REPORTS ESTIMATE that anywhere between 250,000 and 400,000 people visited Fátima in central Portugal, last Saturday, to mark the anniversary of the reported first apparition of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children in 1917.
The pilgrimage also marked the 25th anniversary of the attempt on the life of the late Pope, John Paul II, in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican, an event that was purportedly foretold to the shepherd children. One year after the assassination attempt, John Paul II had visited Fátima to give thanks at the holy site, and last weekend’s celebrations culminated with a call for the current Pope, Benedict XVI, to also visit Portugal.
Last Saturday’s crowds were exceptionally large, explained by most commentators as a demonstration of love for the late Pope. In addition, this year’s anniversary fell on a weekend, so encouraging more pilgrims to visit. The main esplanade in the city was so full, that thousands of pilgrims congregated near the sanctuary entrances, in order to hear the religious ceremonies. Some of the pilgrims complained that the facilities were inadequate for such a large crowd. “There was no space. And as I had two small children, I preferred to come here under the trees and hear the bishops,” said one of the pilgrims, Luísa Maria de Fátima dos Santos, who was sitting on a little wall 10 metres from the access tunnels.
Among the pilgrims last Saturday was Polish cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the former secretary to Pope John Paul II, who had accompanied the late pontiff on three visits to Fátima. Cardinal Dziwisz thanked Our Lady of Fátima for the miracle that saved the former Pope’s life from the shots of Turk gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca, in 1981. The Cardinal said that the failed assassination attempt had only reinforced the late Pope’s determination to “preach for civic and religious freedom” in the (then Communist) Eastern Bloc.
After last Saturday’s services, many pilgrims expressed their hope that the current Pope, Benedict XVI, will now return to Fátima. The apostolic administrator of the diocese of Leiria-Fátima, D. Searfim Ferreira e Silva, read out a message to the Pope. “Every day we pray in the sanctuary of Fátima for the Pope. We hope to see once again your holiness in this Marian shrine that is the altar of the world,” he wrote.
Pope Benedict’s last visit to Fátima was in 1996 when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger.