For most of us, the word “Fatima” conjures up images of three shepherd children who, while praying the rosary in a field in central Portugal on May 13, 1917, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary. Awed by the bright light of the Holy Mother, the children listened to her words of wisdom, retained her secret messages, and committed to visiting her at the same spot on the thirteenth day of the following five consecutive months. She promised them that she would perform a miracle on October 13, and, according to believers, she delivered. Purportedly, up to 70,000 people saw a whirling, fiery disk in the sky and knew the magic was a sign from Our Lady of Fatima.
The children — Jacinta, Francisco, and Lucia — devoted their lives to Mary and to spreading her message of love. At first, they were criticized, dismissed, and even jailed and accused of being liars, but ultimately, after the group vision in Fatima, they were recognized as seers and became icons of innocent virtue to millions of Catholics worldwide. Jacinta and Francisco died young. Lucia passed away only a few years ago, and she stuck to her original story until the end. Pope John Paul II was a devoted Marian, and he attributed his survival from an assassination attempt on May 13, 1981, to the intervention of Our Lady of Fatima.
This spring, I set out by train from Lisbon to see what the Fatima experience was like. It was a weekday, and there were few pilgrims. In a modern church, I saw a startlingly realistic bronze Jesus on a cross. He had thick thighs and tousled hair, and he looked like many of the sensitive, handsome Mediterranean men I had seen in cafés and restaurants in the capital city. Farther along, I stood in front of the small shrine of Fatima, watching as supplicants crawled on their knees and nuns prayed the rosary. Nearby, people purchased beeswax candles that ranged from small and delicate to large, imposing prayer aids. I watched them walk over to a dedicated area to burn the candles, which melted and intertwined into sinuous shapes, hopefully carrying prayers to the Divine Mother. I stood at the main altar where popes had addressed crowds that numbered in the millions. I entered the old church where the children are entombed and tried hard to feel something, but no feelings came.
Just as I was about to leave, I saw a small sign pointing to a museum. It was closed for the day, but the nun in charge agreed to provide me with a private guide who could show me around. That is how I met Sister Mary Stella, an American who belongs to the Order of Fatima. She showed me a short film about Fatima and led me through rooms bursting with offerings from devotees. They ranged from golden earrings and wedding rings to sports shirts and soccer balls, bicycles, bullfighting regalia, and bejeweled monstrances. There was also John Paul II’s papal habit and personal rosary that he used to pray when he was hospitalized, as well as the bullet that nearly felled him.
I tried to engage Sister Mary in dialogue, but it was almost impossible because her attention was elsewhere — with God. Her eyes bulged with excitement and ardor, and all she could speak about was the divine: God was the source of everything in the world; the only thing worth doing in life was devoting oneself to God; God could appear to anyone, at any time; there was no human goodness without God. She told me that she had a seminal religious experience in her life. She had come to Fatima as a youth and prayed for guidance in choosing a life path. Not only did the Virgin provide her with an answer, but she also gave Sister Mary the strength to give up her country, family, and material life and devote herself to God.
“It was a miracle — God’s miracle,” she whispered fervently, her voice quivering with adoration.
I tried to get a contact religious high from the passionate nun, tried to experience a little sliver of a miracle myself at the vast, world-famous site where pilgrims have seen apparitions of rosaries, light, Mary, and falling rose petals that never touch the ground. I accepted that it happened for others, but it didn’t happen for me.
A week later, in the Douro wine region, in pouring rain, I boarded a bus that snaked past terraced hills dotted with white farm manors, called quintas, and alit in the small town of Lamego. I went there because in the fourteenth century, the town was the site of a shrine to St. Esteban. In the sixteenth century, a church stood in its place, and devotion to St. Esteban faded out and was replaced by adoration of Our Lady of Remedies, a statue of the Virgin breast-feeding the baby Jesus. The current little-known Baroque sanctuary dates to the eighteenth century, and the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Remedies built a monumental stone staircase with almost 700 steps that leads from the town below to the church.
The wind blew my small umbrella inside out, and I shivered from the cold and a relentless downpour as I ducked into the shrine. I followed another visitor into the sacristy behind the main altar.
There, I beheld a fairly modern statue of Mary, feeding her infant son. Her clothes were sky blue and salmon pink, and she had an ethereal radiance and beauty that seemed to emanate from celestial realms.
On the main altar — in the heart of the church — was the older statue, which gives the shrine its spiritual cachet. I had seen several Mary images in Portugal who were pregnant, but this was my first contact with the breast-feeding mother. The older Virgin seemed plainer and less idealized than the newer one. Although she was surrounded by a magnificent gilded wood sunburst, she appeared real, fleshy, small, human, and accessible.
As I pondered the Lady and what she meant to her followers, two nuns walked by. I turned and asked them if they knew the date of the statue. They looked at each other uncertainly.
“I think she is from the 1400s,” said one.
“I heard she is from the sixteenth century,” offered the other.
And then, in unison, they looked up at her and sighed.
“Isn’t she spectacular?” one asked.
“She is magnificent,” said the other.
They asked me where I came from and where I was going. When I answered, they approached me in tandem and put their hands on my arm and shoulders.
“May Our Lady bless your voyage,” one of the nuns said simply.
“May she keep you safe and out of harm’s way,” the other added.
I nodded and headed for the exit, clutching my umbrella and zipping up my jacket. The moment I stepped outside, a full, brilliant, intense burst of color arced across the monumental stair-case and embraced the town below. It was the most vivid rainbow I had ever seen, and the first time I had ever been above one.
The rain stopped. There was absolute silence around me and in me. The rainbow seemed to pulsate and grow in size and for a long time maintained its dazzling intensity.
“It’s a miracle,” I muttered, wondering if, in fact, the rain had stopped and the rainbow formed because the nuns had asked Our Lady to bless me.