By Kristin Harris Walsh
and Kieran Walsh
Special to The Telegram
Discovering the lifeblood of a town, city or country is one of the great thrills of travel. Learning what glues a culture together or defines its reason for existence both broadens the mind and heightens enjoyment of the travel experience.
Sometimes the road to such discovery is a long and winding one wherein the true character of a destination slowly reveals itself.
Food, festival, custom or occupation is often found to be at the core. Other times, there seems one clear frontrunner that shouts out what a town or city is and how it defines itself. Such is the case with Fatima, Portugal.
Over the past 100 years, the faith of its inhabitants and religious belief of a global network of Catholics have marked Fatima clearly and distinctly.
It was this single characteristic of the town, so important to so many, that drew us as curious onlookers to see, and better understand, when in Europe this past summer.
First, the story. On May 13, 1917, three shepherd children were tending to their flocks in a small field in the village of Fatima. As they were very young, between the ages of seven and 10, the three would often spend their time divided between work and play.
On this afternoon, while playing in a field, they saw a bright light that they assumed to be lightning. Frightened, they started to walk home.
But as they headed down the hill, another flash of light, which they referred to as “a lady more brilliant than the sun,” appeared before them. A white rosary was draped over her hands. She impressed upon them the importance of prayer and invited them to return to the same place at the same time on the 13th day of each of the next five months.
The children did as she asked, and the apparition continued to appear.
Word spread of the encounters and by the time Oct. 13 rolled around, approximately 70,000 people turned up.
On this particular occasion, the lady identified herself to the children as the “Lady of the Rosary” and she informed them that a church was to be built on the site in her honour.
Now the legacy. The location of the sightings has since been developed into a massive square, which features numerous shrines and chapels.
The church was built in the form of a 15-altar basilica with a more than 200-foot-high central tower. The tombs of the three Seers of Fatima are found within. This structure was begun in 1928 and was consecrated in 1953.
On the opposite side of the site is a second church, named the Church of the Most Holy Trinity. Known to be one of the largest in the world, it is capable of holding approximately 9,000 worshippers. Built between 2004 and 2007, it cost 80 million Euros, all of which was paid by donations from pilgrims.
The square, twice the size of St. Peter’s Square in Rome, is an impressive sight to behold. It has attracted religious dignitaries over the years, most notably three visits by Pope John Paul II.
The result, from a traveller’s perspective, is a town built almost solely on religious tourism. Fatima has a population of 8,000 people, with hotel space to house about 10,000. On the 13th of each month the numbers in the town swell exponentially. Mass and celebrations held on the anniversary of the apparitions each year have been known to draw upwards of one million people.
At a typical Sunday mass, about 1,500 people visit the main basilica, even though it seats only about 900. The faithful will listen attentively as the service is carried over loudspeakers in the main square.
We are here near the end of the month, nowhere near the 13th, and yet hotels are busy with busloads of visitors from every corner of the globe.
We arrive, not as pilgrims, but more as observers. We are curious about the town, given its singular and fascinating raison d’être as a visitor destination.
What we are struck by immediately is the power of faith. As we venture through the various chapels and monuments, we stop at the Chapel of Apparitions, built upon the site where the visages first happened.
There, the devout walk around the site on their knees, demonstrating their faith and seeking forgiveness for their sins. Others line up to light candles and make their offerings of prayer.
There is a mass or prayer session at just about every hour of the day, in a variety of languages, and the multitudes arrive without fail.
We decide to attend mass in Portuguese, and when we arrive right before the opening procession, we sit at the back because the church is nearly full already.
Once mass is completed, we venture into the town to see what else is on offer. Storefront window after storefront window has on display every manner of religious paraphernalia that one could imagine: rosaries, incense, saint figurines and even priestly vestments.
We can’t help but ponder what the scene must be like here on the Oct. 13 anniversary each year. We are there on an ordinary day, and try to imagine just how many people come to worship on the holiest of days.
What is clear to us is that religion pervades almost everything about this place, at least to the outside eye.
Despite the crowds milling about Fatima, we are surprised that the atmosphere is serene and contemplative, clearly testimony to the faith and dedication of those who view it as a holy site. Whether one is religious or not, it is good to see that some things are reserved as sacred. That will be Fatima’s legacy for us.
Kristin Harris Walsh is project co-ordinator at Memorial’s MMaP Research Centre, and Kieran Walsh teaches English at Gonzaga High School. Their travels over the past
16 years have taken them to five
continents. Their son, Declan, has been their enthusiastic travel companion for nearly five years.