“Fatima is not for observers”, that’s what the sign says as I enter the sanctuary that receives over 4 million pilgrims each year. I approach from behind the basilica, which is closed for renovations, but whose 62 bells loudly ring every 15 minutes throughout the day from 7am to 10pm. In front of the basilica is a huge sloping area the size of 25 football pitches where thousands of pilgrims gather on the 13th day of each month from May to October, but today it is relatively empty: a few tour groups, a few elderly pilgrims, a few passing nuns and a few families. Most are gathered around the small covered Chapel of the Apparitions gazing at the statue of Our Lady while smoke billows from the blazing candles lit nearby.
In order to learn more about the origins of this special place I visit the Rectory which houses an exhibition called “Fatima Light and Peace”. I join a Portuguese group and follow a smiling nun to the first room. A large picture of men fighting on a battlefield serves as a reminder that the apparitions occurred during the First World War. Then a short film introduces us to the three shepherd children who witnessed the apparitions – Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta. In 1916 they were visited by an angel of peace. Then, one year later on 13th May 1917, a lady dressed in white appeared in an oak tree and told them to pray to the rosary and make sacrifices in order to obtain peace in the world. She appeared each month on the 13th until October 1917 when approximately 70,000 people witnessed a miracle – the sun whirling like a wheel of fire.
The museum contains donations from popes, celebrities and ordinary people, offered in thanks to the sanctuary of Fatima. Some are very valuable, such as the huge monstrance made of gold, silver and precious stones donated by the people of Ireland. While other are more symbolic, such as football shorts and the “silver shoe” trophy of Nuno Gomes, a Portuguese football player. Wedding gowns seem to be a popular gift, including one from the last queen of Portugal. There are also papal gowns, chalices, rosaries and golden roses. However, most of the articles on display are simply jewellery, especially crucifixes. Apparently, 18 kilos of gold is offered by pilgrim each year.
The most revered object though, is the crown used to adorn the statue of Our Lady every 13th day of the month from May to October. It was offered to the shrine in 1942 but was later altered to include the bullet which hit Pope John Paul II during his assassination attempt. It was placed just under the blue globe. Next to the crown is a ring which the Pope also donated on the 12th May 2000.
I want to find out more about the young shepherds at the heart of this religious place. So, early the next morning, I set out to walk the Via Sacre which will lead me to the sites of the angel apparitions and the village where the children lived. As I cross the esplanade, I see only a few people praying in the Chapel of the Apparitions, along with a cleaning lady who is sweeping the floor in front of Our Lady. A devoted pilgrim is shuffling on her knees along the marble slabs towards the chapel, her husband walking beside, holding an umbrella to protect her from the morning drizzle.
The Via Sacre starts from a large, busy roundabout but, once I’m on the path, I leave the town behind and enter the tranquillity of the countryside. Large groves of old, gnarled olive trees, acorns scattered below tall oaks, bird flitting from branch to branch and a robin, which seems to be following me. The route is marked by monuments depicting the stations of the cross and leads me to the chapel of St Stephen at the highest point of the hill. The only person I meet along the way is a man sweeping the leaves from in front of the chapel.
However, the highlight for me is at Loca do Cabeco, where a simple white statue marks the spot of the first apparition of the angel. On The spot of the second apparition is found behind the home of Lucia and is marked by another simple white statue. The house in the village of Aljustrel is relatively unchanged since that time.
On my return, I stop by the basilica to visit the tombs of the children. Francisco and Jacinta died from the flu only a few years after the apparitions but Lucia lived until the age of 97, spending most of her years in service to God.
I’m not a religious person but by visiting Fatima I feel that I have a deeper understanding of faith. At a time when Europe was at war and people lived very simple but hard lives, it is understandable that they would seek divine guidance and pray for a better life for everyone. The many donations given by pilgrims prove their willingness to sacrifice in order to achieve a better world. However, I feel that the money spent on creating the sanctuary, as it stands today, could have been better spent.