David Wilson experienced the Mass of Canonization at Fatima from among the crowd
The tarmac was hard and damp. A hopeful cockroach ran past my fingers. A few hours before, we had been standing in the hot sun, chanting in frenzied jubilation with a million voices from across the earth, ‘Papa Francisco!’, as the Pope arrived for the centenary celebrations. The crowd prayed with him in absolute silence as he venerated Our Lady of Fatima, soon to be processed through the faithful in a radiant twilight of candles; tears falling in loving adoration from every face; the Ave Maria endlessly chanted to heaven; every heart filled with the secret hope that she might appear again and to us. Now the ground was splattered with wax. Crowds of teenagers, still giddy with excitement, roamed the night; African drums cavorted through the vigil, not even breaking for the cold rain which sapped the heat from the day, as the small hours crept through Rosaries, Benediction; Mass; Stations of the Cross. My teeth were chattering into the wind and my bones ached. I felt too old for this. Unlike those around me I had no sleeping mat, stool or warm clothing. I had not expected to be here. Monks and nuns wandered through the crowds bringing comfort where needed. There was a void of priests, the handful that dared to appear swamped by penitents seeking absolution. By 4am an ambulance had arrived. Not everyone survived the vigil.
I was bemused. It shouldn’t happen to a bus-pilgrim. 25 years earlier, arriving with holes in my boots, exhausted, after a thousand mile walk to the great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, over-pampered bus-pilgrims had elbowed and trampled by in their rush for photographs. Now, under the pressure of time, I found myself the object of my own contempt. I had watched an endless stream of walking pilgrims arriving at Fatima, the penitents crawling upon their knees around the shrine; and remembered. Yet, we were very civilized. There were 69 in our group, five Bishops and 20+ priests, most from The Society, as part of the week-long centenary pilgrimage of the Ecumenical Friends of Fatima Association. We were staying in a comfortable hotel in the centre of a town of concrete and tat shops. We held regular mass and prayers. There was wine with every meal. We took day-tours in our bus. It was all very pleasant. Then Our Lady intervened.
We were in the hamlet of Aljustrel, visiting the house where Lúcia de Jesus dos Santos (1907-2005) was born; and around the corner the house where her cousins, Francisco de Jesus Marto (1908-1919) and Jacinta de Jesus Marto (1910-1920), lived. One hundred years ago, on 13 May 1917, these three shepherd children had the first of several visions of Our Lady, themselves among a series of divine visions, which culminated on 13 October when a crowd of thousands witnessed the Miracle of the Sun. The tiny peasant houses were a shocking reminder of the poverty in which they were raised. Perhaps I lingered too long in the room in which Francisco died, or too long by the well of visions. On arrival at the bus-park the buses were gone. It is a strange thing to be abandoned on an all-in bus tour. Yet we were still guided. Struggling with a smattering of Spanish and Latin through a fog of Portuguese, my friend and I sought direction from a lady who turned out to be a great-niece of Francisco and Jacinta. It was like a shock-wave from heaven. Here we were amongst the family of two small children who were about to be elevated to the pantheon of saints. Flesh and blood. This story isn’t in dry and fusty books. It is still living. Suddenly the shattering simplicity of what occurred here was washing over us.
We were embraced in birdsong as we walked among the olive groves the children knew, still following the rhythms of the seasons a century on. It all seemed so utterly normal. Here the church they attended; there the overhang among the rocks where they received Holy Communion from an angel. There the hollow where Our Lady appeared upon a holm oak, all the way back to the Cova da Iria where the main visions were received in a sheep pasture dotted with trees, where Francisco liked to play his flute. Here a small shrine was built in 1919, around which the town of Fatima has now arisen. The calm of the sheep pasture was now a large tarmac arena framed between the modernist brutality of the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary (1954), and the Basilica of the Holy Trinity (2007). This is a place where the Church still struggles to assimilate the divine.
It was here on this tarmac that I now found myself abandoned again. The bishops were going to do the necessary diplomacy for the Church of England; the priests were in their beds awaiting a day in reserved seats. And mere mortals? The tour guide suggested giving up and watching proceedings on TV. Quite. So here I was, sleeping with the faithful, soon praying again upon their knees as the cold night gave way to the heat of day. Yet that is the truth in this place. It is a place of the ordinary faithful. A place of nobodies. The children were disbelieved by their own families; held in contempt by their priest; thrown into prison by the authorities; sacred trees destroyed; yet the faithful still came, facing down soldiers to erect the first shrine. Lucia, the only one of the three to survive the great influenza epidemic, was placed into a silent order, so that she could not speak of it – the Vatican refusing to embrace the reality of a vision so powerful it changed the world. Instead it sought to cover it up, the revelations given by Our Lady kept secret. Once again, the Church struggled with visionaries, as with the prophets of old. As such it becomes dangerously pharisaic. Yet here it was now, one hundred years later, facing up to its own sin.
Before us stood the Church arraigned in full Magisterium, as Francisco and Jacinta were finally acknowledged to stand with the saints. Below a sunlit heaven, in the Basilica, lay their saintly bodies. Below, sat the Pope, cardinals and bishops; below whom sat the priests; below whom stood and knelt the crush of the faithful people. The entire Apostolic Church laid before us in glorious array.
And how the people need this imperfect Church. I have seen people fight for bread twice in my life: once in the middle of the Ghanaian famine in 1983 and now during the Canonization Centenary Mass at Fatima; both the means to life, one earthly and one eternal; both sought in desperation. That people might fight for physical survival may seem awful but obvious. That Christ would be mobbed in his true presence today, as he was in his life-time, in the quest for ever-lasting life, was a revelation. One of our Ordinariate friends commented, ‘People behave so badly; they do not understand’, and refused to distribute communion at such events. Yet only too well do the people understand. The vision of hell received by the children is reminder enough. They seek to be saved through the most holy Sacrament of the Altar, as has been promised. The Body of Christ sanctified by the Pope, through the apostolic succession, is the closest they will ever get to the Last Supper itself. It was sublime. Everyone around me was awash with tears of joy.
The truth of Fatima is counter-cultural – Angels? Hell? Prophecies? Yet, it is a gift to the world: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 18. 2). It is as simple as St. Francisco said to his sister shortly before he died: ‘I am happier than you because I have the hidden Jesus in my heart.’ Beneath the concrete, it is a place of filled hearts. There is a love, a hope, and a yearning for God so visceral that I never wanted to leave again.
Dr David Wilson is a churchwarden of St. Peter’s, Folkestone, and Lay Chairman of Forward in Faith in the Diocese of Canterbury.