After a brief stop at Avila, our bus crossed the vast, lonely plains of Spain. We drove into a sunset landscape that occasionally showed lines of olive trees and patches of purple vineyards. Night had fallen when we reached Fatima, a parish in the municipality of Ourem in the Portuguese Centro region. After a quick dinner, we joined the candlelight procession. It helped that our hotel was just a few minutes’ walk from the shrine.
The cold, windy and drizzly night did not weaken the crowd’s responses when the Rosary was prayed in different languages. The wife and I, and I’m sure the rest of our group, were just too excited to be finally at the spot where in 1917 the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared six times to three innocent children–Lucia, 10, and her cousins–the siblings Francesco, 9, and Jacinta, 7.
We were gathered in a an open-ended chapel which housed a yet smaller one, the location of the tree on which Our Lady appeared, now called the Chapel of Apparitions. Near it, on May 13, 1917, the children were herding sheep and playing games when lightning flashed. Fearing a thunderstorm, they decided to gather the sheep and go home. Again there was a shaft of lightning, and the children saw on a small oak tree a lady dressed in white, shining brighter than the sun, who told them that she came from Heaven and would like them to return to the same spot on the thirteenth day of every month for six months.
We returned to the shrine for Holy Mass at dawn of the next day, braving an even heavier rain and chillier wind. And, again, after breakfast, for a visit to the basilica, which was in the same area as, and not far from, the Chapel of Apparitions, and where Lucia, who died at age 97, and her cousins Francesco and Jacinta, who died of the Spanish flu soon after the apparitions, are buried.
From the steps of the basilica, I scanned the expanse before me. I saw the same sky, now grey with rain, where on October 13, 1917, the “Miracle of the Sun” took place, viewed by 70,000 people, who had gathered on the same grounds that now stretched away from my feet and the Chapel of Apparitions, near which now grew another oak tree, the original being long gone, brought home by devotees part by part as relics.
I relived the sight in my mind. An eyewitness, writing for a newspaper, described it: “The sun, at one moment surrounded with scarlet flame, at another aureoled in yellow and deep purple, seemed to be in an exceedingly swift and whirling movement, at times appearing to be loosened from the sky and to be approaching the earth, strongly radiating heat.”
When I thought of it, I recalled what Jesus said in the Gospel of Mark: “But in those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
Jesus was talking of the coming of the Son of Man, of his return–as judge. “And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather [his] elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.”
For me–and the world, then as now steeped in godlessness and relativism–the message that the Blessed Virgin Mary gave to the children in Fatima, whom she asked to bear their sufferings in reparation for sin and the conversion of sinners, ultimately has to do with a return to the truth, which entails an acknowledgement of God, which requires a change of mind and heart, which can come about only with humility and the help of prayer. And with that would follow peace, personal and global (Our Lady prescribed prayer, specifically the Rosary, to end World War I, which was then raging, and prophesied the coming of World War II with a spectacle in the night sky.)
I find it curious that the Mother of God should appear on a tree. In the same discourse in Mark, Jesus added, “Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates.”
May not Mary’s choice of location be a reinforcement of her message–that Jesus her son is near? Seeing that the tree itself was a sign, I looked around to see if no one was watching and picked a leaf from the oak growing beside the Chapel of Apparitions to keep as relic and reminder.