Lucky for me, I was baptised Catholic and it has served me well since arriving in Portugal where 85% of the population are Catholic. Within two weeks of arriving in Portugal I had been to Mass twice. It had been about 7 years since I had last been to Mass. My father was adamant that if I went again, possibly the roof would collapse or I’d get struck by lightning.
In memory of Filipa’s dear father, who passed away 20 years ago on that day, we all made a trip to Fátima, a small but very famous town in Portugal and the most important place for all Catholics in Europe and worldwide, outside the Vatican. A trip here will really give you an insight in to Portugals’ religious culture. Every year, around 6 million people make a pilgrimage to this little town which inhabits only 10,000 people.
In particular, they come to the Basilica and the main square, very reminiscent of St Peter’s in Rome, to stand where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to three very surprised little peasant children on 13 May, 1917, out tending their parents sheep. The story goes that a bolt of lightning struck the ground and a woman ‘brighter than the sun’ appeared before them. The woman appeared again to them on the 13th day of June and also July. They were told to do penance and pray the rosary every day and they were entrusted with three secrets. News spread quickly around the town and the government accused the church of lying to revive it’s apparently flagging popularity. The children were even arrested and interrogated but they refused to change their story. Then on 13 October 1917, around 70,000 people gathered and witnessed the so-called Miracle of the Sun where the sun changed as if the people had taken LSD or magic mushrooms or something. Out of the three children, only one of them (Lúcia) made it to adulthood. The other two, Jacinta and Francisco died of the flu epidemic in 1918. Lúcia became a Carmelite nun, dying in 2007 at the age of 97. She revealed the first two secrets in 1941 but the final secret was not revealed to the public by the Vatican until 2000, even though she had written down the secret and given it to them in 1960. The final secret depicted a bishop dressed in white being killed by soldiers with guns. People claim that this was a prediction of the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981 (which coincidentally occurred on May 13!) Their knowledge of the secret apparently saved his life but like all good stories there are also some great conspiracy theories out there.
Believe it or not!?
I found this all very fascinating and really enjoyed the peacefulness of the Mass, which was held outdoors in the square. On the left hand side of the square there is a small chapel which marks the spot where the Virgin Mary appeared and it is the place where pilgrims devote themselves and do penance in return for help. Many pilgrims shuffle the entire square on their knees, along a vast marble aisle, which I found incredible. Some would wear volleyball knee-pads and others would endure the pain, as if this would be “better” for their prayers. Nothing like a bit of self-flagellation!
To the side of the chapel is a huge blazing fire and candle-lighting area which you can feel significant heat from and hear the crackling from quite a distance. Here people light candles, leave gifts or throw offerings on the fire. There are many shops in the town of Fátima that sell interesting religious items like glow-in-the-dark Virgins, rosaries and busts of the Pope. You name it, they got it. I was perplexed by the shops which had wax arms, legs and even babies. When I asked Filipa about this she said it was for people to throw on the pyre, if they had a sick child or a illness in their arm or leg.
After Mass, we all enjoyed a long lunch together in a nearby restaurant. Filipa’s little 10 year old cousin Clarisse was incessantly talking about the ‘Museum of the Life of Christ’ throughout the entire lunch, begging us all to go. So, after lunch, we all took a visit to the wax museum which depicted 33 scenes from the life of Christ….kind of like a Madame Tussauds for Catholics, but more gruesome and with a bit of a bad ending! The only one of its kind in the world.
We almost were the first people to be evicted from the ‘Museum of the Life of Christ’, when Filipa decided she wanted a photo of herself in the nativity scene next to the donkeys and baby Jesus. Before she could get there, and more importantly, before I could get a photo, alarms sounded. We neglected to check for security systems prior to her jumping the barricade.
God sees all!