Fatima – God’s home in Portugal

Portugal, Travelogue — By on June 10, 2018 12:58 pm

Joining hundreds of people in a candlelit procession, singing the hauntingly beautiful ‘Ave Maria’ in unison around the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, one of the world’s biggest Catholic pilgrimage sites, is one of the most inspiring, magical, and powerful experiences we have ever had. The mysteries of the rosary had been recited in five different languages in the Chapel of Apparitions beforehand, and as they were, the crowds of pilgrims, each holding a candle, had flooded in. It was exciting, the build up of energies, but it was a quiet excitement, as the crowd listened to the priest recite the first half of the Hail Mary, before joining the ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now…’ half; all of us looking into the small chapel, to the right the beautiful basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, further to the left the basilica of the Holy Trinity. Later, as the priests led the procession, we passed in front of the basilica of the Holy Trinity, and down past a narrow, smooth path leading from the top of the slope in front of the basilica of the Holy Trinity to the Chapel of Apparitions. This path is used by pilgrims who wish to thank the Lord for curing them – or helping them in some way – and they shuffle from the top all the way to the Chapel on their knees. During our time here we witnessed some Korean pilgrims using special knee pads. Someone will surely soon be enterprising enough to start selling pilgrim knee pads. I’d buy them for sure – the skin of my knees has worn thin by too many sliding tackles and goal celebrations during my football years. The procession ended. The pilgrims started flooding out. The Roma beggars sat outside the ‘No Begging’ signs and made a small fortune from good-natured visitors….and the night fell even quieter. And so ended one of the special nights in this special place, and the feeling we had was every reason we had decided to come. We had needed this.

That morning, we were in Lisbon. To get to Fatima, we took the metro to Jardim Zoologico metro station on the blue line (very convenient from where we were staying near Avenida metro station), and from there walked to Sete Rios, where we took the Rede Express bus to Fatima. The bus station had the usual beggars and misfits, all vying for your attention and money. There was a little book fair on when we were there. We passed time outside with the smokers, where there was nobody around to hassle us, before the time came for our bus to depart.

We left the grim outskirts of Lisbon (aside from the pretty centre, it really is a miserable looking place, full of soulless concrete apartment blocks) and hit the highway north, where, after an hour and a half, we arrived at the small main bus station of Fatima. My hopelessly weak bladder needed emptying as soon as we arrived, so I went to the station bathroom, manned by a wrinkled hag who told me to leave my small suitcase outside (apparently it couldn’t get through the turn-style) and that she’d keep an eye on it for me. I knew we were now in the Godly city of faith and miracles and good deeds, but bus stations are a different breed entirely; more like small cities within cities of trickery, thievery and greed. From Damascas to Kigali to Medellin…they’re all the same really, attracting the same rogues and ne’er do wells. I wasn’t going to leave my case outside. I’d need to wait a bit longer for the toilet.

We asked around and were pointed in the vague direction of our hotel. It seemed quiet here. Relaxed. Cars drove more slowly thank in Lisbon or Porto. We walked past some small Bangladeshi-owned mini-markets, a Chinese/Japanese ‘fusion’ restaurant, a pizzeria, some bland-looking hotels and guesthouses, endless tacky souvenir shops selling exactly the same tacky religious mementos….plenty of shops selling port wine. There were some pretty-looking cafes. A few enterprising beggars sat on strategic corners, undoubtedly making a decent living from the well-wishing tourists. Fatima, then, is a 21st century version of a medieval pilgrimage site. After 10 minutes we came to the Hotel Santo Antonio De Fatima. A three star beauty only 5 minutes walk from the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, the principle ‘attraction’ in this town. We checked in, dumped our bags, and headed straight back out to explore.

The small town of Fatima is really really small. Just a street flanked by restaurants and souvenir shops, but pleasant enough for a short stroll. There is also a small marketplace with kiosks that all seem to sell the same things. You’ll see hanging body parts and organs made of wax outside each. It looks quite disturbing, but religious punters snap them up and take them to the Sanctuary, hoping their prayers are received and whatever aliment in whatever part of the body they have is cured. I wanted to ask if they do whole body wax models for me.

The Sanctuary of Fatima is, of course, the main attraction. On a sunny day the floor shines. We walked in, avoiding the Roma beggars, and were in awe of the size and the space. Every year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit this place. We saw some pilgrims shuffling down to the Chapel of Apparitions on their knees. There were people here from all over the world. We went inside the modern basilica of the Holy Trinity, which was completed in 2007 and can hold a whopping 9,000 devotees. A girl inside was busy taking selfies, and 15 minutes later when we left after some time spent in silent prayer, she was still trying to get that perfect image. Self-worship is clearly more important to some than worshipping God. The church has a monumental task on its hands.

We then walked across to the impressive basilica of the Holy Trinity, towering 200ft above the square, and we were lucky enough to time it just right for a mass, and we sat down and joined the worshippers, and received communion, in what must be one of the holiest places in the world to do so.

Dinner was an average affair at the hotel, the bread and butter the most memorable thing about it, and afterwards we walked back to the Sanctuary and joined the beautiful night procession. We got a candle each, too big for the plastic wax protectors they had on hand. This meant we spent the evening wincing as hot wax melted onto our hands. At one point the wax dripped on a man’s designer bomber jacket. He wasn’t impressed. No wonder everyone else had a small candle with a little wax protector. Still, the pain and embarrassment was a small price to pay for the feeling that this was all helping us get our faith back, to spend time at prayer again, to reconnect with a faith we had largely ignored for too long. That day and night, Fatima healed us both.

The next day was an overcast one, so we visited the Museu de Cera (Wax Museum of Fatima), which narrates the story of how Fatima came to be one of the most revered Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world. It was here that three simple shepherd children, Lucia and her cousins, Jacinto and Franciso, saw an apparition of the Lady of the Rosary six times in 1917….the final one in front of 70,000 people who had been swept up by the fervor surrounding the story, and there they witnessed what is known as ‘The Miracle of the Sun’. All who were there were drenched in a horrible rainstorm, when suddenly the sun came out and seemingly danced around the sky before appearing to fall to earth, drying everything and everybody. The Vatican (and everyone else) was initially skeptical of the visions, but later accepted them as appearances of the Virgin Mary, and a Fatima as one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world was born. Of course, the story is much more detailed than that. Check out this for more.

That afternoon we got the bus back to Lisbon, content and at peace with the world. Fatima was well worth it. Inspiring, heart-warming, touching, magical and beautiful….whether you are a believer or not, it will be hard not to be moved by what you experience here, to think about the history behind all this and to be awed by the power of faith.

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