FATIMA, Portugal – A visit to three children a century ago inspired a visit from Catholic pilgrims around the world last weekend.
Pope Francis and travelers from New Orleans and central Louisiana were among the estimated 500,000 pilgrims who arrived at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima on Saturday, May 13, for the 100th anniversary of the Virgin Mary’s appearance to the three little shepherds – Lucia dos Santos and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto – as they tended their families’ herd of sheep during the days of WWI.
They came to this most Catholic of countries to celebrate a milestone for one of the most iconic events in Catholic history.
Sea of humanity
The esplanade at the sanctuary, designed to accommodate 400,000 people, was overflowing with people as Pope Francis celebrated an outdoor Mass on the site where the children reported receiving six visits from the Blessed Mother between May 13-Oct. 13, 1917.
Francisco and Jacinta, who died of the flu in 1919 and 1920 at ages 11 and 10, respectively, were canonized during the Mass, becoming the youngest saints not to have been martyred. Perhaps Sister Lucia will someday join them as the process for her beatification began after her death in 2005 at age 97.
Pilgrimage site to swell
The site of Our Lady of Fatima’s appearances is one of the most popular sites for Catholic pilgrims to visit, attracting approximately 6 million visitors annually, but the combination of the beginning of the anniversary, the pope’s presence and the canonization last weekend contributed significantly to what is expected to be a total of 7.5 million visitors in 2017.
One group of 50 visitors from around the U.S. included a trio from Evergreen and Bunkie, Louisiana.
Deanna Wright and her fellow Louisiana pilgrims stood in a wall-to-wall crowd of people on the streets of Fatima awaiting the pope’s motorcade after he delivered a blessing at the Chapel of the Apparitions on the eve of the Mass.
“I’m trying to be more religious, and I’m trying to find the Lord in any way I can,” Wright said. “I thought it wouldn’t hurt to do a pilgrimage. I’ve been to Israel and to Poland and pretty much all around. The next trip is to Medjugorje.”
But Fatima is distinct, if not unique. Pope Francis said as much during his 12-minute homily, one of the highlights of the nearly three-hour Mass.
Virtually all of what we know about Our Lady of Fatima comes from the accounts of Sister Lucia, who at the insistence of church officials, put her and her cousins’ experiences in writing.
Pope Francis noted Lucia’s account that the Blessed Mother “enveloped them in the mantle of light that God had given her.”
More than 17,000 pilgrims traveled part of the distance on foot, and many finished their trip on their knees once reaching the shrine, which rests in a village that is home to fewer than 10,000 people some 90 miles north of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.
“According to the belief and experience of many pilgrims, if not of all,” Pope Francis said, “Fatima is more than anything this mantle of light that protects us, here as in almost no other place on earth. … Mary came to remind us that God’s light dwells within us and protects us.”
Mary has been the patron saint of Portugal, one of the oldest countries in the world, since its inception nearly 900 years ago. Ninety percent of its 10 million residents are Roman Catholic.
“We have gathered here to give thanks for the countless graces bestowed over these past hundred years,” Pope Francis said. “All of them passed beneath the mantle of light that Our Lady has spread over the four corners of the earth, beginning with this land of Portugal, so rich in hope.”
‘Ocean of God’s light’
“We can take as our examples St. Francisco and St. Jacinta, whom the Virgin Mary introduced into the immense ocean of God’s light and taught to adore him. That was the source of their strength in overcoming opposition and suffering.”
The crowd included the sick and handicapped as well as many from countries facing political turmoil.
“I could not fail to come here to venerate the Virgin Mary and to entrust to her all her sons and daughters,” Pope Francis said. “Under her mantle, they are not lost; from her embrace will come the hope and the peace that they require, and that I implore for all my brothers and sisters in baptism and in our human family, especially the sick and the disabled, prisoners and the unemployed, the poor and the abandoned.”
The weather in Fatima had been chilly, overcast and rainy for much of the week leading up to the celebration, but mostly the sun shined brightly during the papal Mass.
As the Mass concluded – with many in the crowd chanting “Pa-pa Fran-cis-co!” – the skies turned steely once again, and shortly after the pope departed for Rome, the rain returned.
So too did many of the remaining pilgrims as the nightly recitation of the rosary, for which Fatima is noted, continued Saturday night and onward.
Les East was named top sports columnist in the U.S. in 2013 by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association.