A pilgrimage not done with the feet, but with the heart.
— motto of the Sanctuary of Fatima for the 2020 May celebrations
In the last couple of days, I have seen not a few people on social media saying that Fatima was being shut down by an “oppressive” or “anti-Catholic” government that sent 3,500 soldiers to prevent the faithful from coming to the Sanctuary. Some even implied that the same GNR police force did nothing about a protest gathering 1,000 people in Lisbon on Portugal’s Labor Day, May 1. Allegedly, the government was willing to allow the Labor Day protest, given its left-leaning sensibilities, but refused to permit a gathering in Fatima.
As someone living in Portugal and following the news on the ground, I must say this is not true. The government did impose heavy restrictions to prevent the multitude of people from protesting on May 1. People were not free to move between counties during that weekend. The government was not pleased with the number of people who gathered on Labor Day.
Regarding Fatima, this link specifically says that the Health Minister was hesitant on whether to open Fatima to public celebrations or not. The very next day, the rector of the Sanctuary decided it would remain closed. He was the one who took the initiative.
The rector of the Sanctuary of Fatima advised pilgrims not to come to the May 12 and May 13 celebrations due to COVID-19 pandemic. The rector of the Sanctuary explained that only those who would be involved in the celebration could be present:
“There are no guests, no protocol figures, and there are no pilgrims. But we invited three pilgrims who usually come on foot, and who have a concrete presence at the celebration. Representatives from other dioceses and the health sector will also participate, but I don’t want to quantify how many at this moment. These are the people we believe to be the minimum necessary and who will intervene in the course of the celebrations.”
This is consistent with the stance taken by the Portuguese clergy on this matter. The restrictions on public masses were imposed by the Portuguese Episcopal Conference before the government imposed the lockdown. When the government announced the lifting of the lockdown, the prime minister met with the Cardinal-Patriarch of Lisbon (who is also the President of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference), saying that they were open to the possibility of reopening Mass, because they knew May is a sacred month for Portuguese Catholics. But the hierarchy once again was cautious and agreed to extend the measures until the end of May. I ask, “How is this oppressive or anti-Catholic?”
The majority of Portuguese Catholics accepted this without problems. My experience is that the Portuguese people are mostly a peaceful, law-abiding and reserved people. My husband confirms that they generally obey the government and the clergy, because they are responsible and know that these restrictions are for the common good. That is why they are reopening so soon.
In this link, Colonel Vitor Rodrigues from the GNR police force — who oversaw security in Fatima during the May celebrations — compliments the Catholic Church, “whose attitude has been very responsible … The Portuguese people, and the Christians in particular, continue to give us a remarkable example of civic maturity.”
On the eve of May 13, my husband and I watched together the official live broadcast of the celebrations in the Sanctuary of Fatima.
For the first time in history, there were no multitudes or crowds. Above was the sight this year compared to the previous celebrations like the one in May 2019, pictured below:
Be that as it may, the Bishop of Leiria-Fátima, António Marto said, “…the sanctuary is empty, but not deserted.” Even without the pilgrims, the ceremony of Fatima was very moving, solemn and beautiful. It evoked almost the same sentiments I had when watching Pope Francis’s Urbi et Orbi service (my husband wrote a piece about it).
The celebrations began with the praying of the rosary at the Chapel of the Apparitions, built in the exact same place where Our Lady appeared to the three little shepherds. The rosary was prayed in different languages: Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, English, German, French, and Polish. The Dolorous Mysteries’ meditations were about the suffering and lack of hope in the times of pandemic. After each mystery, there was a refrain: “Please give comfort to the troubled hearts.”
After the rosary, there was a procession to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, with twenty-one lighted candles, representing the twenty-one dioceses of Portugal.
Afterwards, there was the celebration of Mass by Cardinal António Marto, at an outdoor altar facing the empty precinct. Also present were the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon and the Archbishops of Braga and Evora.
Cardinal Marto´s homily had a refrain. Invoking the request of the disciples of Emmaus, he said, “Stay with us oh Lord, because the night is near.” As the Cardinal explained, “this is the invocation of those who feel the dark night weighing over a world downtrodden by the global pandemic, a dark night of the faith, a night so different from those unequaled nights of 12th of May that were authentic seas of light but now seem more like a dark desert.”
“However, the symbolism of this night allows us to traverse the spiritual geography that forms the multitude of the devout faithful to Our Lady of Fatima, scattered throughout the world.”
The Cardinal then asked us to, “Answer the pandemic of the virus with the universality of prayer, compassion and tenderness. Let us remain united.” This would be the proper answer to the consecration of Portugal to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
He then reminded us that, “the Mother that He delivered to us is not only a Mother of pains but also a Mother of hope as the star orienting the navigation of the pilgrims of the faith over the big sea of history towards the havens of eternity.”
The celebration of the Mass also featured the washing of the feet of three pilgrims. The Cardinal clarified, “All the pilgrims that accompany this broadcast, the sanctuary of Fatima is honoring you. In this washing of the feet, these three pilgrims represent the thousands of pilgrims who visited Fatima in the last century and who are going to keep coming.”
During the prayer of the faithful, what struck me more was the prayer intention that mentioned, “For the Church, led by the Bishop, clothed in white” which was a reference to the third secret of Fatima. This shows how Fatima is inextricably linked with faithfulness to the person of the pope.
Other intentions were said: the Holy Father’s intentions, the healthcare professionals risking their lives, the priests, the immigrants, the poor, the sick, the workers of Fatima, the children of the world and those affected by the pandemic.
After the conclusion of the Mass, the statue of Our Lady of Fatima was brought back to the Chapel of the Apparitions, accompanied by song.
The celebration extended into the next day, May 13. In the general audience of the Holy Father, he exhorted the faithful, “to know and follow the example of the Virgin Mary by living the month with a more intense and faithful daily prayer, particularly praying the rosary as recommended by the Church, obeying a desire repeatedly expressed in Fatima by Our Lady.”
There was also Mass in the Sanctuary of Fatima. Cardinal Marto celebrated once more and reassured us that we “are all here, with the light and warmth of the faith that fills our hearts.” He prayed:
“Dear Mother, we want to thank you for this inner pilgrimage, light, hope, consolation and peace of Christ that you bring to our homes. Today you are the one undertaking this journey; the way back we will do it when we overcome this threat that prevents us. We will return: it is our trust and commitment. We will come back together here, in thanksgiving, to sing to you: ‘Here we come, dear mother, consecrate our love to you!'”
These celebrations contradicted the negative rhetoric of those who tried to take advantage of this pandemic to pit the faithful against their clergy, the government and the health public officials. In fact, it was still intensely spiritual. The peace and consolation of Our Lord and Our Lady echoed throughout the celebrations. As the Sanctuary of Fatima published in its Facebook page,
“On the 12th and 13th of May, although empty, the Sanctuary will be the size of the world and will be covered by the Manto de Luz (Mantle of Light) that radiates from a pilgrimage made with the heart.”