"On May 13, 1917, ten year old Lúcia and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco were herding sheep at a location known as the Cova da Iria near their home village of Fátima, Portugal. Lúcia described seeing a woman "brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal ball filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun." Further appearances were reported to have taken place on the thirteenth day of the month in June and July. In these, the woman asked the children to do penance and Acts of Reparation as well as making personal sacrifices to save sinners. According to Lúcia's account, in the course of her appearances, the woman confided to the children three secrets, now known as the Three Secrets of Fátima.
Thousands of people flocked to Fátima in the following months, drawn by reports of visions and miracles. On August 19, 1917, the provincial administrator, believing that the events were politically disruptive, intercepted and jailed the children before they could reach the site that day. Prisoners held with them in the provincial jail later testified that the children, while upset, were first consoled by the inmates, and later led them in praying the rosary. The administrator interrogated the children and tried unsuccessfully to get them to divulge the contents of the secrets. In the process, he threatened the children, saying he would boil them in a pot of oil, one by one unless they confessed. The children refused, but Lúcia told him everything short of the secrets, and offered to ask the Lady for permission to tell the Administrator the secrets.
As early as July 1917 it was claimed that the Virgin Mary had promised a miracle for the last of her apparitions on October 13, so that all would believe. What happened then became known as "Miracle of the Sun". A crowd believed to number approximately 70,000, including newspaper reporters and photographers, gathered at the Cova da Iria. The incessant rain had finally ceased and a thin layer of clouds cloaked the silver disc of the sun. Witnesses said later it could be looked upon without hurting the eyes. Witnesses later spoke of the sun appearing to change colors and rotate like a wheel. Not everyone saw the same things, and witnesses gave widely varying descriptions of the "sun's dance". The phenomenon is claimed to have been witnessed by most people in the crowd as well as people many miles away.
In addition to the Miracle of the Sun, the seers at Fátima indicated that the apparition prophesied a great sign in the night sky which would precede a second great war. On January 25, 1938, bright lights, an aurora borealis appeared all over the northern hemisphere, including in places as far south as North Africa, Bermuda and California. It was the widest occurrence of the aurora since 1709 and people in Paris and elsewhere believed a great fire was burning and fire departments were called. Lúcia, the sole surviving seer at the time, indicated that it was the sign foretold and so apprised her superior and the bishop in letters the following day. Just over a month later, Hitler seized Austria and eight months later invaded Czechoslovakia.
Lúcia died on February 13, 2005, at the age of 97. Her cousins, the siblings Francisco and Jacinta, were both victims of the Great Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918-20. Francisco and Jacinta were declared venerable by Pope John Paul II in a public ceremony at Fátima on May 13, 1989. He returned there on May 13, 2000 to declare them 'blessed'. Jacinta is the youngest non-martyred child ever to be beatified.
An estimated 70,000 people assembled to witness the last of the promised appearances of the Lady in the Cova da Iria on October 13, 1917. The widely reported miracle of the sun was a factor that led to Fátima quickly becoming a major centre of pilgrimage. Two million pilgrims visited the site in the decade following the events of 1917. A small chapel - the Capelinha - was built by local people on the site of the apparitions. The construction was neither encouraged nor hindered by the Catholic Church authorities. On May 13, 1920, pilgrims defied government troops to install a statue of the Virgin Mary in the chapel, and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was first officially celebrated there in January 1924. A hostel for the sick was begun in that year. In 1927 the first rector of the sanctuary was appointed and a set of Stations of the Cross were erected on the mountain road. The foundation stone for the present basilica was laid the next year.
1930 was the year both of official church recognition of the apparition events as "worthy of belief" and the granting of a papal indulgence to pilgrims visiting Fátima. Today pilgrimage to the site goes on all year round and additional chapels, hospitals and other facilities have been constructed. The principal pilgrimage festivals take place on the thirteenth day of each month, from May to October, on the anniversaries of the original appearances. The largest crowds gather on 13 May and 13 October, when up to a million pilgrims have attended to pray and witness processions of the statue of Our Lady of Fátima, both during the day and by the light of tens of thousands of candles at night."
I did my first pilgrimage to Fátima this weekend. The pilgrimage was made on foot, under the hot sun and partly during the night. The distance from my home is only 42 miles (most people make over 160) but it was nonetheless a sacrifice, a test to my phisical and emotional stamina. When I arrived, my muscles were sore, I had two blisters on one of my feet, but I was happy because I had made it. During mass, I prayed for my family, my friends, and also for all the people, mostly volunteers, who helped me get there, offering me water, food, or simply a kind word of encouragement. And I decided that I will go again next year.