Portugal welcomes Pope Francis

He won’t be in the country for more than 24 hours, but the visit to Portugal by Pope Francis on Friday means millions in terms of revenue, exposure and great PR. As long as the authorities get it right – and they appear to be leaving very little to chance – this visit to commemorate the apparitions of Our Lady (the Virgin Mary) before three shepherd children at Cova da Iria a hundred years ago on May 13, 1917, will set the seal on a year in which national tourism is forecast to go through the roof.

As we wrote this story, over 30,000 people tramping national roads on the annual pilgrimage to Fátima were closing in on their final destination where every manner of commemorative souvenir would be waiting for them.

Tins of air, fridge magnets, effigies of Our Lady, of the Pope, T-shirts, scarves, bottles of Holy Water, you name it, you will find it, as the country cashes in on the high-point of religious tourism.

At the beginning of the week, fabulous summer temperatures saw thousands smiling their way to Fátima in short-sleeves and reflective jackets, backed by legions of volunteers manning snack and rest stops along the way.

By Wednesday, the weather had changed, some pilgrims had vented disgust over ‘inhuman overnight conditions’ offered along the way, but, all in all, the great Papal visit plan was bang on track.

Borders control police (SEF) were in place at nine principal entry points from Spain, promising no drivers or vehicle occupants will come in or leave the country unscrutinised.

SEF Facebook alerts were in place for people crossing the border to carry identity documents (on pain of being turned back without them) and travel companies were predicting tourist numbers off the scale.

With the government declaring a public holiday (for civil servants) for Friday, as many as 700,000 people were expected to converge on Fátima to catch sight of the man credited with being “a truly global force for good in our time”, and take part in a ceremony that many believe has been long in coming.

The canonization of the three shepherd children (Jacinta, Francisco and Lúcia) “to whom Our Lady appeared over various months in 1917” has been a national mission for decades.

Lúcia, who went on to become a nun, became the key to three prophesies purportedly made by the Virgin all those years ago.

For anyone who is unaware of the intricate story behind the apparitions, journalist, author and long-time Algarve resident Len Port spent years researching the subject for a book that has been re-released in Portuguese to coincide with the centenary celebrations.

Available also in English as an Amazon kindle, it poses the question of whether the whole thing was part of an elaborate plot to dupe the faithful, and extend the influence of the Catholic church at a time when it was waning.

Len Port’s book is entitled “The Fátima Phenomenon. Divine Grace, Delusion or Pious Fraud?”. In Portuguese, it is published by Guerra e Paz.

But these existential questions are not the stuff of Pope Francis’ visit on Friday.

Indeed, the trip has two parts, reveals RTP. Aside from the religious side to his touchdown on national soil at Montijo military airbase, the Pope’s arrival has been timed to take in a “private meeting” with President of the Republic Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, prime minister António Costa and parliamentary president Ferro Rodrigues, followed by a full military ceremony with brass band, playing the national anthem of the Vatican and then of Portugal.

It will then be the moment to get into an Air Force helicopter to be ferried to Fátima, for an evening of celebrations.

The non-bullet proof Popemobile was in place on Wednesday, while TV stations reported that police snipers would be patrolling over the Holy Sanctuary in helicopters as protection.

With hundreds of police in force on the ground, the greatest ‘fears’ are that the event will be infiltrated by “pickpockets from Eastern Europe”, reports national tabloid Correio da Manhã – adding that the petty criminals could be travelling ‘disguised as pilgrims’ and would almost certainly have entered Portugal before the frontier lockdown.

GNR police spokesman Major Bruno Marques simply reiterated perennial warnings for people not to display “objects of value”, and to try and avoid carrying large sums of money.

Hopes are that the reinforced police presence in Fátima will dissuade pickpockets from taking any chances.

The Pope’s route has been pre-released by the Vatican – as a way of informing people where best they will get to see His Holiness – and the Mass for canonization scheduled for Saturday morning.

Following a lunch with the bishops of Portugal, it will be time for a slow drive back to Montijo in the Popemobile, and the plane journey home to Italy.

This is the fifth visit to Portugal of a Pope. The first came on May 13, 1967, when Pope Paul VI visited Cova da Iria to commemorate the half century since the Fátima apparitions.

Fifteen years later – and exactly a year to the day after the shooting that was meant to take his life – Pope John Paul II visited the Holy Shrine to give thanks for his recovery, which he said he owed to Our Lady of Fátima.

In a symbolic gesture, he offered the sanctuary the bullet that had been removed from his stomach, and which is now set in the diamond-encrusted crown worn by the Virgin in the Chapel of Apparitions.

Pope John Paul II returned to Fátima on two further occasions, in 1991 and 2000.

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]