On May 13 and October 13, pilgrims overrun the town, causing the roads leading to Fátima to be choked with pilgrims in donkey carts, on bicycles, or in cars, beginning on the 12th of each month. Many also approach on foot; some even "walk" on their knees in penance. Once in Fátima, they camp out until day breaks. In the central square, which is larger than St. Peter's in Rome, a statue of the Madonna passes through the crowd between about 10am and 12:30pm. When it does, some 75,000 handkerchiefs flutter in the breeze.
Then as many as are able crowd in to visit a small slanted-roof shed known as the Chapel of the Apparitions. Inside stands a single white column marking the spot where a small holm oak once grew. An image of the Virgin Mary reputedly appeared over this oak on May 13, 1917, when she is said to have spoken to three shepherd children. That oak long ago disappeared, torn to pieces by souvenir collectors. The original chapel constructed here was dynamited on the night of March 6, 1922, by skeptics who suspected the church of staging the so-called miracle.
While World War I dragged on, three devout children -- Lúcia de Jesús and her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco Marto -- claimed that they saw the first appearance of "a lady" on the tableland of Cova da Iria. Her coming had been foreshadowed in 1916 by what they would later cite as "an angel of peace," who is said to have appeared before them.
Attempts were made to suppress their story, but it spread quickly. During the July appearance, the lady was reported to have revealed three secrets to them, one of which prefigured the coming of World War II; another was connected with Russia's "rejection of God." The final secret, a "sealed message" recorded by Lúcia, was opened by church officials in 1960, but the contents of that message were only recently published. According to the Vatican, it predicted that Pope John Paul II would be shot. Acting on orders from the Portuguese government, the mayor of a nearby town threw the children into jail and threatened them with torture, even death in burning oil. Still, they would not be intimidated and stuck to their story. The lady reportedly made six appearances between May and the final one on October 13, 1917, when the children were joined by an estimated 70,000 people who witnessed the famous Miracle of the Sun. The day had begun with pouring rain and driving winds. Observers from all over the world testified that at noon "the sky opened up" and the sun seemed to spin out of its axis and hurtle toward the earth. Many at the site feared the Last Judgment was upon them. Others later reported that they thought the scorching sun was crashing into the earth and would consume it in flames. Many agreed that a major miracle of modern times had occurred. Only the children reported seeing Our Lady, however.
Both Francisco and Jacinta died in the influenza epidemic that swept Europe after World War I. Lúcia became a Carmelite nun in a convent in the university city of Coimbra. She returned to Fátima in 1967 to mark the 50th anniversary of the apparition, and the pope flew in from Rome.
A cold, pristine white basilica in the neoclassical style was erected at one end of the wide square. If you want to go inside, you might be stopped by a guard if you're not suitably dressed. Women are asked not to enter wearing slacks or "other masculine attire." Men wearing shorts are also excluded.
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