Our adventure in Portugal continues. The local roads took us to Fátima, one of the most famous pilgrims' destinations which is visited by millions of Christians from all over the world. In the beginning, I would like to share with you all the interesting things you might not know about the spot which, especially during one of the annual night vigils, turns into a magical realm with a very unique atmosphere.
The mystery behind Fátima
Before I am going to write about our experience in Fátima, let me introduce its story which I think is both interesting and mysterious at the same time. It started exactly 100 years ago, when three kid shepherds supposedly saw a lady "made of light, holding a rosary in her hand". The occurrence repeated for a few times at the spot where today lies the Sanctury of Fátima. The first Marian apparition took place on the 13th of May 1917 and the last one on the 13th of October the same year. The last day gathered thousands of people who came to see a miracle on the basis of a prophecy made by the kids. The crowd witnessed an extraordinary activity of the sun: it seemed to be moving on the sky and getting closer to the earth. This event is known as 'the Miracle of the sun' or 'the Miracle of Fátima'. Even though scientists tried to explain the phenomenon many times, they didn't find any clear clarifications. After the Church officially recognized the authenticity of the apparition in the 1930, Fátima became an important centre of pilgrimages.
How to get to Fátima
We have visited Fátima twice. For the first time it was to join pilgrims for the night vigil at the occasion of 100 years anniversary of the last apparition of Mary. The second visit happened on an ordinary autumn day for an afternoon trip. Both times we travelled to our final destination by car. It took us app 75 minutes to reach Fátima from Lisbon. If you are not a part of one of many organized trips and you don’t have a car in Portugal, take a bus. They are leaving from Lisbon every 30 minutes, cost just 10 Euros and the journey takes them 90 minutes.
About the Sanctuary of Fátima
Everything you must see in Fátima is centred around Cova da Iria. On the former field where the kids saw Holy Mary is now the Sanctuary of Fátima. You can find there a huge open space surrounded by the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary from one side and the Basilica of the Holy Trinity on the other. Those two buildings are really impressive and both are interesting for the eye: a surprising symbiosis of the old and the new. The former is traditional and historical, the latter much more modern and quite unique.
I closely connect churches with something from the past and the modern ones are always a bit of a surprise. Why I am writing this is because I wouldn’t expect such a modern building on frequently visited pilgrims spot. The Basilica of the Holy Trinity didn’t even remind me a church. The building doesn’t have any towers, it is low, large and round. From the outside it looks a bit like a stadium with a big front entrance and smaller ones on its sides. When I entered, I felt like in a gigantic lecture hall at the university. You can see dozens, maybe hundreds of rows of seats, in lines facing the altar.
Other interesting thing to note here is the statue of Jesus. Even having in mind that we are not talking about a traditional, old church I would still expect some kind of a conservative appearance of Mary's Son. Especially the face of his figure here is very artistic, modern and specific.
You can find some marks of contemporary art also in front of the church. Since May 2017 there is a new installation – a massive rosary. The art piece is 26 meters tall and is glowing in the night. It was created by Joana Vasconcelos at the occasion of 100th anniversary of the first Marian apparition and it was lighten up for the first time during Pope’s Francis visit.
Other important building of the sanctuary is a small Chapel of the Apparitions which stands on the place where, according to the popular belief, kids saw Holy Mary. Many pilgrims are coming to pray and impose penance upon themselves. Some of them go with a fascinating (and for sure painful) knee-walk prayer with rosaries in their hands. The path designed for this activity leads though the whole square from the Basilica of the Holy Trinity to the Chapel of the Apparitions.
What you can find in the town
In the town itself you can find many shops with devotional articles, and also a lot of restaurants and cafés. One of the favourite ones is Mister Leitao: a bistro offering delicious sandwiches with piglet meat. During lunch time there is usually a long line for the food but it is definitely worth standing in it. If you are not a fan of meat, there are many other places where to find something for a quick snack or a longer meal.
Fátima during a night vigil
I have mentioned before that we have visited Fátima twice. The most amazing one was for the anniversary night vigil.
As I already wrote above, the Marian apparitions started on the 13th of May and ended on the 13th of October 1917, repeating at the same date every month in between. That is why the most important ceremonies are taking place in that period of time, commemorating the kids' experience, with 13th May and 13th October being the most significant. Every year, on these two days, big celebrations are happening. Nonetheless, masses which are celebrated in many languages (except of Portuguese also in Spanish, Italian, French, Polish, English, Dutch or German) and throughout the whole year.
I need to mention here that I am not religious person but the vigil was for me still a very strong and emotional experience. To see thousands of people gathered in the dark, saying the prayer and raising hands with candles to light up the darkness, was magically beautiful. I felt like a member of a one big family – there in Fátima during the vigil, regardless of the age, gender or colour of skin, everyone was united in the same prayer said in so many languages. I wasn’t surprised not to hear the Czech version (my nation is one of the most atheistic in the world), but hearing it in Slovak, which I completely understand, was a nice addition to the whole experience.
Words fail me when I try to fully describe how I felt. Therefore let me simply invite you to come and visit Fátima yourself. Even if you are not religious, it is a place to go to.