FATIMA, Portugal – If you plan nothing else about a trip to Fatima, factor in the 13th day of the months from May to October. Doing so will go a long way toward dictating the kind of experience you’ll have.
Some 4 million people tour Fatima each year, drawn by an appearance of the Virgin Mary reported here 88 years ago by three shepherd children.
Visits by Pope John Paul II and the Feb. 13 death this year of Sister Lucia dos Santos, the last surviving Fatima witness, have only added to Fatima’s allure as one of the world’s holiest sites.
To Fatima’s followers, Sister Lucia’s death on the 13th was more than fate, more than the superstition of bad luck the number often conveys.
Mary reportedly appeared six times, on the 13th of each month from May through October 1917, wearing a brilliant white gown and holding a white rosary.
With some 70,000 people on hand in October 1917, witnesses said the Virgin appeared in a blaze of sunshine. Some believers say she prophesized World War II, communism and the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II.
Since then the legend of Fatima has continued to spread. The pope, who has visited Fatima three times, credits his survival from an assassination attempt in Rome on May 13, 1981, to Our Lady of Fatima’s intercession.
The pope chose May 13, 2000, to beatify the first two shepherd children, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, who died within three years of the apparitions. Now Fatima’s most devout believers hope the ailing pontiff will choose another May 13 to elevate Francisco and Jacinta to sainthood.
Visiting Fatima on the 13th or on some other day is the difference between praying with thousands on a Sunday morning in St. Peter’s Square or the quiet sanctuary you might find in a downtown church at a weekday Mass.
Some Fatima travelers also visit the church and cemetery, the original burial site of Francisco and Jacinta, on the outskirts of Fatima. Two miles away, in Aljustrel, the homes of the children, largely unchanged over the last 88 years, give a glimpse of what the tiny village must have been like to live in.
A particularly popular site is the Hungarian Stations of the Cross, 14 little chapels leading to a marble monument of Christ on the cross, along two miles of uphill, stone walkways (a challenge for some elderly visitors).
I visited Fatima one sunny Friday morning in January – it was the 7th – as temperatures rose by midday to a summery 70 degrees.
No more than 150 people were there for the noon rosary at the Chapel of Apparitions, an open-air church built on the site of the appearances. There still were seats in the chapel, and the gathering was so small you could barely hear the hushed Portuguese prayers.
After the rosary, a dozen people lined up for a blessing of religious objects behind the chapel. The same number gathered holy water from the towering Sacred Heart statue at the center of the plaza.
The only visible commerce came from a bookstore and religious goods store on the grounds, both operated by a couple of the nearly 80 religious orders that have seminaries and convents in the village. Both stores were empty when I entered.
Except for wax body parts, for purchase by people diagnosed with various injuries and conditions, many of the items in the store were simple and inexpensive – such as a $1 embroidered relic of the three shepherd children.
The quiet afforded me a chance to feel the roots and depths of the place. I could faintly envision, amid the marble and concrete, an earlier time when the shrine was more simple and pure, the experience more meditative. Without distractions, I could smell the candles nearby, pause to listen and pray to the noontime bells and communicate, one mother to another, to Mary.
The drawback (or advantage, if you don’t like crowds) of an off-season visit is that you miss the big picture: the massive candlelight services attended by thousands; throngs of people waving white handkerchiefs in a procession behind a large Our Lady of Fatima statute headed to the shrine’s magnificent basilica; numerous ceremonies to bless the sick; and, throughout the day, in as many as six languages, the recitation of the rosary, Our Lady of Fatima’s request to the shepherd children.
We found the basilica closed, much to our disappointment. If you are traveling in the off season, you want to check ahead on basilica hours if you want to see the structure with its 15 altars dedicated to the rosary, the tombs of Francisco and Jacinta, and an organ with 12,000 pipes. A free brochure from the shrine’s small tourism office lists off-season Mass at the basilica at 7:30 a.m.
May through October, however, you should be prepared for an enormous crowd. The devout come night and day and fill the plaza for as far as your eyes can see.
Many come by the busloads, others on foot, from Lisbon 70 miles away. Thousands more camp out in the Portuguese countryside. The most devout line up to take their turns crawling on their knees more than 100 feet down a sloping path to the chapel.
“I call it a renewal of faith,” says John Hickey, 82, of Dover, Mass., who has made eight trips to Fatima with his wife, Mary.
She held the American flag for four hours one year during a Flag of Nations procession, and John has served communion and helped at benediction ceremonies. For several years now, the highlight for the Hickeys has been attending a Mass celebrated at the chapel on their Sept. 7 wedding anniversary.
“I personally have heard stories from many people who have traveled to Fatima and have experienced spiritual healings of their heart,” says Leonard St. Pierre, president of the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima’s Detroit Archdiocesan division, who traveled to Fatima in 1982.
“I know of marriages that have been restored and of people who have grown closer to God,” he said. “It is not just a pilgrimage site for physical healing. Our Lady’s presence is very real there.”