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Posted by portugalpress on May 11, 2017
Interior of the Basílica
Sculpture of the Angel of Portugal appearing to the three young shepherds
The immense scale of the site

Cova da Iria is a remote corner of Fátima parish, in the county of Ourém, in almost the geographic centre of Portugal. In this remote spot, on May 13, 1917, three children reported seeing a white lady. They saw this white lady on five further occasions, and always on the 13th of the month, except for August.

The local clergy quickly identified that this apparition was the Virgin Mary. Nowadays, 100 years later, the Catholic shrine of Fátima is one of the most famous in the world, and is one of Portugal’s best known places.

Visits already made by three Popes have served to consolidate this phenomenon in the minds of the faithful, and on May 13, 2017, Fátima is due to receive yet another Pope, Francis, who will canonise the two youngest of the seers.

Many Marian manifestations have occurred at times of political, economic or social crisis, or of confrontation between religious and non-religious, and some of the most famous apparitions have happened in the 19th century such as at Lourdes and at La Salette.

The appeal of these apparitions has always been for global repentance and redemption, and the occurrence at Fátima was a consequence of the political and social turbulence of the First Republic, and during its participation in WWI.

Portugal entered this war on the side of the allies, and the consequent uncertainty, fear and panic led to people seeking the comfort of religion. The apparitions at Fátima were thus heaven sent.

During that momentous year, at Cova de Iria, after Lúcia (10) and her cousins Francisco (9) and Jacinta (7) had seen the visions, they were closely questioned by the parish priest of Fátima. They had been visited six times by a lady dressed in white, identified by Lúcia as Our Lady only during the fourth apparition on August 19. She also said that she had seen successive visions of São José, Menino Jesus (Baby Jesus) and Nosso Senhor (Our Lord).

On the occasion of its first apparition, the image declared that she would reappear on six occasions on the same date; on the final date, she would say what she prophesied. In the October apparition, she said that the three children would go to heaven; that Lúcia should learn to read; that they should pray to Our Lady of the Rosary for an end of the War; that money raised so far should be dedicated to the construction of a chapel and andores; and that the war would end on October 13, 1917.

There arose a newspaper war between those who believed and those who did not, and this publicity fueled increasing interest in the phenomenon. The three children saw the apparition on May 13; on June 13 there were a few dozen spectators; on July 13 between 800 and 2,000; on August 19 there were 5,000; on September 13 25,000-30,000 and on October 13 up to 50,000.

On this last occasion at noon, there was an uproar as people shouted “milagre, milagre, maravilha, maravilha”. It appeared to them that the sun trembled and shook.

The locals said that the sun danced, some said they had seen the smiling face of the Virgin, others that the sun had changed colour, others said it turned like a Catherine wheel. The crowd dispersed rapidly to spread the news. Very soon this remote hillside became one of the places most visited in Portugal, by pilgrims and by tourists. Their needs were met by food stallholders and by peddlars, and later by hotels and a souvenir industry. Senior churchmen enjoined pilgrims on their approach to Fátima to recite their rosary and sing religious hymns.

The vicar of Ourém (the confessor of the three children) authorised the building of the Chapel of the Apparitions and the bishop of Leiria began publication of A Voz de Fátima which became the most important vehicle for propaganda concerning the sanctuary. The section called ‘The Cures of Fátima’ detailed cures which medical science could not explain. It appeared that drinking the water from the well of Our Lady was able to cure many ills.

Many foreign theologians have expressed doubts in print but none of their studies has yet appeared in Portuguese. For the first time in Portugal, in 1999, there was a critical Portuguese account published by Mário de Oliveira.

During the period of the Estado Novo (1933-1974), all Portuguese authors had their work officially censored by state officials. Some suggested that the apparitions were a fraud and that the Catholic church in Portugal wanted its own version of the sanctuary at Lourdes. The church clearly benefitted in terms of conversions and monetary donations. As yet the archives of the Church are not available.

There was a propaganda war between anti-clerical republicans and fervent catholics until the advent of the military dictatorship on May 28, 1926. Church and government suddenly found themselves on the same side. The via sacra was begun and in 1933, with the Estado Novo, the way was opened for the construction of the vast sanctuary we see today.

The century since this phenomenon has been plagued with doubts. Many people wrote that they had seen nothing exceptional on October 13, 1917. On August 13, 1917, Artur de Oliveira Santos and council administrator Cândido Jorge Alho of Ourém, deciding to conduct their own investigation, kidnapped the three children. Some maintain that they threatened the children with boiling oil if they did not reveal what the apparition had said. These two men have vehemently denied threatening the children, who played happily in his house with Santos’ own children.

Francisco and Jacinta were beatified in 2000 by Pope John Paul II in the sanctuary of Fátima itself. Lúcia became a nun in 1921 and in 1937 she wrote about the secrets of Fátima and, in 1941, her third memoir went even further from her original accounts in 1917 and was eventually revealed in 2000 as a predicted attack on the Pope (but only after it had happened). Lúcia died in 2005, and the process for her beatification began only three years afterwards.

The Capelinha das Aparições marks the spot where the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared. Other sacred sites include the Basílica de Nossa Senhora do Rosário and the recently completed and huge Igreja da Santíssima Trindade. The Museu de Arte Sacra e Etnologia exhibits religious artifacts.

When I visited Fátima, my first impression was how immense an area it is - like a huge airport with people shuffling on their knees along the via sacra, in fulfillment of some sacred promise.

From the 1930s, Fátima became the religious centre of Portugal and in the 1940s it was declared the “altar of the world”. Papal visits were made by Paul VI (1967), John Paul II (1982, 1991, 2000), Benedict XVI (2010) and Francisco is due to make his visit on May 13, 2017, appropriately on the centenary of the first apparition.

By Lynne Booker

Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association.



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