One cannot be Portuguese and not love Fatima. My mother’s side of the family is originally from a town only 20 kilometers from Fatima. My great-grandmother and grandmother were in the middle of the crowd of 50,000 people who attended the miracle of the sun on Oct. 13, 1917. I visited the Sanctuary since I was very young. I remember huge pilgrimages of enormous crowds of people who made it impossible for me to see anything.
Thus I cannot think about my faith life without thinking about Fatima. I visited the Sanctuary during every important moment of my vocation. During my first years as a priest, I was parochial vicar in a city called Bombarral where a famous miracle performed by the Blessed Virgin took place. The town saw the church burn down, set on fire by groups of masons during the revolution of 1910. Later the church was rebuilt, but in the collective conscious of the Christian people, the wound of the sacrilegious act would never heal completely. In 1947, the pilgrim statue of Our Lady of Fatima traversed all of Portugal for the first time. When it approached Bombarral, a huge crowd was waiting for it. A well-known family of the town set free a number of white doves which, after having flown past the statue, settled near the Blessed Virgin’s feet and for over a year faithfully accompanied the pilgrimage. The 50th anniversary of the miracle took place while I was at the parish. It was commemorated by the ceremonious return to the town of the pilgrim statue of Our Lady of Fatima. I was deeply moved by the impact of this event, which reverberated in Bombarral. It was an event that managed to involve the entire community in a common expression of faith.
We opened our house in Portugal two years after I had become pastor at Alverca in October of 1997. For some 20 years, voices in the parish spoke of constructing a new church. It was a period of time in the city in which there was a strong communist and anticlerical influence: building a new church was difficult. Despite the rough political climate, every May a crowd of people accompanied Mary’s statue during the procession of Our Lady of Fatima. Finally, in 1999, it became possible to reach an agreement with the mayor and obtain a piece of land. In 2000, St. John Paul II came to Fatima to beatify the shepherd children Francisco and Jacinta. During that occasion, an idea was born among us to dedicate the new church to them, and it became the first church in the world to be dedicated to the shepherd children of Fatima.
In 2002 I had the grace of meeting Sr. Lucia. I was a bit nervous at the idea of approaching this holy woman who had had the grace of speaking to Mary. Since I was the pastor of the future church dedicated to the Shepherd Children, the person postulating their cause for canonization introduced me to Sr. Lucia as “the priest who takes care of the shepherd children.” After a brief pause, she said, “That’s not true! It is isn’t he who takes care of the shepherd children: it’s they who take care of him!” During our conversation, what left an impression on me was her simplicity and firmness. She did not want to be the center of attention. She used irony so that others would not concentrate too much on her. The chaplain of the convent told her that that day was the anniversary of the incarceration of the shepherd children. She responded that in prison, she and the others were fine. She recited the rosary with the prisoners and some even converted. She told about how first and foremost her mother loved the truth, for which she would have given her life, as she had repeated many times. Sr. Lucia asked the cardinal acting as the prefect of the Congregations of the Saints what was lacking, why hadn’t her cousins been declared saints yet? The prefect said that they were still waiting for proof a second miracle. She replied with simplicity that for her they were already in heaven.
When we gave the go-ahead to the construction of the church, Sr. Lucia wrote us a card, thus showing us her support for the beginning of this endeavor.
The entire message of Fatima is an invitation to return to God. The mystery of the most Holy Trinity is, since the first apparition of the angel, the content of the revelation. The fact that it happened to three children reminds us that returning to God requires one to walk the journey of spiritual infancy.
Francisco was struck by the beauty both of God and of Our Lady. Jacinta lived an intense mercy toward poor sinners. The eternal good of men was a cause very dear to her heart. Lucia remained as the witness who had to announce the truth which had begun in heaven. In all three, we see the theological virtues lived in a heroic way. The contemplation of Francisco was full of hope. Jacinta’s love for sinners was an immense expression of charity. In her unconditional obedience to God’s will communicated through Our Lady, in Lucia we see a heroic witness of the faith. May the example and intercession of the three shepherd children help us to become more profound in prayer, more ardent in our love toward others and more impassioned in mission. May we imitate them in their humility and audaciousness!
In the photo, an image of the meeting between Zé Maria and Sr. Lucia in 2002.