Catholics around the world have heard about Fátima in Portugal as it is one of the major pilgrimage centres in Europe, after Lourdes in France. Fátima is a small non-descript town of 8,000 people but the town swells with millions of devotees arriving for the annual pilgrimage seasons of 12-13 May and 12-13 October.
Why is Fátima a pilgrimage site?
Fátima is a pilgrimage site for Catholics as this is where the miraculous apparitions of the Virgin Mary happened in 1917.
On 13 May 1917 at noon, three little shepherds – Lucia aged 10, and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta aged 9 and 7 respectively – were grazing their sheep and playing in the fields when they saw a bright light. Thinking it was lightning, they decided to stop playing to go home. As they walked home, they saw another flash of bright light and this time a lady dressed in white appeared who radiated light “more brilliant than the sun” and from whose hands hung a white rosary. The Lady spoke to them and invited them to the same place for the next five consecutive months on the 13th day at that hour. In the meantime, she also asked of them to, “pray the Rosary every day in order to obtain peace for the world and the end of the war”.
*The years 1916 and 1917 were one of the darkest moments in history for Europe. In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in Russia, World War I in Europe while Portugal found itself in political and economic turmoil. Religious persecution was rife.
Over the next couple of months, news of the apparitions spread across Fátima, and as expected, not many people believed the young shepherds. The villagers thought the children were making up stories or some said that the apparitions was the work of the devil. But the children continued to meet the Virgin Mary at the appointed place, date and time during which on one occasion, they received “The Three Secrets” which were later revealed concerning apocalyptic visions of hell, prophecies of the Second World War and Russia, and the uncertain future of the world.
The last apparition took place on 13 October with 70,000 people present. The Virgin Mary requested for a chapel to be built in her honour and continued to urge people to keep praying for peace. After the apparition, they witnessed a miracle which was promised by the Virgin Mary – the Miracle of the Sun. The sun appeared resembling a silver disc, whirling like a wheel of fire and onlookers were able to gaze at it without difficulty.
The cousin shepherds Francisco and Jacinta died at a few years later as a result of influenza at the ages of 11 and 10 respectively while Lucia became a nun and remained alive till she was 98. The Virgin Mary had revealed to Lucia in 1917 that her younger cousins would die young while she had to remain on earth to carry on God’s works.
Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima
The area where the apparitions took place is now known as the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima which comprises basilicas, churches, chapels, shrines, rectories, hostel, museums, tourism office and gift shops.
I made a half-day trip from Coimbra to Fátima in September 2017, as such, I didn’t visit all of the buildings at the Sanctuary except the main ones – the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, the Basilica of the Holy Trinity and the Chapel of the Apparitions.
The Sanctuary area looks almost similar to the expansive plaza and colonnades of St. Peter’s Square in Rome. If you plan to visit Fátima especially outside of the annual pilgrimage seasons, do spend some time soaking in the atmosphere of the square – its vast, open space. Imagine millions of pilgrims and tourists converge in this plaza on 12-13 May and 12-13 October!
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From the centre of the plaza, the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue and the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary are situated straight ahead while on the left is the Chapel of the Apparitions on which is the site of the apparitions. And directly opposite of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary is the new Basilica of the Holy Trinity which was inaugurated in 2007.
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Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary
Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary contains the tombs of Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta. Many of the apparition events are depicted in the stained-glass windows in the basilica.
Chapel of the Apparitions
The site of the apparitions is now a chapel which was built in honour of the Virgin Mary as requested by her in the last apparition. I missed the English mass; this photo shows the mass conducted in Polish language.
Basilica of the Holy Trinity
By the 1970s, the main Basilica was not able to accommodate the increasing numbers of pilgrims, therefore they built another basilica which is of modern architecture. Completed in 2007, this basilica consists of several chapels and confessional rooms which can accommodate up to 1,000 people at various sets of intervals.
Apart from the Basilicas and the Chapels, there are museums located nearby the Sanctuary. Unfortunately, I was not able to visit any of them because I was slightly confused with the information given to me. There’s the Museum of the Shrine of Fátima and the Wax Museum of Fátima, and a few more with similar names.
It’s not compulsory to visit these museums but if you have time or small change of Euros (€2-€5), then just pop in to have a look.
100 years after the apparitions
Pope Francis came to Fátima on 13 May 2017 to mark one of the most important events of the Catholic church in the 21st century – 100 years’ anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary – and to honour the two cousin shepherds.
Beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1984, Francisco and Jacinta were declared saints by Pope Francis during the 100th year anniversary Mass. Lucia, on the other hand, was beatified in 2005, and we believe that steps towards her canonization as a saint is in progress.
How to get to Fatima?
You can make a day trip to Fátima from Lisbon or a half-day trip from Coimbra. The journey from Lisbon or Coimbra to Fátima is approximately ninety minutes. I have read that you can also go on a day trip from Porto to Fátima but be prepared for a full day trip – you would probably return to Porto in the evening.
You can either drive or take a bus to Fátima. To travel by bus, it’s recommended to book your tickets online via Rede Expressos or purchase from the ticket counter. The bus terminal in Fátima is located just a 5-minute walk from the Sanctuary. My bus ticket from Coimbra to Fátima cost me approximately €18 for a return trip.
I wouldn’t recommend the train from Lisbon to Fátima because the train station is located 20km from the main town which requires you to take a taxi to the sanctuary costing about €25-30.
Accommodation is available in Fátima especially hostels, B&B and budget hotels. My mother and sister had stayed in Fátima in 2012 when they travelled in Europe as part of a Catholic pilgrimage tour from Malaysia. Pilgrims or tourists who stay overnight in Fátima attend the large torch-light processions in the evening often led by Cardinals and Bishops – I was told that it’s quite impressive.
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I’m not religious, should I visit Fátima?
The choice is yours. Whether you’re a non-practising Catholic or from another religious faith, there is no harm in visiting the Sanctuary of Fátima to see the site and to understand the story behind the apparitions.
I feel it’s worthwhile to make a trip to Fátima. Firstly, it’s an opportunity for you to get out from the main city and explore the smaller towns of Portugal. Secondly, visiting a place like Fátima gives you a sense of wonder and awe that no matter how advanced technology and modern developments are taking place around the world, religion still plays a part in everyone’s life – at some point.
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