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Finding myself in Fatima

The ride to Fatima was a pleasant one and without issue. I’ve become a pro at the Lisbon bus depot — even considering that one time, when I had to use my international phone minutes to call my taxi driver, only to learn that the ‘pick up’ spot was about 20 feet away from me but around a corner, so I was walking around blindly saying, “I’m here.” and him saying, “No, you’re not.” But, that, was a different day and a different journey.

The small town of Fatima is likely not on the bucket list of many non-religious travelers. However, as a Catholic, I was looking forward to visiting a place where the Virgin Mary had appeared. Back in 1917, she made six apparitions to three children, encouraging them to pray the rosary daily to obtain peace and end the Great War.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Years ago — decades actually, I had visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I remember it as a bustling place filled with pilgrim tourists. It’s located in the northern part of Mexico City, a sprawling metropolis. Fatima, in contrast, is a rural town with a population of about 12,000. As the bus approached the Fatima station, we passed dozens of shopfronts selling religious artifacts. As I de-boarded and walked to my hotel, I passed 20 more religious shops. Clearly, this town had one main export.

My great-aunt had visited Fatima in the 70s. As a souvenir for my father, she gave him a guidebook and rosary. When my dad learned that I would be going to Fatima, he found the guidebook and a retro tour badge with my aunt’s name. Once in Fatima, myself, I looked around the town through my aunt’s eyes from the 70s wondering what her experience had been and how things had changed.

The area around the shrine is immense. A traditional basilica sits on one end of a large, paved square. On the other end is a modern basilica. Both are enormous in scale. Near the modern basilica is an artistic statue of the crucifixion, bold in its starkness. By the old basilica is the actual shrine, a structure the size of a small church. It’s partially open like a street cafe with wide-open windows. (I assume the reason for this is to allow visitors to spill into the square while keeping the pews and altar protected.)

I meandered past the shrine and into the antique basilica. I’ve had plenty on my mind, even while trying to be a carefree wanderer. I sat on the steps outside the church and looked out at the enormity of the square. How many others had sat in this same spot, or stood out in the crowd looking up at this church, with heavy hearts, tired minds, and spent souls? I prayed a bit and wanted to take a photo so I could remember the moment in the future. Upon framing my selfie, I saw someone looking over my shoulder. Two someones. Actually, two somethings. Large angel statues were above me and I suddenly felt at peace. I once had a palm reader (yeah, I’m not your typical Catholic) tell me that I was special because most people have one guardian angel but I have two. I wonder if the palm reader had envisioned me there on the steps of the Fatima basilica with my two gargantuan guardian angels overhead. I smiled contentedly to myself and carried on with my exploration.

Services are held throughout the day at the old basilica, the new basilica, and the shrine. I wanted to soak up as many of those experiences as possible so I attended Portuguese Mass in the basement of the new basilica. If you squint your eyes you’d have thought you were in any church basement anywhere in the world. But the congregation was different. So many nuns, sisters, priests, brothers, and other committed religious folks. Tourists from many different countries and a number of individuals with visible ailments plus many more of us with hidden scars. Although I don’t speak Portuguese, and couldn’t follow the exact prayers or sermon, the effect of so many gathered together in prayer made me teary-eyed. I looked around and noticed everyone else had similar furrowed brows and faces fixated on some agony in their life. We were all praying so hard. Suddenly, I thought, “Y’all, we gotta smile. God has got this. Our Mother is here and she hears us. We good.” I left mass feeling spiritually refreshed.

Alongside the shrine is an area for velas — candles. People dedicate the candles in memory of answered prayers, as the representation of requested aid, or for any other reason. The candles come in a wide variety of sizes. I saw one woman with a 5-foot-tall candle and another with a squatty votive candle. I gathered my loose change of small euros and bought a random collection of candles that my coins afforded. I keep a prayer list on my phone so opened it up and reflected on each person while my candles blazed. Afterward, I took about 15 photos of the candle area. The candles melt all over each other like puppies huddled in sleep. However, my phone chose to delete most of them without my authorization. Harumph. But, I suspect God didn’t need the photos to hear my prayers. And, it did keep the most impressive photo of a large flame blasting up from the gas pipes, below.

While I’ve had a fair amount of luck finding vegetarian food in Portugal, Fatima was to be a different story. Everything on Google Maps was seafood. Every. Thing. I expanded my search radius and finally found a pizza restaurant. It was a bit of a walk but given my recent multi-mile adventures, I figured I was up to the task. What I hadn’t considered was that it would be a long walk along small-town neighborhood roads. I finally reached my destination around 6pm. I slowed as I approached and saw empty seats through the windows. I wondered if it was actually open when I remembered most locals don’t eat until at least 7:30 or 8pm. A woman noticed me at the door and welcomed me in for a terrifically delicious dinner including complimentary olives and integral (wheat) bread plus cheese spread, sardine pate, and salted butter. Yes, I skipped the sardines. The mixed salad was actually mixed greens and not just mixed sizes of wilted iceberg lettuce, and the dressing was tasty. The wine was good and plentiful — $5 for a half bottle! And then, the pizza was downright delectable.

Night had fallen and I attempted to order a taxi to take me back to the shrine for the evening rosary service. However, in small Fatima, no taxis were available on my app, TaxiVuelo. I decided it would take a really bad person to kidnap someone in such a holy city, so headed back on foot and made it without incident.

Seeing the basilicas and shrine at night was like seeing them for the first time. They were marvelous and their scale seemed somehow magnified by the moonlight. I wandered a bit before finding my place in the inside-outside shrine. The evening service I was attending is called the “International Rosary” which I assumed meant it would either be said in Latin or English. It turned out to be both, along with other languages. The Rosary consists of five sets of ten Hail Mary prayers. At the conclusion of each set, two other prayers are said. The International Rosary meant that each of these set points was an opportunity for a pilgrim from a different country to use their native tongue. For instance, a German tourist said one of the transitions, and then a French tourist. It was a culturally cool experience but left me wanting, spiritually. I decided to be spunky and do prayer ‘my way,’ excused myself from the shrine, stepped out to the paved path where folks approach the old basilica on their knees, and popped in my earbuds to pray the English Rosary. It was the spiritual equivalent of a warm, cozy blanket.

I slept well that night and had planned to ‘take in’ another Mass and Rosary service in the morning. But, after the previous evening’s experience, I decided to walk the Path of the Portiquenos, instead. It’s on the outskirts of town, in other words, a 15-minute walk away, and is where several of the Fatima apparitions occurred. There’s a paved path among olive trees with Stations of the Cross along the way. Traditionally, there are 14 stations that chronicle the day of Jesus’ death. However, here in Fatima, there is a 15th station that recognizes the resurrection of Jesus. Just a little Catholic trivia nugget. You’re welcome.

Again, I certainly wouldn’t expect a non-religious person to find Fatima all that thrilling. But, for me, it was a special place, indeed. It’s also the last of my solo journeys on this particular trip. Up next? Carolyn in Porto!

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