First impressions of Fatima

William Davage reports on a week’s pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima

As the scrawny scrub-land outside Lisbon gave way to lush, green hills, fields and woods, olive groves and vineyards, anticipation became sharper. Pilgrimage to a sacred site, especially a Shrine of Our Lady, for the first time excites keen expectation. The world-weary and the cynical will already have told you that all is cheap and vulgar plastic Madonnas, aggressive mendicants and folk religion at its most basic and risible: such is the effect of protestant England. But there it never turns out like that.

Lack of ostentation

Of course, there are some of those things, sometimes all of those things, but they are never the full story, not even a large part of the story. The first impression of Fatima was of a small, modern, modest, unprepossessing centre. There were plenty of shops and arcades selling religious and devotional artefacts but they were not unduly garish, rather there was a pleasing restraint about many of them. The domain of the Shrine itself was striking in its simplicity and lack of ostentation. It was not set apart, nor cut off from the town but fitted naturally and easily in the townscape and, more significantly, the landscape. The vast concourse from the steps of the Basilica to the new, modern church at the west end was imposing but far from overwhelming or threatening. It followed gracefully and gently the contours of the land and, despite accommodating 400,000 pilgrims on Saturday evening and, again, on Sunday morning it felt domestic and intimate.

Atmosphere

Fatima is a twentieth-century devotion, the visions having been vouchsafed to Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta in 1916 and 1917. In the twothousand-year sweep of Christian history that is a short time and Fatima has not acquired a patina of antiquity, or faux antiquity. It is simple and straightforward. The test of any Shrine or holy place is the atmosphere of devotion and the disposition of pilgrims. Here was an easy and natural sense of devotion and prayer, unforced and deeply rooted. It may seem to the outsider casual but it is the casualness of the completely familiar and relational, not something extrinsic nor bolted on with its accompanying self-consciousness.

This was evident in those who undertook the final approach to Our Lady’s Shrine on their knees. A well-worn, burnished path leads down

the slope across the concourse and there was a steady stream of pilgrims engaging in that gruelling physical and spiritual exercise which was moving in its simplicity and determined commitment. One young soldier carried his heavy kit-bag while tackling it. It was obviously a severe test, so much so that at times he crawled on all fours as the weight of the kit-bag threw him forward, and two other pilgrims stopped to ask if he was all right. He completed the course in this demanding act of unselfconscious piety.

A torrent of pilgrims

Worship was also familial with vast numbers marshalled with the lightest of touches. The Saturday evening liturgy saw Our Lady’s image, slight, modest, serene, borne aloft and seemingly floating across an ocean of flickering candles. And her recession after Mass on Sunday morning was accompanied by the huge congregation waving their handkerchiefs as they would naturally taking leave of a family member. And just at the very moment when Benediction of the

Blessed Sacrament was given, an overcast sky broke for brilliant sun.

Over the weekend there was a torrent of pilgrims with every space taken by parked cars and tents. The town was surrounded by a series of ad hoc encampments and tented villages. As the numbers of pilgrims, so did the snatches of marching songs from pilgrims nearing the Shrine were heard through my bedroom window. Within hours after the Mass the pilgrims had melted away until the next 13th day of the month.

Renewal and re-creation

Our own pilgrimage enjoyed additional highlights. One was the visit to Vida e Paz, the rehabilitation centre for drug and alcohol addicts which The Ecumenical Friends of Fatima Association supports. Here was a pleasant, open, peaceful, ordered environment where restoration was possible. The pilgrimage was led by Bishop Jonathan Baker who, in a series of excellent homilies and addresses, was pithy, pointed, illuminating, learned and challenging in what is required of us on our pilgrimage and in response to Our Lady’s call. Renewal and re-creation are at the heart of any pilgrimage and were abundantly present for the happy and convivial group which spent a week at Our Lady’s Shrine.

Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta were privileged to see a Lady dressed in white, more brilliant than the sun. They were privileged to hear her message and we were privileged to share in the outcome of that miraculous encounter and benefit from the inexhaustible fount of love, pardon, forgiveness and reconciliation that lie at the heart, the Immaculate Heart, of Our Lady of Fatima’s message. ND

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