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Journey to Fatima
MY LUFTHANSA FLIGHT landed softly at Lisbon Airport. A warm breeze welcomed me as I walked down the gangway and into the bus, which brought me to the terminal. I went through passport control, picked up my luggage, and walked to the taxi stand.
My driver was a young Portuguese with short black hair and skin tanned by the sun. When I told him my destination was Fatima, he said, "You're a pilgrim, aren't you?"
I thought about my reply. What was I really looking for here? "Actually, I'm not. I'm a journalist."
Fatima—what could it offer me? Kitsch and commerce, trading on the faith of millions, as in every place of pilgrimage. Crowds of pilgrims seeking help, praying on their knees that the Holy Virgin might relieve them just a little from the burdens of their lives. Demonstrations of splendor, pomp, and power by the Church. And also, perhaps, an understanding of what really happened eighty years ago in the Portuguese mountain village, eighty miles north of Lisbon, that still keeps so many thousands of pilgrims coming to this place.
Did something supernatural, even divine, actually happen in Fatima? Were the young children who reported seeing the visions of the Virgin mother of Jesus merely naive religious hysterics? Or were the messages they received authentic revelations from a higher place, warnings for the world that had just entered the twentieth century, soon to be shaken and torn by war? I wanted to have the Fatima experience myself, so that I could find the answers to my questions.
For about an hour I rode through the picturesque landscape of Portugal on the highway heading north, passing villages with all the little houses painted white, as well as ruined castles, and the splendid facades of monasteries. There were fresh green pastures, pine forests, olive groves, and oaks. It was a place that seemed to have remained in the more innocent past. The landscape got barer and more mountainous as we approached Fatima. Finally, there it was in front of us: a small village with the elegant tower of the basilica towering high above it.
Riding through the streets of Fatima, I was left in no doubt about where the village got its income. Pilgrim buses roared past us. Accommodations for pilgrims were on every corner, from simple hostels to four-star hotels. Dozens of shops offered statues of the Virgin, made out of plastic, ceramic, and wood. There were piles of candles, rosaries, and medals for sale.
After I checked into my hotel, I walked through the sanctuario, or sanctuary of Fatima. It was September 12, 1996, the seventy-ninth anniversary of the fifth apparition. I was surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of pilgrims. Some had candles in their hands, others said the rosary as they walked along. The low murmur of praying voices filled the air.
The great square in front of the basilica reminded me of St. Peter's Square in Rome. The basilica is set in a park, surrounded by green trees and bushes. I passed the entrance, where signs are posted reminding tourists of the devotions going on inside.
The narrow basilica is built on an elevation, with stairs going down toward the square in all directions, as if welcoming pilgrims from all over the world. To the left is the small chapel that was erected at the Virgin's request. Between this chapel and the basilica, surrounded by a wall, is the huge oak tree over which the "White Lady" once appeared.
Pilgrims surrounded the chapel on their knees. Old country women with weathered faces, black dresses, and head scarves wore homemade knee pads so that they could stay on their knees for a longer time. There were well-dressed people on their knees as well, including elegant ladies from the best families in Italy, gentlemen in navy-blue blazers, and teenagers in blue jeans or traditional costumes.
All offered their prayers to the statue of Our Lady of Fatima, which stood, protected by a glass box, on a pedestal in front of the chapel. Next to it hundreds of sacrificial candles burned in a wall of metallic holders, melting into one another, as columns of black smoke ascended into heaven.
I couldn't begin to guess how many prayers are said here every day. When the Virgin appeared to the three shepherd children, Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco, nearly eighty years ago, she told them to say the rosary often, and the pilgrims who come here have faithfully kept this tradition.
I began to wonder about how authentic the legends of Fatima are that are printed in the many booklets and tracts for sale in the tourist shops that fill this village.
I've read all the books and know all the speculations about the mysterious "Third Secret" of Fatima. I've traveled to Rome many times from my home in Germany, and spoken with Vatican insiders, trying to learn the contents of the Third Secret. I've met people who claim that the Virgin appeared personally to them, and others who bear the mysterious, bleeding "stigmata" on their bodies, wounds in their hands and feet in the same places where nails were driven into the body of Jesus at the crucifixion. I'd visited the sights of other apparitions, in Mexico, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Spain, Bosnia, Germany, and the United States.
Based on eyewitness testimonies I've tried to reconstruct the Fatima events as exactly and carefully as possible, and to show how deeply these visions have influenced the history of the twentieth century. Fatima had a deep impact on the secret policies of the Vatican, which is the smallest state, yet the most influential superpower, on earth. All the popes of this century have been aware of the Virgin's messages, from Pope Pius XII up to John Paul II, who has announced that it is his mission to fulfill the prophecy of Fatima.
The Fatima visions cannot be seen as an isolated event. They are part of a larger phenomenon of Marian visions, which began in the mid-nineteenth century and have increased in frequency ever since. The warnings given to us by the Marian apparitions are similar to the warnings received from UFO visitors. Both seem to be telling us that we have reached a crucial moment in human evolution, where we stand at a point between self-destruction and a world of new spiritual possibilities.
John Paul II is expected to announce that Catholic doctrine of the third millennium will be mainly dictated by the revelations of these apparitions. In November 1999 he traveled to Portugal to announce the beatification of two of the three children who saw the Fatima vision, in front of a million people and TV cameras from all over the world. The ceremony took place on May 13, 2000.
It might surprise many Catholics to know that a belief in the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence is in no way frowned upon by Catholic doctrine. Father Francis J. Connell, former dean of theology of the Catholic University of America, stated in the November 7, 1957, issue of the Denver Register that "theologians have never dared to limit the omnipotence of God to the creation of the world we know.
"If God did create other rational beings," he continued, "theologians can imagine a variety of states in which they might exist. These beings could have received from God the same supernatural and preternatural gifts given to Adam and Eve and could never have lost them. They might be intellectually and physically superior to us."