WYD 2023: At Fatima, piety and politics

WYD 2023: At Fatima, piety and politics

They walked for four hours to reach the shrine. Leaving at dawn from the small town of Caranguejeira, 17 kilometers away, around a hundred young people from the diocese of Albi (Tarn) went to Fatima, a few days before the start of WYD in Portugal, on the 1st august. One step after another, the little troop, recognizable by their hats and colorful T-shirts, had plenty of time to listen to the volunteer who accompanies them tell them the story of this high place of spirituality, where every year nearly 6 million pilgrims. A unique story of piety and politics.

It all began on May 13, 1917. Taken in the turmoil of the First World War, Europe was on fire and bloodshed. Portugal, then an anti-clerical republic, is facing a major crisis coupled with rampant poverty. In the rocky valley of Cova da Iria, near Fatima, three young shepherds – Lucia, 10, and her cousins ​​Francisco and Jacinta, 9 and 7 – say they saw the Virgin, “all dressed in white”. The Mother of God is said to have appeared to them six times, notably on July 13, when she gave them three messages to keep secret: an evocation of hell, the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and an allegorical vision, in which a “white bishop” is shot and killed by soldiers on top of a mountain. The news is spreading, even beyond the region. The local clergy speaks of confabulation… But the Portuguese Church is annoyed. What could it be? The news then takes a political turn: the children are locked up for two days in the public prison; we try to make them talk, in vain. In Fatima, visitors kept coming, reaching 70,000 people during the final meeting between the children and the Virgin, on October 13, 1917. The Catholic Church finally officially recognized the apparitions in 1930.

A particular magnetism

The immensity of the place, this is what first strikes the young French people from WYD who arrived that day at the foot of the sanctuary. “I imagined something more modest, like the way of life that must have been that of the child shepherds”, slips Gabriel. Faced with this esplanade that can accommodate 300,000 people, the 17-year-old teenager feels very small. Kneeling on the burning asphalt, pilgrims walk the hundreds of meters of the forecourt leading to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, not far from the candlestick from which continuous billows of smoke escape. A magnetism emanates from this special place, where spirituality and politics have been intertwined for so long.

In 1932, six years after the coup establishing military rule, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar took over the country as Prime Minister. To establish his power, which he would exercise until 1968, this fervent Catholic relied on the Marian shrine, helped by Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira, the Cardinal-Patriarch of Lisbon.

In August 1941, Lucia, the only survivor, had to report the secrets of Fatima in writing at the request of the bishop of Leira (diocese to which the sanctuary belongs) and Bishop Cerejeira. She reveals the first two secrets, including the “consecration of Russia” to her Immaculate Heart. A consecration to be placed in the context in which the message was transmitted, that of 1917. At the time, Europe was experiencing the horrors of war. On its eastern flank, the Bolsheviks took power and installed a communist regime. “The second secret of Fatima makes Russia the symbol of all the systems that want to drive out God”, explains Father José Nuno Silva, the chaplain of the sanctuary.

“Guide to Freedom”

From the Cold War, the Fatima sanctuary became an inspiring reference for anti-communist movements. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, a Portuguese expatriate in Germany donated a portion of the Berlin Wall to the sanctuary. It sits today on the right of the esplanade, neither hidden nor really highlighted. The approximately 2.5 meter concrete block is accompanied by a message from Pope John Paul II: “thank you for leading the people to freedom.” “This fragment of wall symbolizes a historic crisis but it also represents a place of consolation for the victims of communism”, analyzes Father Silva, following with his gaze the pilgrims who pose in front of the monument.

Among the young French people who came for the WYD, this testimony to the past nevertheless arouses contrasting reactions. Aubin appreciates this tribute to freedom, in a sanctuary which represents, in his eyes, “both peace and hope”, while Clara considers this incursion of politics into a sacred place to be out of place. “Berlin Wall pieces, we see them everywhere, there are even some in a shopping center in Montreal!”

However, Fatima still hasn’t finished linking her destiny to the upheavals of the world. A month after the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Pope Francis consecrated the two warring countries to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in front of a statue of Our Lady of Fatima in the Vatican. The shrine, meanwhile, donated a reproduction of its Virgin Mary statue to the city of Lviv, Ukraine. The local archbishop had asked him to do so… to help his country overcome the ordeal.

In Portugal, a declining practice

With its 81% Catholics, Portugal is considered a model pupil in a Christian Europe in decline. However, another reality is quietly settling in this Portuguese-speaking country of 10 million inhabitants. He too is hardly immune to the decline in religious practice. According to a report on religious identities in the metropolis of Lisbon, published in 2018, only 55% of Lisbon residents declare themselves to be Catholic. And among them, 23.8% of the inhabitants have stopped practicing. If Catholicism remains a strong cultural identity in Portugal, “the reproduction of religious positions” is not guaranteed, details the survey. Reigniting the fervor among Portuguese believers is a challenge for these World Youth Days 2023!

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