Tablet World

As the Fátima centenary draws to a close, Portugal prays for one more miracle

29 September 2017


The 13 October marks the 100th anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun, in Fátima, and completes the centenary of the apparitions which took place in 1917.

Over the course of the year millions of people have already made the pilgrimage to Fátima and numbers for 2017 are expected to easily top the 5.3 million who visited last year.

Pilgrims come from all over the world, especially from Europe, but South Korea, Brazil and the USA also help fill the shrine, with Indonesia, India and the Philippines experiencing the biggest growth rates in terms of Fátima pilgrims.

The highlight of the centenary was, of course, the Pope’s visit, in May, during which he canonised two of the seers. Siblings Francisco and Jacinta Marto became the youngest non-martyred saints in the Catholic Church. The fact that Francis made the trip was significant, given his known preference for travelling to “peripheries”, and it was noted that he had not accepted an invitation to visit Lourdes for the 150th anniversary of what is still the main Marian shrine in Europe.

October will not feature the Pope, but large numbers of pilgrims are still expected to attend and they will be treated to a specially designed video mapping show, projected on to the façade of the original basilica after the silent procession on the night of the 12th, and repeated on the evening of the 13th and 14th.

Over the year several different groups organised pilgrimages to the shrine. The Maronite pilgrimage in June was particularly colourful and other visitors were certainly taken by surprise to see the streets of the small town teeming with people speaking Arabic. The ultra-traditionalists of the SSPX, founded by Marcel Lefebvre, visited in August, led by bishop Bernard Fellay, who has been in talks with Rome aimed at regularising the group within the Catholic Church. Fellay, of course, was the only bishop among the original signatories of the “fraternal correction” sent to the Pope and made public in September.

More recently the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need organised an international pilgrimage to Fátima. This took place in September and many church representatives were flown over to speak about the work that ACN is doing in their countries, and to share their experiences as Christians in some of the most dangerous or poorest regions of the planet.

Cardinal John Ribat of Papua New Guinea was present – following nearly 24 hours in the air, on three different flights – and told me of the day he received a phone call from the Nuncio, asking him not to go to bed early, as he had planned, because he had an urgent message to hand deliver to him. “I thought there must be something I had done wrong. So I was anxious to know what this message was, I was uneasy and I was asking a lot of questions deep within myself, wondering what it could be.”

He was stunned when instead of a reprimand he was promised a red hat, and later had the opportunity to thank the Pope personally for having gone beyond words and thoughts and actually brought the periphery to the centre, where their voices can be heard on different issues, singling out climate change as an area of particular concern for his nation of island dwellers.

I also spoke to archbishop John Du, from Palo, in the Philippines, where the Church has bravely been standing up to President Rodrigo Duterte, under whom thousands of drug addicts and traffickers have been killed during his “war on drugs”.

Archbishop Du says the Church cannot back down from speaking truth to power, but that an effort has been made to try and build bridges with Duterte, the latest of which was the election of a fellow Dabao native to head the bishops’ conference. “The culture down South is very different. They are very informal; they say things very directly, sometimes in very vulgar language. The new President of the bishops’ conference understands and knows that when the President says these bad words it doesn't come from the heart, it’s just an expression”.

Finally, I had an opportunity to chat for a few minutes with Fr Firas Mutfi. A Syriac Catholic himself, he ministers to the Latin community in Aleppo. He was careful not to defend the regime, but left no doubt that the Christian community is pleased with the fact that rebels were ousted from the city in December. He says the work of ACN in the area is key to keeping Christians from fleeing, and that the Christian presence is crucial to promoting peace.

“The first weapon used in the Middle East is the instrumentalisation of religion. It creates division between brothers. The process of reconciliation is very important and the Christians in the Middle East play a big role in this because the Islamic mentality is an eye for an eye, but the Christian logic and teaching is to forgive. The process of forgiveness is really important in this moment, more than any other thing.”

The year of the centenary of Fatima was overall a good one for Portugal. The economy seems to be improving, confidence is up, tourism is stronger than ever. On the 13 May, as Pope Francis flew back to Rome, the country’s most popular football club, Benfica, won the league for the fourth year running and Salvador Sobral came out of obscurity to clinch the Eurovision song contest for the first time ever. Add to this the still fresh memories of an historic win against France for the 2016 European Championship and you can understand that the Portuguese felt pretty pleased.

But the summer months have been more difficult. Over 60 people died in a wildfire in June, many trapped on a road while trying to flee the flames, which kept raging in different parts of the country for weeks. Then in August several people were killed in the Island of Madeira as a large tree fell on a group waiting to join a religious procession.

In early September the bishop of Porto died unexpectedly. He was widely considered a very good and holy man, and his shoes will be difficult to fill, as the clergy in the diocese are said to be bitterly divided into opposing groups. I was in London visiting the Tablet offices when I heard and was asked if this division was between traditionalists and liberals, but it is not, which makes it even more difficult to understand. In fact, the traditionalist-progressive divide which marks so many national churches is pretty much absent in Portugal, where only one parish in the country offers the Tridentine Mass, and not even on Sundays.

Only a few days later the bishop of Viseu, who is battling cancer and was left debilitated by a stroke a few years ago, announced his resignation at the age of 66 and then the emeritus of Setúbal died, aged 90. Known as the “red bishop” he never hesitated to speak out against the poverty and hunger which ravaged his diocese when he took office.

To top it off, Salvador Sobral is currently in hospital in intensive care, desperately waiting for a heart transplant. With 13 October only days away, many will be praying through the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima to grant a small miracle here as well.

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