Sunday, November 4, 2007

Celebration of the 90th Anniversary of Our Lady's Final Appearance at Fátima -- 13 October 2007

I can still see the endless procession of priests dressed all in white; I had never seen so many priests together in one place. They were of every shape, size, height, color, age, demeanor and apparent piety. They wore every type of vestment from the most plain, to the most ornate. Most were bare-headed, a few bald; others wore protective head covering to shield their eyes, head and/or neck from the fierce sunshine that day. As they moved north in two lines toward the the Basilica of the Rosary, the sun on their right, many held books, their hands or other articles aloft in an attempt to provide some shade. Most were singing. For the life of me, I cannot remember the songs. I don't think I sang; I was too busy taking pictures and trying to see all could see. I'm not even sure if I offer this as an excuse, an apology, a confession or a simple statement. But I do know I was so supremely happy to be there, so excited in fact, I remember wondering if this is what Eternal Processions would be like...just a little...except that we wouldn't have to be bothered with photographic equipment and we could focus on the angelic choir.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Since my return, I have started -- and discarded or even saved to 'draft' -- numerous paragraphs on this day of days. My family tells me to just start the middle if necessary. It seems good advice. It isn't a question of not wanting to write about the pilgrimage so much as how to do so and wanting to get it right. I had a boss once when I explained a similar difficulty in writing our base disaster preparedness plan who answered me, "Just do it. Don't worry, I'll tell you everything you do wrong!" He did. I trust you will do me the same honor. It really is an honor, when our fellow pilgrims on this earthly journey give us gentle corrections.

Nevertheless, I do know that He qualifies the called rather than the other way around, so I beg His mercy and forbearance in this task. I also ask you my brothers and sisters in faith to be patient with me, but also honest. If I get my facts wrong, please speak up! I will consider it a great compliment if you notice and correct any errors you may detect in my writing. That way we will all learn and benefit. Our group was in Fátima for a very short time and already the memories begin to fade.

My second disclaimer has to do with a physical limitation which is becoming increasingly problematic--my eyesight. Before I left on my trip, I knew I needed new glasses and not just a little. However, I thought my eyes had changed really fast and my glasses' lenses were badly scratched; I never dreamed it could be anything else. But a trip to the eye doc the day after I got back showed I have cataracts on both eyes--a pretty severe one on the left eye too. Surgery is scheduled for the 12th of November. That said, I'm currently typing everything at 150% and still missing mistakes. Perhaps I should delay the writing of this...except then some of my other liabilities might kick memory loss and procrastination! So best to press on while I still can. In any event, please bear these shortcomings in mind as you read this narrative.

The 13th of October 2007 dawned beautifully. Designer Weather is what I thought of calling it, if you'll forgive the pun: bright blue sky, sunny, light breeze, not too hot or too cold. Our guide, Gloria, told us that we were indeed blessed with the weather as it is usually cold and rainy on October the 13th in Fátima, as indeed it was on Mary's final appearance back in 1917.

Our group of pilgrims set out with our guide, just after breakfast, for the site of the procession and Mass -- a 5 minute walk from our hotel; a hotel, I might add, with rooms which did not include clocks, but did contain crucifixes.

You've probably all seen the pictures--at least I hope you have--(in videos or DVDs) of the statue of Our Lady being carried high on a bed of roses. A huge crowd of people gathered in front of a white cathedral with a single tall spire--with a broad sweep of numerous columns coming out from either side of the basilica, like welcoming arms, or so I've always thought. At night, the church is still radiant and the sight is especially beautiful with all the pilgrims' candles filling the colonnade with light.

When we arrived in the large open area (2) in front of the Basilica (3) it looked just like it does in pictures. (I have attached a map so as to be able to refer to specific places throughout my writing.) Sorry, perhaps, that sounds a bit naive, but important places and people--when you finally get to see them in real life--don't always live up to expectation; often they look differently than you thought they would, sometimes smaller or disappointingly disproportionate. All I can say is that the vast sweeping area in front of the Basilica where the crowd gathers, waits and hears Mass, looked exactly like I thought it would. I was not disappointed; I was enchanted--by the view in front of me. I shall save what I saw behind me for another time.

For reference sake, the Basilica faces south, and even though it was still early (Mass wasn't scheduled to begin until 10) the large "square" -- which was actually rectangular in shape -- was already filling up. We gathered round Gloria while she explained the basic story of Fátima. Where we were standing was the land known as the Cova de Iria, a spacious square twice as large as St. Peter's in Rome. The Basilica of the Rosary, as it is called, was begun in 1928 just after the apparitions were approved and received its title in 1954 from His Holiness, Pope Pius XII. It has fifteen altars corresponding to the fifteen decades of the Rosary in honor of Our Lady who here declared: "I am the Lady of the Rosary."

A side note. I asked our guide what title they gave to the special statue of Mary carried aloft through all the processions. I expected her to answer, 'Our Lady of Fátima', because that is how I -- as an outsider, a foreigner to Portugal -- had always thought of this particular statue of Mary. However, Gloria answered me, "We call her 'Our Lady of the Rosary' as she asked us to call her." That is not to be confused with another popular picture of Mary which many others more commonly associate with the title, 'Our Lady of the Rosary'. It is a picture of Mary with Jesus in her lap and Sts. Dominic and Catherine kneeling on either side of her. The same seems to be the case for the Basilica. Many people, travel brochures and other written documents refer to the holy church as the Basilica and/or Shrine of Our Lady of Fátima. No doubt this is for convenience' sake, but it is not, technically and spiritually speaking, correct. For the rest of this article, however, I shall simply refer to Our Lady as such, Our Lady. She goes by many titles, but she is His Mother and ours.

Since I don't want to assume anyone's knowledge or familiarity with the Fátima apparitions, here is a brief recapitulation of the history of the basic events from 1917 from the official website. A guided meditation to all the places we were able to visit -- and even a few we didn't get to -- can be found here.

After Gloria gave us a basic explanation of where we were standing, the day's events and the information we needed to proceed, we had our group photo taken. While these relatively brief events were taking place, the colonnade rapidly filled up. Whereas when we had arrived you could walk freely from one side to the other, now large blocks of people occupied areas on either side of two clearly marked lines which marked off a strip roughly wide enough for 3 or 4 cars.

I was still getting used to my under-the-clothes money carrier as this was my first real day of the trip. We had arrived in Lisbon airport yesterday and been whisked onto our bus, then to our hotel, where we had dinner, showered and dropped into bed exhausted after 2 days straight of traveling. So when I pulled the money carrier out to access something (an extra roll of film or lip balm) and I managed to spill part of the contents on the ground, I suppose it wasn't too surprising. I looked around quickly, found my room key, a credit card and a few coins. As I was about to leave, I felt a light touch on my arm. A young woman held out a fifty Euro note to me and gestured to the ground. She pointed to my waist and I understood immediately that I had also dropped the money, but because it was only paper, I hadn't heard it drop. It probably fluttered. She or her companions must have seen me drop the money when I spilled my waist purse.

It was a moment of Grace for me I can tell you. I only brought a little over 100 Euros on the entire trip. To have lost such a sum of money -- and on the first day -- would have put a serious damper on the rest of my trip. I was aghast. Here I was trying to be so careful--hiding my money under my clothes and what did I do, but throw it on the ground for trash?! I humbly and tearfully thanked her. I also said a prayer for her. Members of my group saw it and were all amazed at what happened. But when I thought about it some more, I wasn't so surprised--just deeply and profoundly grateful. God watches over fools and children and I am both. He touched me at that moment through the honesty and kindness of a stranger. It wouldn't be the last time on the trip. But the feeling that it was a grace-filled day seemed confirmed and I carried that sense with me the rest of the day.

At this point I realized I'd made a slight mistake in not getting myself some water; it was getting warm, crowded and my throat and mouth were already dry. And this wasn't the US of A with a vending machine around every corner, fast food or even water I could drink out of the faucet. I needed to find someplace that sold bottled water.

So I set off on my own in search of a place that sold water. I was swimming upstream at this point, as the crowds were all headed towards the Basilica and I was going back into Fátima village proper. I passed dozens of places that sold rosaries and other trinkets, but unlike American vendors, European stores are highly specialized. So a place that sells tourist items will not carry water. I needed to find a cafe, a grocery store or a kiosk. Unfortunately I didn't remember seeing any on the walk from out hotel. Time was running out. Could I find any water? Could I find my way back? Could I find my group again in this crowd? I felt panic begin inside me. Why had I set off on this fool's errand on my own? I found one cafe, but the lines stretched outside into the street. The outside tables were covered with uncleared dirty dishes. Not a good sign. I prayed, "Mary, I'm here! Help me find some water and make it back again to my group." Do not panic, cath. Remember where you are and who is watching over you. Think about the miraculous save you just had with your money.

On to another street. More rosary stores. Over to the street we had walked up from our hotel. Good! I wasn't lost! Aha! A kiosk! And! They had water! Success! I bought my water and nothing ever tasted so sweet! It wasn't even cold, but it was delicious.

I made it back in plenty of time. They were just beginning the rosary. The square was packed by now, yet the crowd had a gentle feel. Was it my imagination? No, I don't think it was. It was a quiet crowd, not silent by any means, but still soft and very different from any crowds I have ever experienced before or since. And it was a gentle crowd. I have had plenty of opportunities during subsequent days to experience crowds of a totally opposite manner and demeanor.

Later, the procession began. It began at the Chapel of Apparitions (1) -- at the very heart of the Sanctuary. This was the first edifice constructed in the Cova da Iria, at the place of Our Lady's Apparitions. The exact spot is marked by a marble pillar on which the Statue of Our Lady is placed. The procession proceeded south toward the other end of the 'square' and then made two left turns which brought the whole procession heading straight toward the Basilica. This also brings my story right back to where I began my article--with the parade of the priests.

Unfortunately, I was somewhat buried in the crowd and consequently do not have the best pictures--not that my camera or photographic abilities would have produced quality images even so. You will have to rely on my verbal descriptions, the poor photos I do have and your own spiritual imaginations to provide your mental pictures of the event--which may be for best anyway. There is at least one picture which I really like; the photo above shows the priests as they were arriving at the Basilica and also gives a perspective on the crowd. However, I was most blessed in getting a beautifully clear view of Our Lady as she passed by!

Since my return people have asked me about our Masses overseas. We went to Mass everyday and although almost 1/2 of our celebrations weren't in English, I did not find that to be the impediment I thought it might be. In fact, it was just the opposite. The Mass was all the more beautiful for experiencing its diversity as celebrated by different people in different countries. I loved hearing all the languages and trying to recognize the prayers. At Fátima, most of the Mass was in Portuguese with the Opening, Closing Prayers and the Gospel in multiple languages: French, Spanish, German, Polish, Russian and English at least. Those were just the languages I recognized. Some prayers, of course, were said and sung in Latin.

The distribution of Holy Communion had me puzzled and more than a little concerned. My husband, having a Logistics background, always talks about the difficulties inherent in getting an item, or a product, from Point A to Point B, so I've learned to look at big events with an eye to logistical problem-solving. It did seem well nigh impossible--despite the almost infinite number of priests--to distribute Communion to a crowd of these proportions. (Lest you think me a total heathen, I did not spend the entire Mass worrying about this problem.)

As I recall, most of my thoughts were thankful ones, simple gratitude to God for letting me be there! And I remembered to pull out my list of people who asked me to pray for them. There were also many private prayers of my own, especially of thanksgiving for all my many blessings. I kept coming back to that one cental thought, however, "I am here!" You cannot imagine how long I have wanted to come to Fátima--and to be there on this special day. It was a dream-come-true for me.

When it did come time for Holy Communion, a young priest seemed to appear out of nowhere almost right in front of us. People started to move en mass toward him. As this was my first experience of line-less Communion, I was horrified. (By the end of 2 weeks of this, I was more adept at milling forward.) How does one ever get there? And once there, how does one ever find ones way 'back'--wherever 'back' is? Since one doesn't have a pew or a seat nor can you leave anything you own to mark/designate your place on a piece of concrete, how does this work? It seemed a terribly muddled mess to me. You can probably tell by now that I like things to be organized and orderly. I spent 13 years in the military. This chaos seemed very...well...un-Catholic to me. I'm used to the way we do things at home. Everything has to be spelled out, written down, neat, orderly and precise. But of course, things don't have to be that way at all, do they? Not with God.

As it turned out, once I finally started to move forward, a man let me in and then when it came time to try to move back after receiving Our Lord, a lady held her hand out, in effect clearing a path for me. A lesson, I thought. Just get started, cath, and help will come!

After Mass was over, Linda and I went back to our room to wash our faces, eat a light lunch, put on more sunscreen (for me!) and head out for the rest of the day. I wanted to find the Confessionals to take advantage of the plenary indulgence which had been granted to pilgrims who also attended Mass and prayed the Rosary that day at Fátima. By the time we got there, the lines weren't very long. I got a very sweet Irish priest.

We walked around the Basilica, took pictures of the stations, observed the people throwing candles and other larger objects into the fire pit, which is just to the left of the capelinha (chapel) as you face it. Then we moved up the hill to visit the new church which I want write about in another reflection. We took many more pictures, saw as much as we possibly could, then raced back to do some quick shopping, have dinner and return for the evening's candlelight rosary and procession.

The evening rosary was conducted in a similiar format as was the daytime rosary with different languages being used for each 1/2 decade. Linda was prepared this time as she had purchased a chair during our shopping excursion. The hundreds, perhaps thousands, of candles lit up the entire square bright enough for pictures even with my camera. When Our Lady made her appearance the crowd cheered and everyone grabbed their camp stools and whatever and joined the more informal procession up the opposite side of the colonnade from the morning's; then again back down the center. It was an awesome sight!

Eventually Linda and I couldn't keep our eyes open and had to call it a day.

All in all, a most memorable and full day--a day I will never forget. Thanks be to God!

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