrated Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary as demanded by Our Lady, and so on — have given rise to polemic and conspiracy theories. One such theory even claims that Sr Lucia was “disappeared” and replaced by an impostor who would approve everything the Vatican would say. This disputation is unhealthy. It divides the faithful. It trivialises and impairs Marian devotion. It detracts from the uniting message of faith of Fatima: the call to personal conversion, repentance, prayer.
Fatima is a place of prayer and faith. And that is where our focus must be.
After the apparitions of Fatima, the devotion grew quickly. No doubt the miracle of the sun — when at the final apparition tens of thousands gathered on the Cova da Iria field saw the sun “dance” — gave testimony to the faithful that something quite amazing had happened there. Even sceptics who were there testified to witnessing something extraordinary and inexplicable. Whatever happened that day, the suggestion of a mass hallucination, which some doubters tend to invoke, seems even more inexplicable than God using the universe to show his hand by way of an astral phenomenon.
In short order, a small chapel was built on the spot of the apparitions, and in 1920 pilgrims installed a statue of Our Lady of Fatima in the chapel—in defiance of government troops.
The first Mass was celebrated there in 1924, and the foundation stone for the basilica of the Holy Rosary was laid in 1928. Two years later, only 13 years after the apportions, the Holy See officially approved them as “worthy of belief”. In 1937 the remains of Francisco and Jacinta were entombed in the basilica. Lucia was also buried there after her death in 2005 in the Carmelite convent in Coimbra, which our group visited the day after Fatima.
The basilica dominates the sanctuary; no group photo from Fatima is complete without it in the background. But there is another basilica, on the other side of the sanctuary. Dedicated to the Holy Trinity, it was consecrated in 2007. It’s a modernistic building which architects love and pilgrims less so. I find it quite ordinary from the outside, but at least it’s discreet. Its purpose is to hold huge numbers of people. A circular structure of 125m in diameter, it has 9,000 seats. As our group sat in the basilica to recite a prayer which Pope Francis had said in Fatima just a week or so before, the size of the church was almost intimidating.
Inside, it looks a bit like a convention centre, but with an imposing tiled background to the plain altar, above which looms a crucifix with a very unusual-looking Christ. It’s not a place which inspires great faith for its beauty, but it’s preferable to the underground basilica of St Pius X in Lourdes, which looks like a parking garage.
Procession by candlelight
The highlight of a pilgrimage to Fatima surely is the nightly rosary by candlelight at the Apparition chapel, followed by the procession of a statue of Our Lady of Fatima around the sanctuary.
Our pilgrims had two opportunities to take part. On the second night, they spotted with excitement that our spiritual director, Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town, was presiding over the rosary, which is recited in different languages. Before the rosary was to take place, the archbishop had presented himself as part of the clergy that would lead the procession. He was already dressed in the priests’ white vestments when it somehow emerged that he was, in fact, an archbishop. Quickly he was given the vestments of the presider and hustled onto the presider’s chair on the sanctuary.
In the end, his job was easy: to quietly preside on his chair as everybody else was busy saying the rosary or getting people in place to do so.
Afterwards, our archbishop led the statue of Our Lady around the sanctuary. Our fellow pilgrim, Fr Davis Mekkattukkalam CMI of Port Elizabeth, proceeded among the clergy.
It was a great end to a great day that had also seen Archbishop Brislin consecrate The Southern Cross to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Little St Jacinta, left hand determinedly lodged on her side, would have approved.
The Southern Cross in association with Radio Veritas will repeat this pilgrimage in October, to be led by Fr Brian Mhlanga OP. For details see www.fowlertours.co.za/fatima
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