The Bishop of Fulham reports on the EFFA pilgrimage to Fatima
You are at home here. All the children are at home in the Mother’s house.’ These warm words of welcome, offered in the Chapel of the Angel of Peace by Bishop Antonio dos Santos Martos, bishop of the local diocese, sum up the pilgrimage of the Ecumenical Friends of Fatima Association (EFFA) which took place from 9 to 16 May in this centenary year of the apparitions of Our Lady to the three shepherd children in the hillside pastures of northern Portugal.
A larger group than for many years, some sixty strong and including five bishops (of Beverley, Ebbsfleet, Fulham and Richborough, together with Bishop Robert Ladds) travelled under the banner of EFFA. It seemed impossible that Fr Malcolm Gray was not among our number, but as all readers of New Directions will know, Fr Malcom died suddenly and unexpectedly in January. We were sure that, though unable to share in body in this pilgrimage to which he had so greatly looked forward, he was rejoicing in all that transpired, the fruit of seeds planted by him many years ago. He might scarcely have recognized the accommodation, transformed from the rough and ready homeliness of the old pilgrim hostel to the relative opulence of an international-style hotel. The rooms were comfortable, and the wi-fi worked – though someone had forgotten to equip the bedrooms or bathrooms with any hooks to hang things on. Prices in the bar had gone up considerably. Canon Andrew Stevens coped brilliantly with leading the pilgrimage and stepping up in Fr Malcolm’s absence. Fr Andrew is now Priest Director of the Association and we are in good hands.
We travelled with not one, but three, Images of Our Lady of Walsingham: to present one to the Rector of the Shrine, Fr Carlos Cabecinhas; one to the Vida e Paz community, a drug rehabilitation centre run by Christians and with a distinctive Christian ethos, which has a remarkable track record in successfully treating its residents and equipping them for the return to their own homes and families, and which members of EFFA have supported for many years; and one to the hotel. In the midst of all the demanding preparation for a papal visit, Fr Carlos found time to come and meet us all to receive the Image from us; to our surprise and delight, Bishop Antonio came too. Both were unstinting in their welcome to this body of (overwhelmingly) Anglican pilgrims. Bishop Antonio got the point about Our Lady of Walsingham straight away, noting that in the Image so familiar to English eyes, she holds out her Son, Our Lord, offering Him for the sake of the world. Our Lady of Fatima, the Bishop said, unlike Our Lady of Walsingham, is depicted alone: but the point is that Mary always leads us to Jesus, and through him to the Father. Sister Lucia reported these words of Mary’s: ‘My Immaculate Heart will be your refuge and the way that will lead you to God.’
Every evening at the Capelinha – the heart of the Shrine where the Image of Our Lady of Fatima stands, the bullet which was aimed at Pope St John Paul the Great embedded in its crown – the Rosary is prayed at 9.30 pm, and a procession of Our Lady, or of the Blessed Sacrament, follows. Pilgrims lead the recitation of the Rosary in their mother tongue: and so we hear those simple but foundational prayers, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, in the versions understood by ‘every tribe and tongue and people and nation’. It is moving in the extreme. Sometimes the voices are those of priests or Religious; more often those of lay women and men, teenagers, married couples, informally dressed, ‘no ceremony’, simply leading the prayers of the people of God. And always, hundreds and thousands of pilgrims are gathered about, torches held aloft for the endless refrain of ‘Ave Maria’.
The centrepiece of this year’s pilgrimage was, of course, the canonization of two of the young seers of Fatima, two of the Little Shepherds, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, who died in the flu epidemic which swept across Europe after the Great War. The canonization took place during the papal mass celebrated on the Saturday morning, 13 May, on the steps of the basilica and in front of half a million pilgrims. On the previous evening, Friday 12 May, Pope Francis arrived in Fatima and paid his ‘first visit’ to the Shrine. Standing before the Image, the Holy Father prayed in silence for a full ten minutes; and silence was maintained throughout the vast crowd. Then the Pope laid at the feet of the Image the Golden Rose: a bejewelled ornament in the form of a thorny stem with leaves and flowers, the rose at the top concealing a container perfumed with musk. The ceremony of the Golden Rose takes its origins from that already spoken of as ‘age-old’ by Pope St Leo IX (1049-54), and which was performed originally in the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, perhaps as the Pope arrived in procession there from the Lateran Palace to say mass. The presentation of the Golden Rose to Our Lady of Fatima and her shrine was a moment of extraordinary significance, one we were hugely privileged to watch – and for the bishops, mirabile dictu, at very close quarters.
The Anglican bishops present had all chosen, in the light of the presence of the Holy Father, and to be clear about our patrimony, to wear Convocation Robes for the papal ceremonies: rochet and red chimere. We were rewarded with places at the head of the procession of bishops, and made (so we were told) a striking and distinctive group as we made our way from the Capelinha to the steps of the basilica for the papal mass. At the behest of the diocesan bishop, speaking on behalf of all the people of God, Pope Francis raised Francisco and Jacinta to the altars of the Church, to sustained cheering and applause. In his homily, the Pope encouraged us all to rejoice in Our Lady’s patronage and protection, reminding us, ‘Dear pilgrims, we have a Mother!’ He did not shrink from the challenge of the message of Fatima, saying this: ‘Our Lady foretold, and warned us about, a way of life that is godless and indeed profanes God in his creatures. Such a life – frequently proposed and imposed – risks leading to hell.’ He ended with this peroration: ‘With Mary’s protection, may we be for our world sentinels of the dawn, contemplating the true face of Jesus the Saviour, resplendent at Easter. Thus may we rediscover the young and beautiful face of the Church, which shines forth when she is missionary, welcoming, free, faithful, poor in means and rich in love.’
Perhaps it will be many years until so many pilgrims gather again at the same moment to join in the celebration of the Mass at Fatima. But the message of Fatima, the call to penitence and holiness of life, will surely never fade; the example of simplicity held out for us by the Little Shepherds never weaken; the prayer never cease. And EFFA will be back in 2018 – and God willing every year thereafter.
The Rt Revd Jonathan Baker, Bishop of Fulham, is the President of the Ecumenical Friends of Fatima Association.