My Pilgrimage to Fátima
Last week I had the incredible opportunity to go on a Pilgrimage trip to Fátima in Portugal. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima is one of the world’s largest Catholic pilgrimage sites, attracting between 4 and 5 million visitors every year. Between 13th May and 13th October in 1917, three shepherd children witnessed six apparitions of the Virgin Mary, she gave various messages and predictions about the future. During the last of these apparitions, around 50,000 people witnessed the sun moving around in the sky in a way, which defied the laws of cosmology.
For a while now I have felt a very special bond with Mary. My love grew for her after visiting Lourdes last September. I now lean on her on a daily basis, her strong faith and humility are something we can all learn from. So, as you can imagine I was really looking forward to spending 4 days in this special place.
We set off from Gibraltar on Friday 10th May at 1am. It was great to see some familiar faces from the last pilgrimage trip that we went on to Lourdes. I was excited and could not wait to arrive. However, we had a long journey ahead of us via coach, which was going to take approximately 12 hours. I was dreading sitting down for so long but with a few stops and a little sleep, all in all it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.
When we finally arrived, my first impression was “Wow what a massive empty space!” With the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary on one side of the square and across from there the Basilica of the Holy Trinity. In between a huge empty space. I could in no way have imagined how this was going to look in a couple of days time – full of thousands of people.
That afternoon we picked out some flowers in preparation for the next day to lay by Mary during the Stations of the Cross. We also went down to the Sanctuary to light some candles. Luckily we did this early on during our visit as when we saw the queues for the candles a few days later they were unbelievable.
The next morning we were up bright and early to go and do the Stations of the Cross. I have done the Stations quite a few times now, however, I have never lived it like I did here in Fátima. The setting was perfect, a path going up surrounded by beautiful trees, plenty of greens and the birds singing in the background. Although we were in the group, I found myself wanting to be alone during this walk. I felt like I was going to walk a mile in Jesus’ shoes and all I could think about was the pain that Mary had gone through watching her son go through it all, her baby boy.
During one of the stations I was asked if I wanted to hold the cross, without hesitation I said yes. When the cross was handed over to me I first noticed how heavy it actually was and it was only a tiny one compared to the cross that Jesus would have carried. So many things came to my mind during those few minutes. I felt like Jesus was asking me directly… who do you want to be? Like Pilate? Like Simon? Like Mary? He was looking at me and asking me “do you want to help me carry the Cross?” I answered him and said that I wanted to help him.
I could feel myself getting closer to him as my arms started to ache and shake from the weight of the physical cross I was carrying. I knew that he wasn’t ever going to give me more than I could handle and I fully trusted him. We were helping each other carry the cross and it was beautiful. During the rest of the stations I prayed and reflected on the suffering and challenges that both Jesus and Mary endured. I felt connected to them in a way I never have done before, it was very emotional. When we got to the end I felt a sense of relief, a sense of peace. Some of the doubts I had had in my mind before had been cleared up. A bit like I had been part of a spring cleaning session!
Emotionally exhausted from The Stations of the Cross we now had a few hours to spend in Aljustrel; a small village where the children were from. We took a stroll, saw some of the local shops had a nice cool drink and headed back to the hotel for lunch. The rest of the afternoon we had some free time. We went up to the room and had a little siesta before heading back out in the evening to pray the Rosary down at the Sanctuary. It was lovely praying the Rosary with so many people (turns out this was still a quiet night compared to what was coming) lighting the candles and singing to Our Holy Mother.
Sunday morning we were up and out, straight to mass to get a good spot. I’m going to give a bit of background information here…. On this trip I had an absolute stinking cold. I had been to the doctors before leaving and had a bad chest infection, was on antibiotics and also had an inhaler to help. On the Saturday night I had a massive coughing fit to the point that our hotel next door neighbours heard me cough my guts up. The next morning that lovely lady whom I like to call my Tita insisted that I put Vicks on my feet right away to help with this horrid cough. So like a good girl, I did! When we got to the mass early on the Sunday morning I didn’t think of the consequences of having Vicks on my feet, whilst wearing my socks and trainers in the 30 degree heat! Needless to say I was a little distracted during the mass due to the burning flames on my feet. I still laugh now thinking about it! Despite all of this it was still a beautiful mass.
That evening was the big procession. We headed down to the Sanctuary in time to pray the rosary beforehand. It turned out that we got there far too late and we were really far back in a position that we could barely see anything. Even so, we were happy to all be sitting together and it was a lovely rosary with thousands and thousands of people. I was a little worried of all the open flames, and rightly so as I accidentally put my candle out with my hair! Another great giggly moment during our trip. The smell of burning hair still scares me!
Once the procession started, we all stood up to try and get a better view. I was called over to get up on a stool to see if I could get a better view. You know those moments in life where it feels like someone has hit the slow motion button? Well this was one of those moments. When I positioned my feet safely and raised my head that was when someone hit that button. For seconds everything went quiet and all stood still. I didn’t expect to see so many people. I was genuinely stunned. To see thousands and thousands of candles being held up whilst singing to Our Mother was more than breathtaking. I managed to stay up there for a few seconds more and had to get back down because my legs were shaking! An unforgettable night in Fátima.
You might be thinking, why is this post called “The Army of Love”? Well the next day was our final full day in Fátima. That morning was the big 13th May mass to celebrate the occasion of the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima. We got there nice and early and set up with our stools and umbrellas for sunshade! We were in for a very long hot morning down at the sanctuary but I was really looking forward to this beautiful mass. We were there for about 4 hours in total, which actually felt like half an hour. The time just flew by. One of my favourite moments was watching the procession of the flags go by. Hundreds and hundreds of flags from all around the world all in unity is was lovely to see.
During the mass itself, I had a very special moment that I will never forget. The choir was in full force, I put my head down and closed my eyes. All I could hear were the angels singing in the distance…. I lifted my head and I was all alone. I was sat in the same spot but there was no-one around me. The bright sun was shining on the empty sanctuary making everything look so wonderfully bright. I looked into the distance to the alter and there they were. Jesus standing right in the middle with his arms wide open, Mary on the right and Our Father standing behind them both looking onto them. I looked at them and they looked at me. My heart was bursting with intense love.
Shortly afterwards, it was time for holy communion and that’s where “The Army of Love” comes into place. There were hundreds of priests and Eucharistic ministers spreading out to give out communion. Watching them march into their locations made me think how they were serving God and spreading God’s Love. They looked like an army as the all headed back to the alter. And that’s when the phrase “The Army of Love” came to me. As the mass concluded I was in awe at how beautiful it all was. It made me reflect on my life and think about the challenges of being a Christian in the world we live in today.
This pilgrimage to Fátima has made me realise that Mary is the perfect disciple, the role model for each and every one of us. She is the ultimate example of letting go and letting God’s will take over. I have nothing but admiration, respect, and overwhelming love for Our Holy Mother. I can wholeheartedly say I have fallen in love with Fátima. It was everything I expected and so much more and I look forward to returning in the future.
I’m going to leave you with one of my favourite photos from the trip. This was taken on the final morning before leaving. We headed down to the Sanctuary straight after breakfast, manage to go to confession and then say goodbye to La Mama. As we were walking across the square this was the image we were left with…..