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The very place: A tourist in Fatima
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photograph of Fatima, Portugal


BY TIM TOWNSEND '91
PHOTOGRAPHY BY HANS GEORG ROTH / CORBIS


On the outskirts of town, the life-size wax legs hang like butchers' pork loin from the door frames of overflowing souvenir shops. Pinkish and very human-looking, the limbs swing by their ankles, enticing crippled pilgrims to buy them to burn as offerings. Nearly 6 million people come to this holy place each year, many hoping a miracle will accompany them when they leave. They hope they will walk, or see, or hear, or find a better job.

But I have come to Fatima as a tourist. I've brought my girlfriend to Portugal as a 30th birthday present, and we're staying in a fishing village an hour north of Lisbon, where friends have lent us their house for a week. The day after we arrive, we decide to drive an hour through the Portuguese countryside to see what this town of miracles is like. Central Portugal is rural, with rolling meadows and plenty of cows. As we get closer to Fatima, the roads become smaller, the hills larger. We travel the last few miles on a two-lane road that swishes up a steep hill--the kind of road you might take to get to a ski resort.

We follow signs to the town center and to the square, or esplanade, where a basilica and a chapel commemorate an event that is said to have occurred here more than 80 years ago. We park our rented Mitsubishi Space Star at the edge of a courtyard crammed with pine trees and the many-limbed souvenir stands. It's a hot spring day, but the pines and the carpet of needles they've created along the ground give the place an alpine feel. From the courtyard, I can vaguely see the line where the woods stop and the massive esplanade (once a meadow where shepherds tended their flocks) begins. Yesterday, the population of this town swelled from 8,000 to nearly a million, when Pope John Paul II officially beatified two of the three "little shepherds" of Fatima--the children who, the Catholic Church says, saw an apparition of Christ's mother while they minded their parents' flocks.

My parents had been here a few years earlier. They visited the basilica and the town that surrounds it and described both in weighty terms. They had been, they said, awed and repulsed: Fatima has become a collision of the holy and the profane, the destination of millions who arrive with faith, but also with money to spend on hotels, Jesus pencils, Fanta orange soda, and Tinky Winky keyrings. I've come to witness this collision in the wake of a papal visit, and to see for myself what draws pilgrims here.

According to the faithful, on May 13, 1917, seven-year-old Jacinta Marto, her nine-year-old brother, Francisco, and their 10-year-old cousin, Lucia dos Santos, saw a white light in the sky above a holly oak tree. The light took form and spoke to Lucia and Jacinta (Francisco could see, but not hear, the apparition).

The apparition didn't tell the children who she was but asked that they return to the same spot on the 13th of every month for the next six months. She said her identity and her message would soon be revealed.

Over the next months, larger and larger groups of miracle seekers joined the children under the oak, though no one save the three children could see the Virgin, and only Lucia could speak to her. On July 13, the Virgin of Fatima showed the children three visions about the fate of humanity in the 20th century, instructing them to tell no one their substance. The two younger children died in an influenza pandemic a few years after the sightings, but Lucia is now 94 and since 1929 has been a Carmelite nun in the nearby university town of Coimbra.

Twenty-four years after she was visited by the apparition, Lucia received an "inner locution" from Mary, allowing her to reveal the secrets she had kept about the first two visions. She told her local bishop; then, several years later, she told the world, in her memoirs. Interpretations abound, but most believe the first vision dealt with the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II and that the second prophesied the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.

The third vision was apparently so terrible that Lucia--known to Fatima devotees, affectionately, as Sister Lucy--kept it to herself until January 3, 1944, when she feared she was dying and sent a letter to the Vatican detailing what Mary had shown her. Until the day before I arrived in Fatima, only three popes and their most trusted advisors knew the contents of that letter. Pope John Paul II is said to have read it only after the attempt on his life in 1981, when he asked that the text of the secret be brought to him while he was recovering in the hospital.

John Paul has visited Fatima three times. On one visit, he donated one of his would-be assassin's bullets to the basilica (it was later placed in the crown of the Virgin statue). The day before my arrival, the Pope gave Fatima a gold ring that his mentor, Warsaw Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, had presented to him when he was elected pope. That same day, John Paul gave Fatima believers something else: the third secret.

According to Lucia's recollections, Mary had showed the three children an "angel with a flaming sword" and "a bishop dressed in white" who, "half trembling with halting step, afflicted with pain and sorrow," came slowly to the foot of a cross and was "killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him."

Just after the pope beatified Jacinta and Francisco Marto, Cardinal Angelo Sodan, the Vatican secretary of state, explained to the multitudes in Fatima square that this third secret was in fact a prophesy of Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca's attempt on John Paul's life on May 13, 1981. The pope and many others believe it was the Virgin of Fatima who saved John Paul from death near St. Peter's Square--exactly 64 years after the apparition's first appearance above the oak tree.

Many in the audience at Fatima were disappointed. For decades, people had guessed that the third secret foretold nuclear war or a mass pestilence or the collapse of the Church itself. And here it was, a prophecy of something that had already been resolved.

"What they said happened in the past," a Portuguese car salesman told the Associated Press after the secret was revealed. "This isn't a prediction. . . . I think there's more."

If the revelation was a disappointment to visitors to Fatima, it isn't apparent the day after the Vatican's announcement. There are thousands of people in Fatima today, which happens to be--appropriately enough--Mother's Day in the United States.

In the courtyard of tall pines, more than 40 souvenir vendors cram as much paraphernalia as they can into booths the size of Manhattan apartment bathrooms. But the lack of space in no way hinders the variety of wares available--religious and otherwise.

In addition to wax arms and legs, I can buy a watercolor rendition of the Last Supper; a hologram of Christ (turn it one way, He's bleeding through a crown of thorns and looks sad; turn it the other way, He's risen!); and white plastic containers, molded to resemble wicker jugs, that read "Agua de Fatima" and sport a cartoon of Mary floating above the three little shepherds. A few booths down, I can pick up a knife/gun/handcuff set called "S.W.A.T. Play Equipment," the package bedecked with phrases that S.W.A.T. team members presumably yell to bad guys or to innocent people: "Get Down!" "No Escape!" "Keep Calm!"

One-foot-square pieces of blue cardboard are everywhere, the remnants of boxes handed out by a local bank for use as seats during the beatification ceremonies. Yesterday had been hot, and many of the cardboard seats seem to have been torn up for use as fans. The smell of rotting fruit (bananas?) wafts through this place, and, as I make my way toward the center of the courtyard, it becomes difficult to see the pine needles and grass beneath the trash covering the ground--the refuse of a million departed pilgrims. Garbage cans spew trash like jack-in-the-boxes. The visitors, it seems, didn't really want to litter, so those who came through here after the garbage cans were full aimed for the growing mounds near the receptacles. There are soda cans and juice boxes, ice cream wrappers, and the odd shoe. The detritus of the holy weekend has blown and gathered anywhere two large structures (two stone walls, a fence and a car) form a corner.

I walk up to three teenage girls sitting in the shade. "What is this place called?" I ask in English, gesturing to the middle of the courtyard. They look at each other incredulously, and then one turns to me. "This place is nothing special," she says.

Through the woods of the courtyard--at the edge of the esplanade and next to a pile of garbage--a large, blue sign greets those about to enter the square. "Fatima is a place for devotion," it reads in several languages. "Enter as a pilgrim." There are then 12 pictographs of things pilgrims are not allowed to do in the esplanade. No words accompany the pictures, but I interpret the illustrated rules to be: no yelling at your sister, no begging, no smoking, no cell phones, no dogs, no radios, and no playing the trumpet.

When I walk out from the pines and into the light of the esplanade I am impressed; astonished, really. I've entered from the side and see that it is the length of four football fields and the width of two. The thousands of stones that now make up the ground beneath my feet are bleach-white. Sixteen white, 40-foot poles, each with two pairs of eight-foot speakers strapped to the top, surround the square and broadcast Heaven Music--angelic voices (I picture cloistered nuns) singing hymns. Etched into a gray marble wall toward the back of the esplanade to my left is--among other sentiments--"God is Love," in letters as big as a human torso. From the base of the marble wall, which stretches the width of the esplanade, the white stones slope gently down toward the giant basilica in the front of the square, to my right.

When the slope reaches the site where the three children are said to have seen Mary, now the location of the Chapel of the Apparitions, or Capelinha--between the "God is Love" wall and the basilica--the esplanade's slightly descending white floor becomes a gradually ascending ramp gliding upward toward the basilica. In contrast to the gentle angles of the esplanade, the basilica itself rockets straight out of the ground. Two 40-foot, black-and-white photographs of the children the pope beatified yesterday flank the basilica's central panel. I'd have thought that a space this wide open and this white would feel bleak, but because the square is surrounded by the forest of huge pines, it is warm.

I walk directly across the center of the esplanade to the Capelinha. The chapel would accommodate comfortably perhaps a hundred people, but many more than that are now crowding in toward the empty altar. The chapel has a roof and three walls; the fourth side of the structure is open, and that's where I am standing. It's clear I won't be able to get anywhere near the altar, so I have to be satisfied with observing from here.

It seems at first that most people are looking around, as I am, just to get a sense of the inside of the Capelinha. We stand on our toes to try to see above one another's heads. The chapel is white and muted, which to me doesn't seem very Catholic, but does seem very Portuguese. The holly oak is gone--stolen by vandals long ago. As I look around, I see that many are praying to a statue of the Virgin above the altar. From the outer fringes of the crowd it's difficult to see anything besides her head. Occasionally someone will move back out into the sun, causing a slight shifting of bodies, and those who have traveled thousands of miles to get this far are able to step six inches closer to the site of a miracle.

I suddenly notice a man in his twenties with curly black hair, saying his rosary. He is kneeling beside me, a red bandana tied around one knee of his jeans, an orange bandana on the other. I realize he's moving, or trying to, and I'm in his way. When I move, he shuffles by on a four-foot-wide marble pathway. I look up and see others on their knees, lined up along the narrow trail.

The pathway, I discover, extends all the way back to the "God is Love" wall. (Later, when I go to investigate, counting off the number of feet from the chapel to the wall--about 800--I find that the path leads through a doorway in the wall, over a shallow pool of water and another 200 feet, making the esplanade even longer than I had originally thought.) The pathway is a straight, unbroken trail until it reaches the Capelinha, which it encircles. After a few moments of observation, I understand what I'm seeing: negotiating this white track--surprisingly whiter than the stone that makes up the rest of the esplanade--is the final stage of a pilgrimage to Fatima. True pilgrims travel these last 1,000 feet of their journey on their knees.

I walk beside the marble path, amazed at how many people are doing this. Toward the top of the esplanade, I see two women in straw hats that say "DeKalb" holding the hands of another woman as she shuffles along on her knees toward the chapel. Further up the path, a woman who has just breached the "God is Love" wall and begun her descent down the hill has pushed her black sweatpants above her knees so that the journey will hurt more, so that her skin will scrape off onto the stone. Every two feet or so she stops to massage a purpling knee. Most of the crawling pilgrims carry rosaries, their lips moving as they pray in silence. Some carry flowers to place on the altar when they finally arrive at the chapel. One woman carries a baby.

As they approach the Capelinha, the faithful follow the marble path around its perimeter (each side of the chapel is about 40 feet long), circling the building once before getting up and going inside via a back door apparently reserved for those who've made the true pilgrimage. Some refuse to get up once they've reached the door, and they circle the chapel again. And again. I stand and watch these pilgrims circling and circling, the number of times the result of a private equation devised in their hearts.

I find it difficult, if not impossible, to wrap myself in another person's faith, to see not what they believe, but why and how fervently they believe it. Watching these people crawl toward God across rocks, my skepticism goes slightly out of focus, I feel meek, humbled by this demonstration of raw faith.

What is keeping me from marching to the top of the esplanade, hiking up my own jeans and crawling down the marble? I do believe in God--some fuzzy version that the Vatican would surely not approve of, but God nonetheless. Are these people missing something that I have, some reserve of doubt about visions and secrets? Or am I the one who is missing something?

But I'm not having a religious epiphany. I'm simply struck and moved by what I'm seeing: hundreds of people who believe that nearly a century ago the mother of Jesus appeared to little Portuguese shepherds and uttered three secrets that spanned the century yawning before them. I see that they believe this strongly enough to crawl on black-and-blue knees, and realize I don't have to understand why they do this to be shaken by it.

Tim Townsend '91 is a writer living in New York City. His Works & Days profile "Partners in Crime" appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of BCM.


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