FATIMA, Portugal -- This is Mary country, even long before the mother of Jesus Christ first appeared to three shepherd children May 13, 1917, calling for peace in a war-torn world.
A 12th-century legend from the nearby Atlantic coastal fishing village of Nazare tells that a knight on horseback was pursuing a stag on a foggy day. The knight could see neither the edge of the promontory above Nazare nor the sea below. Suddenly he realized the deer had disappeared -- over the precipice. Seeing that he was about to plummet to his death, the knight prayed to Our Lady of Nazare (the Virgin Mary), and the horse stopped in its tracks. In grateful thanks to Our Lady, the knight built a chapel on the spot.
"So the devotion to Our Lady of Nazare is quite big in the area," says Luisa Gomes of Lisbon, a Portuguese tour guide.
But that piety doesn't come close to the reverence displayed at Fatima.
Just north of a mountain where limestone is quarried in this land of citrus, olive and almond trees and vinho verde wine, the Roman Catholic Church has created a shrine to Our Lady of Fatima that attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year. On reaching the limestone plaza in front of the Basilica of Cova da Iria, some show their fervor by walking on their knees.
Two retired Maryland couples, Helen and Jerry Carpenter and Maryann and Gene Marshall, of Bel Air, did not travel on their knees to attend Ash Wednesday Mass in the Chapel of the Apparitions -- built on the site where the children said Mary appeared.
Gene Marshall, a Catholic convert, was drawn to the shrine to offer special intentions for the sick in their community.
His wife's attraction went beyond seeking medical cures. "Here it's a spiritual healing," she says. "And we have friends that need spiritual healing, more right now than probably physical healing."
The more popular times for pilgrims to visit Fatima, named for a 12th-century Moorish princess, are the 13th of May, June, July, September and October. It was on those days in 1917 that Lucia dos Santos, 10, and her cousins Francisco, 8, and Jacinta Marto, 7, said that Mary appeared to them as they tended sheep. On Aug. 13, 1917, the children were in the custody of local authorities, and they next described an apparition on the 19th about a mile away at Valinhos.
World War I was raging that May day when Mary initially appeared. The shepherd children were amusing themselves after praying the rosary. Suddenly they saw a brilliant light, which they took to be lightning, and decided to go home. But another light appeared and they said they saw on top of a holm oak tree "a Lady more brilliant than the sun."
"Our Lady asked them to pray, to pray every day because the world needs peace," says Gomes, the tour guide. "She told them, 'We have to pray for the sinners.' "
Mary -- who conversed only with Lucia -- invited the children to return at that hour on the 13th day of the next five months.
This was a period of transition for Portugal from monarchy to republic. One of the first acts of the new government in 1910 had been to suppress religious congregations and expel the Jesuits. It was no time for talk of visions of Mary, even in a country whose population had been 98 percent Catholic.
The children's parents, Gomes says, were afraid of the community's reaction and the possible response of the authorities. They told the three to stop inventing stories.
Instead, Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta prayed each day in secret and faithfully returned to the site June 13. "Our Lady comes again, and she tells them to be patient," Gomes says, "that they will have to suffer because people will have some doubts about what they say. But not to worry, they should pray because the world needs people that believe and that have faith."
Local authorities took the children into custody Aug. 13 and ordered them to prove what they had seen. Unable to produce evidence, the children spent three days in jail. The next appearance was delayed to Aug. 19, when Mary promised an October miracle.
On a rainy Oct. 13, the children's story attracted 70,000 people to the site. There are various descriptions of what they saw, but witnesses say the sky suddenly cleared. Lucia announced Mary's presence with, "Look at the sun." The vision became known as Miracle of the Sun.
An official account reports, "The sun, resembling a silver disc, could be gazed at without difficulty and, whirling on itself like a wheel of fire, it seemed about to fall upon the earth."
The bishop of Leiria, in his pastoral letter on the apparitions, writes: "This phenomenon, which was not registered in any astronomical observatory, and could not, therefore, have been of natural origin, was witnessed by people of every category and class, by believers as well as unbelievers, journalists of the principal daily papers and even by people kilometres away, a fact which destroys any theory of collective hallucination."
The Vatican approved as authentic the miracles of Fatima in 1930, an acceptance Francisco and Jacinta did not live to see: He died April 4, 1919, and she died Feb. 20, 1920, after illnesses. They were buried side by side in the Fatima parish cemetery but in the early 1950s were interred in the basilica, Francisco's tomb on the east side of the sanctuary and Jacinta's on the west. A place is reserved for Lucia beside Jacinta.
Sister Maria Lucia, living a cloistered life as a nun in the Carmelite convent in Coimbra, about an hour's drive north of Fatima, will turn 92 tomorrow. Mary is said to have given Lucia three letters foretelling the future. Known as the Three Secrets of Fatima, they are locked in Vatican vaults.
The first secret has been documented as prophecies of World War II, the rise of communism and the eventual triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The second is the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart. The third has not officially been revealed.
Sister Maria Irene, who also lives in the nondescript convent not far from Coimbra University, says through a Portuguese interpreter that Sister Lucia is in good health. "The big problem for Lucia is she's getting old. Except for the problem with age, everything is OK," she says with a smile.
Only those with authorization from the pope are allowed to visit Lucia. The exceptions are her family, the archbishop of Leiria and a Fatima priest.
Pope John Paul II visited the Fatima shrine in 1982 and 1991 -- on the first and 10th-year anniversaries of an attempt to assassinate him May 13, 1981. Sister Lucia made rare public appearances with him both times.
In 1989 the pope approved an official recommendation recognizing the "heroic virtues" of Jacinta and Francisco, paving the way for their beatification.
John Paul has been invited to Portugal this year, Gomes says, in the hope he will someday consider the canonization of the siblings. It is a process Lucia is certain to go through, but it is not the practice of the Catholic Church to beatify people who are still living.
Pub Date: 3/21/99