Pilgrims encounter the message of Fatima

This is the fifth in a six-part series exploring the Marian apparitions at Fatima, Portugal, 100 years ago. The final installment will run in the first issue of October.

Pilgrims to Fatima, Portugal, today will find a beautiful campus of churches, monuments, plazas and other buildings that have been built up around the site where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in 1917. Collectively referred to as the Sanctuary of Fatima, the shrine and its grounds offer an abundance of opportunities for pilgrims to encounter the Lord and his Blessed Mother.

The latest available statistics reflect that the small Portuguese village’s population is just under 12,000. But the fascinating events of a century ago have turned Fatima into one of the most visited Catholic shrines in the world.

These shrines both inspire and assist pilgrims who desire growth in the Faith — a main theme that caused their construction in the first place. As the American novelist Willa Cather wrote in “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” “Doctrine is well enough for the wise,” but “the miracle is something we can hold in our hands and love.”

Many fortunate Catholics have had the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to Fatima during this centennial anniversary year. However, for those unable to make the trip, the following gives a glimpse of what makes the sanctuary so special.

Fatima shrine’s origin

It is said that in the first three years following the final Fatima apparition more than 2 million pilgrims visited the Cova da Iria, the field where Mary is believed to have appeared to three shepherd children on multiple occasions in 1917. Local villagers built the first small chapel, known today as the Chapel of the Apparitions, on the site of the apparitions in 1919. This original chapel only lasted three years before it was destroyed in 1922.

As civic and Church leaders awaited the results of the Church’s formal investigation regarding the apparitions, they were ambivalent about construction of the original chapel at Fatima. The local bishop first participated in any liturgy on the site in 1927, an event that was associated with the installation of Stations of the Cross on the nearby hillside. A center for infirm pilgrims also opened in Fatima that year.

Sanctuary of Fatima

Between 1928 and 1954, the church of Our Lady of the Rosary — named so because of the Blessed Mother’s repeated requests to pray the Rosary daily for peace — was under construction. During that time, the Catholic Church officially approved the Fatima apparitions as worthy of belief. Dedicated upon completion of its construction, the church was named a basilica by Venerable Pope Pius XII. A striking square, surrounded with a colonnade and a variety of statuary representing Portuguese saints, graces the area in front of the basilica.

Above the entrance to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary stands a marble statue of Our Lady as she appeared at Fatima. The artwork was sculpted by an American priest and presented as a gift to the sanctuary from Catholics in the United States. A mosaic in the sanctuary depicts the Holy Trinity’s coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary — a scene evoking the fifth glorious mystery of the Rosary. The theme of the Rosary also is echoed in four main statues in the church’s interior that depict various apostles of the Rosary: Sts. Anthony Mary Claret, Dominic, John Eudes and Stephen of Hungary.

During construction of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, pilgrimages to that location increased. So, too, did interest in the two visionaries who were deceased at the time — now Sts. Francisco and Jacinta Marto. In 1935, their bodies were reburied in the basilica church, where they remain today. The body of the third seer, Lúcia Santos, joined those of the other two in 2006, a year after her death. The Marto seers were canonized this May by Pope Francis. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI waived the mandatory five-year waiting period to open a cause of canonization for Lúcia.

Papal plaudits

In 1946, Venerable Pope Pius XII granted permission for a canonical coronation of the Our Lady of Fatima statue at the shrine. The abundance of pilgrim crowds that day forced the site to be shuttered temporarily, and a monument on the sanctuary’s grounds is dedicated to Pope Pius XII for his support of the Fatima message.

Two other popes also are memorialized on the campus of the Fatima sanctuary: Pope Blessed Paul VI and Pope St. John Paul II. Paul VI was the first pope to make a pilgrimage to Fatima, having done so in 1967 for the 50th anniversary of the apparitions. The Paul VI Pastoral Center on the campus of the shrine has an auditorium that seats more than 2,000 and can accommodate more than 400.

John Paul II made three historic pilgrimages to Fatima during his papacy. In addition, he credited Our Lady of Fatima for saving his life following a 1981 assassination attempt that took place on her feast day. One of the bullets lodged in his body that day rests in the crown atop the statue of Our Lady of Fatima in the Chapel of the Apparitions.

Another significant portion of the Fatima sanctuary includes a portion of the Berlin Wall, which calls to mind the dark history of communism in Russia. Our Lady’s request at Fatima for Russia’s consecration bore fruit when the wall fell in 1989, along with communism in Russia.

A variety of other chapels and buildings dot the landscape of the sanctuary’s grounds. The greatest of these is the stark, modern church dedicated to the Holy Trinity — erected because of a need to accommodate more pilgrims than the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary could. Construction commenced in 2004, with a cornerstone blessed by John Paul II and containing a fragment of marble from the tomb of St. Peter. The church was dedicated in 2007 by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. It was named a basilica in 2012. There are also two retreat houses on the shrine’s grounds, which also serve as guest hostels — Our Lady of Sorrows and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.

American Fatima shrines

A little closer to home, there are three well-known shrines that honor Our Lady of Fatima in the United States found in Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey.

The Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima was founded in 1946 to promote devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and daily recitation of the Rosary as well as observance of the duties associated with one’s state in life. The National Blue Army Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima church was built in Washington Township, New Jersey, in 1978. The shrine’s grounds contain replicas of two important Marian chapels: Fatima’s Chapel of the Apparitions and the Holy House of Loretto — the house in Italy that claims to have been mystically transported from the Holy Land for safe-keeping during the Crusades. There is also a Rosary garden and many outdoor shrines.

In 1963, the Barnabite Fathers from Italy chose to build what would become the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Lewiston, New York — a sacred place through which they could promote the message of Fatima in the United States. There are many outdoor shrines and statues on the 16-acre campus near Niagara Falls, but the centerpiece is the shrine church, which was named a basilica in 1975. A statue of Our Lady of Fatima, sculpted of Vermont granite, sits atop the domed, glass church. The campus also houses the only other replica of Fatima’s Chapel of the Apparitions in the United States.

Additionally, there is also a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima in Holliston, Massachusetts, which was founded in 1949 by the Xaverian Missionaries.

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of The Catholic Answer magazine. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.