FÁTIMA, Portugal: Tens of thousands of Catholic faithful are set to join Pope Francis in Fatima as the Portuguese holy site marks 100 years since the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared to child shepherds.
Singing Ave Maria, holding hands in prayer, falling into each other’s arms crying or strolling past shops selling t-shirts with photos of the Argentine Pontiff, pilgrims from all over the world have been gathering on and near the sprawling, white Catholic shrine this week.
Among them were Regina and Leonardo Berba, a couple from Manila in the Philippines, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary with six of their seven children.
“It’s our thanksgiving. We feel that Mama Mary has always been there to guide us,” said Regina, 54, standing near a giant sculpture of a rosary.
Altogether, up to a million pilgrims are expected to descend on Fatima by foot, car or plane from countries as varied as China, South Korea, Mexico and Venezuela.
The Virgin is said to have appeared six times in Fatima, north of Lisbon, between May and October 1917 to three impoverished, barely-literate children—Jacinta, 7, Francisco, 9, and their cousin Lucia, 10.
She shared three major prophesies with the trio at a time marked by the ravages of the First World War and Church persecution in a relatively new Portuguese republic.
According to interpretations of what Lucia revealed much later on, the first secret gave a vision of hell, while the second warned of a second devastating war and the rise of communist Russia.
The third secret, which Lucia kept to herself for years, is believed to have been a prediction of the 1981 assassination attempt on the late Pope St. John Paul II.
His successor Benedict XVI, however, later said she had foreseen the “suffering” of the Church, which at the time was racked by pedophilia scandals.
Today, Saturday—the 100th anniversary of the first reported apparition—Pope Francis will canonize Jacinta and Francisco, who have officially been found responsible for two miracles.
One of these apparently took place in 2013, when a five-year-old Brazilian boy called Lucas recovered at lightning speed after falling more than six meters (20 feet) down to the ground from a window, smashing his skull.
His parents had prayed to the late Jacinta and Francisco for help.
“The doctors, including non-believers, weren’t able to explain this recovery,” his father Joao Batista told reporters in Fatima on Thursday.
Many pilgrims have trekked for days on foot to the central Portuguese town—some finishing the journey to the small Chapel of the Apparitions on their knees.
Jose Manuel Pinheiro, 42, said he had walked 242 kilometers (150 miles) from northern Portugal in seven days.
“I had promised to come on foot if my wife recovered from an illness diagnosed in 2007,” he said, standing next to the chapel.
“She recovered and since then I come every year.”
This time round, though, will be hugely different as Pope Francis himself participates.
“With Mary, as a pilgrim of hope and peace I travel to Fatima,” the Argentine Pontiff tweeted Thursday.
The Pope was to travel to Fatima by helicopter and arrive on the giant esplanade that faces the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima in a “Popemobile” brought specially from Rome— welcomed by some tens of thousands of faithful.
Talk of apparent apparitions and miracles outside of those described in the Old and New Testaments does not sit comfortably with everyone.
But the Church is nevertheless very attentive to popular piety—forms of prayer and worship inspired by believers’ culture and experiences rather than by official religious teachings.
“The Church must base itself on what people have experienced,” says theology professor Ermenegildo Manicardi.
For instance, while the Vatican has yet to recognize the reported continuous apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the Bosnian town of Medjugorje since 1981, it has dispatched a special envoy to examine “the needs” of the millions of faithful who go there.
Fatima’s apparitions, though, have been officially recognized by the Catholic Church since 1930.
And it’s not just regular faithful who are attracted to the site, but popes too.
With Francis included, four pontiffs will have visited the Marian sanctuary in half a century.
Arguably the most devoted was the late Pope St. John Paul II, who made three pilgrimages to the shrine.
He attributed his narrow escape from death following an assassination attempt at St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981—the anniversary of the reported apparitions—to the intervention of the Virgin Mary.
He later donated the bullet extracted from his abdomen to the Fatima shrine, a move described by Manicardi as “an extreme gesture of popular piety”.
Pope Francis is also sensitive to the tradition of popular piety in his native Latin America.
“John Paul II and Francis are both pastoral popes who go to the people,” says Manicardi, explaining their attraction for popular piety, unlike Pope Benedict XVI who was more of a theologian.