FÁTIMA… A vision of splendour


FÁTIMA… A vision of splendour

The importance of this small town in the centre of Portugal is generally underestimated, but it exists as a testament to the faith of millions.

There are times when exploring the towns and villages in Portugal that you chance upon a simply painted flimsy wooden door, in faded blue, grey, yellow or green. Or sometimes a majestic oaken door with metal studs and hinges, and perhaps a ‘spy’ aperture.

But it is normally a piece of furnishing on the door that catches your attention. A small delicate downturned hand, perhaps with an ornate ring on one of its fingers. This dainty hand is a door knocker, meant to ward off evil from the home of the people within, and its provenance stems from North Africa where, in its simplest form, it is a flat one-dimensional piece made from iron or brass; while an embellished version may be clutching a little apple.

The hand was fashioned to venerate a special young woman, the youngest daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Her name was Fatima.

Back in time

Iberia was conquered by the Moors in the 8th century and their reign would continue for 500 years. They brought engineering, agriculture, viniculture, irrigation, language and understanding with them. They created seats for learning and the pursuit of knowledge. But despite all this, their time would come to leave or to be expelled. Thus began an era in Portugal and Iberia known as the Reconquista.

There were many brave heroes who battled on both sides, but from a Portuguese perspective one individual stood out. His name was Gonçalo Hermingues also known as Traga Mouros, the ‘Moor Grabber’ or sometimes the ‘Moor Eater’. And it is with him that legend, fact and fiction intermingle to create a fable that would, many many years later in the early part of the 20th century, become connected to a mighty pillar of faith.

The story goes that around 1185, a Moorish leader had a daughter named Fatima who was promised in marriage to her cousin. She was not content with this arrangement and had set her eye upon Gonçalo, who came up with a daring plan to snatch her away on the night of the Festival of St John, or the Festival of Light, when the Moors would traditionally be celebrating.

After a battle, he succeeded in his quest, and it is said that they fell in love with each other immediately. Gonçalo asked King Afonso for permission to marry Fatima. The King agreed on condition that she converted to Christianity, and more importantly that she was happy to do so.

The couple married and Fatima changed her name to Oureana. The King granted them land and a castle, which would in time become known as Ourém. For a long time, it was simply the municipal centre of an insignificant small village; but today, it is one of the world’s greatest centres of Catholic pilgrimage dedicated to The Blessed Virgin Mary. Its name is Fátima.


And then what happened?

Fast forward to the early part of the 20th century when Europe and the world was in the grip of the most savage war ever conceived.

And here the story of The Apparitions of Fátima becomes open to interpretation, but should be appreciated for its importance in the pursuit of faith by millions of Catholics, other Christian faiths and even amongst other religious beliefs and denominations. What happened over a period of time in 1917 goes along these lines:

Portugal was a new Republic. It was only a little over six years since its declaration on 5 October 1910. By the 8thof the month, the new government had agreed to expell all religious orders and to confiscate their lands, and as the decade passed was continuing with a systematic rejection of all of its monarchical and religious past.

The new conservative republicans took the view that Catholicism was the principal enemy of the already prosperous elite and the emerging middle class, and instead of tackling the country’s disastrous economic situation, they targeted the Church, closing convents, stripping Jesuits of their citizenship, and generally adopting an extreme anti clerical outlook.

In the meanwhile, the greater impoverished population was left rudderless, uneducated and illiterate. It was into this societal maelstrom that three young children from Cova de Iria in the parish of Fátima came, and who would upset the status quo: three cousins, Lúcia Santos, aged 10, Francisco 9, and his young sister Jacinta Mato aged 7.

The ‘vision’

The three children were from an impoverished background; they were unschooled and worked as shepherds with the families flock. On 13 May 1917 they were in the fields of Cova de Iria, in the village of Aljustrel near Fátima, when they experienced an apparition of a lady “brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal glass filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun”.

The ‘Lady’ asked the children to ‘’recite the rosary every day, to bring peace to the world and an end to the war’’. The children decided to keep the apparition a secret but the youngest, Jacinta, told her mother, who of course told her neighbours and in no time the entire area knew of the children’s vision.

The Lady had told the children to return to Cova de Iria on 13 June when she told them that Francisco and Jacinta would be taken to Heaven soon, and she also purportedly showed them a vision of hell. She told them the first of what would become three secrets, and again instructed them that they should return on the thirteenth of the next month and every month until October.

As word spread about the apparitions, thousands of people were being drawn to the region; the authorities were troubled by the new-found religious fervour of the common people, because it was seen as politically disruptive in the conservative country.

The local Municipal Administrator at the time was called Artur de Oliveira Santos who was known for his hostility to organised religion. As the apparitions gained popularity, he began to send in the local police in an attempt to frustrate access to the area for the ‘pilgrims’, and on the morning of the anticipated August apparition, he arrested the three young children, jailed them, interrogated and physically threatened them to divulge the ‘secrets’. They refused.

The three were released and reported seeing the Virgin Maryon 19 August at nearby Valinhos. The final apparition was on 13 October and drew crowds of up to 50,000 people, including reporters and photographers. The children claimed to see a variety of visions including Jesus, Saint Joseph, and Our Lady of Sorrows.

The crowd’s experience was quite different. The day had began with heavy rains but according to accounts, when the clouds broke the sun appeared as a spinning disc, more opaque than brilliant, that flew towards the ground before lifting back to its normal position. Some people reported that though they had been soaking wet, their clothes dried immediately, as did the muddy ground beneath their feet. Some experienced nothing at all, and afterwards some scientists, theologians and sceptics explained away the perceived phenomena as psychological suggestibility.

Whatever the truth is, there is no doubt that religious devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary exploded in the immediate aftermath of what became known as ‘The Miracle of the Sun’.

The two youngest seers, Francisco and Jacinta, died during the flu pandemic of 1918/19, and their older cousin Lúcia took holy orders. She would, over time, publicly reveal the two of the ´three secrets; the third she wrote down and sealed in an envelope. It was finally revealed by the Vatican on 13 May 2000. Lúcia herself died in Coimbra in 2005.

A pilgrim’s destination

Once word of the apparitions began to spread outside Portugal in the 1920s, the numbers of pilgrims who came to visit began to swell so much so that it was decided that a Sanctuary should be built to accommodate the faithful. At its centre is the iconic Basílica de Nossa Senhora do Rosário, which was built between 1928 and 1953 has a 65 metre high bell tower with a large statue of Our Lady of Fátima over the main entrance. Inside, there are 15 altars and an enormous organ containing 12,000 pipes. The three seers are buried here.

The Sanctuary attracts up to eight million visitors each year and as a consequence another basilica, the Basílica da Santíssima Trindade, designed by the Greek architect Alexandros Tombazis, was built between 2005 and 2007 and has a seating capacity of 8,000. The courtyard outside the basilica is double the size of the square in front of St. Peter’s Church in Rome. The Basilica houses temporary exhibits of objects relating to the apparitions,, including tosaries, sandalsof pilgrims, and the pen used to write the three Secrets.

Other places of importance to visit at Fátima include the Capelinha das Aparições (Chapel of the Apparitions), located at the exact point of the apparitions, over an oak tree, the Via Sacra or Caminho dos Pastorinhos which leads to the apparition site at Valinhos and to a monument, Calvário Húngaro, which was donated by Hungarian refugees escaping the Soviet invasion of 1956. Nearby, the houses of the three children are preserved and open to visitors as is the parish church of Fátima where they were baptised. There is a statue of Our Lady at the sanctuary that was designed by a sculptor based on physical descriptions given to him by Lúcia. There is a crown on her head and in the interior centre of the crown is a bullet. It was placed there by Pope John Paul II and it was the bullet that struck him during the attempt on his life in 1981, interestingly on 13 May, the anniversary of the first apparition. The Pope believed that it was Our Lady who saved his life and he made two visits to Fátima during his Papacy to give thanks.

In the Museu de Cera (Wax Museum) there are figures of the Virgin and the three children, Pope John Paul II and Lucia later in her life as a num, while the Museu de Arte Sacra e Etnologia de Fátima (Sacred Art and Ethnology Museum) exhibits a large collection of religious art and folk art including dolls of Jesus, Nativity scenes and cribs collected from all over Portugal from the 14th century on.


In the Museu de Cera (Wax Museum) there are figures of the Virgin and the three children, Pope John Paul II and Lucia later in her life as a num, while the Museu de Arte Sacra e Etnologia de Fátima (Sacred Art and Ethnology Museum) exhibits a large collection of religious art and folk art including dolls of Jesus, Nativity scenes and cribs collected from all over Portugal from the 14th century on.

Words: Brian Redmond

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