Over four million people visit a small town called Fátima in the centre of Portugal each year where three children saw the Virgin Mary a century ago.
The story began on the 13th of May 1917 in a secluded pasture where Lúcia dos Santos, 10, and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta, 9 and 7, grazed their flocks.
Suddenly a beautiful woman ‘more brilliant than the sun’ appeared before them above a small oak tree.
In dulcet tones she delivered her message: ‘Recite the Rosary – a devotion to the Virgin – to bring peace to a world at war and make sacrifices for sinners who have no one to pray for them.’
She promised to return on the 13th day of the next five months, and each month they saw her.
News of the visions attracted increasingly larger crowds to Fátima and an estimated audience of 70,000 surrounded the young shepherds on Saturday the 13th of October. Although only the children saw the Virgin, and just Lúcia could actually hear her words, many reported that the sun seemed to dance and whirl closer to Earth.
The pasture today is a very large paved precinct stretching to a towering basilica in which the bodies of all three seers now lie. Francisco and Jacinta both died of respiratory diseases during childhood but Lúcia died in 2005 at the grand old age of 97 after spending most of her life as a contemplative nun in Spain and Portugal.
Her written accounts reveal the secrets disclosed to her by the Virgin relating to Hell, World Wars I and II and the attempted assassination by gunshot of Pope John Paul II. The bullet is now held in the crown of the Virgin statue in the tiny Chapel of the Apparitions, which stands in the place of the oak tree long ago stripped for relics.
Pilgrimages commemorate the six vision dates, most dramatically in May and October when hundreds of thousands of people descend upon the shrine for a candle-lit mass on the night of the 12th, one of the most fervent occasions in Portugal’s religious calendar.
Once a tiny hamlet hidden away amongst the hills of the Serra d’Aire, Fátima today is a place of immense spiritual importance. Originally designated as a parish in 1568, the area around Cova da Iria has grown into a major religious centre described as one of the altars of the world.
The heart of the shrine is the little open chapel (originally erected in 1919 and rebuilt in 1923), which is located on the site of the apparitions and embodies the request made by Our Lady of the Rosary to the three little shepherds, and the nearby basilica was built on the spot where the three little shepherds were playing on the 13th of May 1917 when they were frightened by a flash of lightning.
The basilica is visible from miles around and perched above it are the bell-tower (65 metres high), the carillon of 62 bells, the clock, angels on the façade and in a niche in the tower the statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
The entrance to the basilica features a mosaic made in the Vatican workshops depicting the Holy Trinity crowning Our Lady of Fátima and the stained glass windows show scenes from her life, the apparitions and the message of Fátima.
The basilica’s fourteen side altars represent the fourteen mysteries of the rosary and the fifteenth is depicted on the vault of the chancel. Above the main entrance is the magnificent organ built and assembled in Padua, Italy, in 1952.
To the casual observer, Fátima is a place of great wonder and occasional bewilderment as pilgrims crawl knees to asphalt along the shiny sanctuary path towards the imposing basilica in the distance.
Not far from Fátima is the home of Lúcia’s godmother in the small village of Aljustrel, which was purchased by the shrine of Fátima and is now preserved as a museum. Here the visitor can experience what it was like to have lived there at the time of the apparitions.
Also owned by the shrine is the house where Lúcia was born and lived with her parents until she was 14, and which was the scene of the initial interrogations of the young seers. Inside, pilgrims can see the objects that formed part of the everyday life of the little shepherd girl. Sister Lúcia gave the house to the shrine of Fátima in 1981.
The home of Francisco and Jacinta close by is also a place much visited by pilgrims. Lúcia’s cousins, now beatified, were born here and little Francisco died of pneumonia in one of its bedrooms.