Shrine of Fátima one of the world’s holiest sites

February 23, 2013

A divine miracle is believed to have occurred near Fátima, Portugal that quickly turned the sleepy little town into one of the world’s holiest sites. Every year, four million believers and skeptics are drawn there for the same reason: to visit the place where the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared nearly a century ago.

Located 70 miles north of Lisbon, Fátima has become a significant location for Portuguese tourism as people from all around the world make pilgrimages to the famous Marian shrine to pray, attend Mass and pay their homage.

The legend of Fátima began on May 13, 1917, when the Virgin Mary first appeared to three shepherd children: Lûcia dos Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto, according to the shrine’s official website.

The Virgin Mary allegedly told the children she would return on the thirteenth day of the next five months. As legend has it, she appeared only to the children during her visits during the following months, and she made three prophecies of the future, two of which were made public at the time. On October 13, 1917, Mary was to appear to the children for the last time, and a curious crowd of 70,000 gathered to witness a miracle.

“They were totally taken aback because, at that point, they saw a tremendous miracle, called the Miracle of the Sun,” said Father Mitchell Pacwa, host of the EWTN’s television program Threshold of Hope. “The sun began to dance around and everybody was able to see, then the sun all of a sudden looked like it was going to crash to ground and people ducked. They thought it was the end of the world.”
After the Miracle of the Sun, the children’s story gained credibility with the public. The Catholic Church declared the visions worthy of belief in 1930, and the shrine was built in Fátima shortly after.
“We never teach that you must believe some visionary; that is something that we do not require,” Pacwa said. “All that we say is, you may accept it as worthy of believing.”
The town is still cherished among Catholics for its spirituality. Most people come for celebrations held during the six-month period (May to October) when Mary appeared to the children.
“For the large extent, the town has been built around the needs of the shrine and the pilgrims that come to the shrine,” said Mike LaCoste, executive director of Father Fox’s Fátima Family Apostolate International. “There are a lot of restaurants and hotels and retail stores that will focus on the needs of people who come there.”

The religious influence on the town that has manifested over the years is undeniable. Visitors will find dozens of small shops throughout town selling handmade rosary beads, marble figures of the Virgin Mary and other religious trinkets. Many of the town’s hotels are named after religious figures, and multiple statues of the three shepherd children with the Virgin Mary decorate Fátima’s grassy knolls and sidewalks.  LaCoste said the residents of Fátima have found a common bond over this immaculate miracle and are warm and welcoming to the tourists.

At the center of the small town proudly sits the Sanctuary of Our Lady Fátima, the shrine so many flock to visit. It is made up of many sites including three main sanctuaries of worship, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, Basilica of the Holy Trinity and the Chapel of Apparitions.

The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary holds the tombs of Francisco and Jacinta Marto. The Basilica of the Holy Trinity, the newest chapel, was built recently to accommodate the growing number of shrine visitors, according to LaCoste. On any given day, the shrine’s serene sanctuaries are filled with dozens of people praying or sitting in awe of their surroundings.

“When you are at the shrine you are standing on the ground where the apparitions took place, and also the ground where the miracle took place,” LaCoste said. “That moves people.”

Visitors can also go to other sites that are related to the apparitions but not located on the shrine property. On the outskirts of Fátima, the original burial site of Francisco and Jacinta Marto is a commonly visited place. Three kilometers away from Fátima is the small village of Aljustrel where the children lived and some of the apparitions took place. These locations are close to the shrine but could be easily overlooked.

“For anybody that might go there it would be in their interest to get some kind of a tour guide to take them around because everything is not in the shrine,” said Father Daniel McCaffrey, who made a pilgrimage to Fátima nearly five years ago. “There are a lot of other things, like the site where the angel [first] appeared to the three children; that site is nearby but far enough away that you could miss it.”

McCaffrey said the shrine was built in honor of the Virgin Mary and the message that she brought from God that the people had to get back to prayer and living godly lives.

“The blessed mother came down and made an appearance there, and I think one of the primary reasons she did was for the conversion of the people away from secularism and worldliness,” McCaffrey said.

Believers and nonbelievers alike will certainly be amazed by the beauty and mystery of the Sanctuary of Our Lady Fátima. It remains a compelling location to all who visit it and has inspired hundreds of non-believers to convert to the Christian faith.

“There is a lot of power in that beautiful shrine,” McCaffrey said. “It is going there with faith, and then with faith, God can work great miracles in a person’s soul.”