VATICAN CITY (AP) — When Pope Francis travels to the Portuguese town of
this weekend, he will be lending his blessing to a religious phenomenon that
has captivated Catholics for a century: It involves visions of the Virgin Mary,
supernatural meteorological events and apocalyptic prophesies of hell, Soviet
communism and the death of a pope. Fatima
For doubters, the
Fatima story is a trumped-up
tale built around hallucinations. For believers, Fatima's
message of peace, prayer and conversion from sin is as relevant today as it was
100 years ago, when three illiterate shepherd children first reported seeing
visions of the Madonna.
The pope will canonize two of those children on Saturday and is likely to make his own
message of peace and conversion as a weapon against secularism and the
persecution of Christians today.
Here are details about Francis' Friday-Saturday trip to
WHAT HAPPENED AT
The three shepherd children, siblings Francisco and Jacinta Marto and their cousin Lucia aged between 7 and 10 at the time, said the Virgin Mary appeared to them six times in 1917 and confided to them three secrets. The first two described an apocalyptic image of hell, foretold the end of World War I and the start of World War II, and the rise and fall of Soviet communism.
In 2000, the
disclosed the long-awaited
third secret, describing it as foretelling the May 13, 1981, assassination
attempt against St. John Paul II in St. Peter's Square. Vatican
John Paul credited the Virgin Mary with saving his life. One of the bullets fired at him rests in the crown of the statue of the Virgin at the shrine.
Portuguese church officials initially doubted the veracity of the apparitions. Many doubters, though, became believers after the so-called "Miracle of the Sun" on Oct. 13, 1917. According to legend, the Fatima "seers" had predicted that the Virgin would perform a miracle that day, and tens of thousands of people flocked to
Fatima and saw
what witnesses reported was a vision of the sun "spinning" in the sky
and zigzagging toward Earth.
The Portuguese church declared the visions authentic in 1930.
WHAT WAS GOING ON AT THE TIME?
At the time of the apparitions, Europe was still in the grip of World War I and
Portugal's Catholic Church was facing a crisis
became a republic in 1910. Portugal
The republican government introduced a host of anti-clerical laws, including prohibiting religious teaching at schools. Priests and bishops were exiled.
In that context, the visions helped reinvigorate a persecuted church, giving it "a strong eruption of the supernatural in that difficult moment," said Monsignor Carlos Azevedo, who headed the commission that compiled 15 volumes of
Church officials point to the reported secrets about a Second World War, the dangers of Soviet communism and the persecution of the pope and Christians in general, as evidence of
Fatima's prophetic message.
WHAT DO PEOPLE DO IN
Like the shrine at
Lourdes, France, Fatima
draws millions of pilgrims from around the world — about 6 million annually —
to give thanks to Our Lady of Fatima, or to pray for help.
Many walk to the town, which is 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of
. Some complete the last few hundred
meters (yards) on their knees. Others toss wax limbs into a fire beside the
Chapel of the Apparitions as they recite prayers for healing. Lisbon
The shrine also contains dozens of shops where trinkets are sold alongside rosaries, bibles and assorted images of the Virgin Mary, including one that changes color with the weather.
WHY IS THE POPE GOING NOW?
Initially, Francis had planned to travel to
to mark the 100th anniversary of the apparitions. Francis added a bonus event
to his visit by announcing in March that he had approved the miracle needed to
make saints of Francisco and Jacinta Marto — who died of influenza within two
years of the initial apparitions.
He will be the fourth pontiff to visit
after Pope Paul VI marked the 50th anniversary in 1967, John Paul came three
times and Benedict XVI visited once, in 2010.
After becoming a nun, Lucia became the main raconteur of the
secrets. She died in 2005. In February of this year, Portuguese church officials
completed the first phase of her beatification cause by sending more than
15,000 pages of testimony and documentation to the for review. Vatican
WHAT WILL THE POPE DO IN FATIMA?
Francis arrives on Friday afternoon and meets privately with Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.
After a spin in his popemobile at
Fatima, he'll pray
at the chapel dedicated to the apparitions and send a greeting out to the
crowd, which is expected to number up to 1 million people.
On Saturday, Francis meets with Prime Minister Antonio Costa and visits the basilica built on the site where the children reported the first apparition. He'll celebrate the canonization Mass in the main square, lunch with his bishops, and return to
in the evening. Rome
Barry Hatton reported from
. Fatima, Portugal