PILGRIMAGE: Fátima, Portugal—Dealing With The Real by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Fátima, Portugal—Dealing With The Real by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

The train south from Coimbra, Portugal, to Fátima is a real “local,” calling at every little village.  We arrive fifty-five minutes late at the station marked “Fátima.”  That’s when I find out that the railroad station is called “Fátima” not because it’s located in or anywhere near the town of that name, but because it’s as close as you can get by train.  I soon learn that I still have another twenty-some miles to go, and that the only practical way is by taxi for the flat rate of $20 one-way.

The ride along winding roads through the rugged mountain country of central Portugal finally brings me to the real Fátima; as he drops me off, the friendly taxi driver points me toward a wide sidewalk that cuts between two large buildings.  Two minutes later I’m standing in a vast plaza that is awash with warm spring sunlight.  Off to my right, the basilica, begun in 1928, extends its huge semicircular porticoes like welcoming arms to embrace Mary’s visitors who come to her shrine from all parts of the world.  I immediately climb the stairs and walk slowly into the great church.  The interior is surprisingly bright, thanks to the light-colored stone of its walls.  I walk around for a few minutes, then sit and pray for a few more.

As I step back out into the fresh spring sunshine, a wide expanse of empty pavement spreads downhill before me like a great gray meadow, awaiting the return of the huge throngs of summer pilgrims.

Today, respectful visitors are sprinkled in small handfuls around the plaza, strolling slowly in different directions as they enjoy the first real taste of spring.  The atmosphere is serene – there is an unmistakable air of prayerfulness and peace.

I set off down the stairs and across the immense plaza toward a modern concrete-and-glass canopy, open on three sides.  I walk in under the roof and sit on one of the wooden pews arranged in a horseshoe around a square area bounded by a wooden railing.  Inside this sanctuary stands a short pillar of white marble that supports a statue of Our Lady of Fátima.

This is the true hub of Fátima, the focal point for four million visitors a year, because it marks the exact location of the bush on which stood the “lady more brilliant than the sun” that May afternoon in 1917.  The little bush has long ago been reverently pulled to pieces by eager hands.

As the miraculous appearances continued through the summer of 1917, more and more people came to wait with little ten-year-old Lucia and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta.  At the final apparition, on October 13, 1917, about 70,000 people were here in the Cova da Iria to see what would happen.  The Lady appeared as promised, and told the children that she was the “The Lady of the Rosary.”  She asked that a chapel be built here in her honor.  At the end of the apparition, everyone present saw the miracle that Our Lady had promised the children: “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.”

Well, those first visitors are gone, and of the three children only Lucia, now a Carmelite nun in a convent in Coimbra, is still alive.  The meadow of the Cova da Iria has changed beyond recognition.  But behind the large canopy where I’m sitting, you can still see the oak tree under which the children used to pray the rosary while waiting for the promised appearances on the thirteenth of each month.  The other authentic reminder of the great events of 1917 stands in front of me in the sanctuary, a few feet behind the statue.  It is a little country chapel, a tiny oratory that looks as if it might seat about eighteen people.  The Lady had commanded that a church be built here in her honor, and this white chapel was the answer to her request.

A constant stream of visitors flows in and out under the canopy.  Parents with tiny children in tow come to pray the rosary; a few older people, stooped under the weight of cares and years, just sit in quiet meditation.  I’ve got plenty of company as I pray a rosary for my long list of relatives and friends.

I sit gazing at the whitewashed chapel.  It is awfully modest.  Could this possibly be what Mary had in mind when she asked that a church be built in her honor?  They must have misunderstood.  She must have meant “Build me a magnificent marble basilica glowing with gold and precious stones.”

A whole busload of pilgrims from Italy surges in to kneel near the statue in front of the chapel, but the silence remains unbroken.  I start to pray the First Joyful Mystery of the rosary, “The Annunciation,” meditating on the scene in Luke’s gospel in which Mary is asked to become the mother of the Messiah, to carry the Son of God in her womb.

A leaflet on the bench in front of me catches my eye.  Along the bottom in large type are Our Lady of Fátima’s words in English, “Build me a church!”  I begin to think that maybe God asks the same of each of us: “Make yourself into a dwelling place for me.”  So, I’m supposed to be, like Mary, a holy sanctuary, and abode of the Divine?

Immediately, I start mumbling excuses, trying to get out of the assignment: I have nothing to build with.  I don’t have any heroic virtues or remarkable abilities.  In fact, I have a few pretty glaring faults.  You can’t build a basilica with what I’ve got to offer – just look at me!  All I can bring to the project are things like my short temper, my big ego, and my distractions at prayer.  Imperfections and struggles aren’t fit materials for building a dwelling place for God.

I look up and gaze more closely at the simple chapel in front of me, the first one built in response to Our Lady’s request for a church.  You can’t really call it a church compared with the great buildings I’ve seen in my travels.  To be perfectly frank, it’s actually just one of those humble, rustic oratories you find all over the European countryside.

But then, Mary of Nazareth was a country girl from a small village herself.  When she asked the poor farmers around the Cova da Iria to make her a church, she must have known that they couldn’t afford anything big or showy, no stained glass or Italian marble.  The local people understood her request perfectly and they build her church with what they had at hand – local stone, wood from the forest, and sand from the river.  This little oratory is exactly what Our Lady of Fátima had in mind.

In my own struggle to become a sanctuary for God to dwell in, the plain white chapel of Fátima’s farmers has a comforting message for me: build your church with what you’ve got!  Don’t mourn the fact that you have no marble or silver or stained glass, but give God what you have at hand – your everyday life, with all its limitations and failings.  I think of what Benedict, with his down-to-Earth wisdom, might say.  “Of course you have distractions during prayer, but you just keep praying anyway.  Of course you sometimes lose your temper with your kids, but you keep on guiding and loving them anyway.  Of course your daily work isn’t always done as thoroughly as it should be, but you keep working anyway.”

The last bead of my rosary slides between my fingers.  The end of the Fifth Joyful Mystery, “The Finding of Jesus in the Temple.”  I glance at my watch and realize that it’s almost time to find a taxi for the return ride to the station.  I take a last look at the chapel, then walk out onto the wide sunlit plaza.  Up to my left looms the great basilica with its impressive colonnades.  I think of Mary’s request, “Build me a church!”

I try to picture the church that I’m supposed to be building with my life, given what I’ve got to work with.  It’s not exactly a basilica.  In fact, it looks a lot like, well, that little white chapel behind me.


On our journey with Christ into our deepest self, we discover our shortcomings and faults.  These turn out to be the building blocks of our spiritual life.  How has God used an imperfection of yours to draw closer to you in love?  How has the Lord used your brokenness to help you see your need for God?  How has God used your own weakness to help you appreciate how much God cares for you?

Think of some particular imperfection of yours, maybe one that really bothers you; ask God to show you how you are to use that imperfection to build a temple for the Lord.

Sacred Scripture (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.  For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Wisdom of the Egyptian Desert

A devil changed himself into a bright angel and appeared to a monk.  “I am the angel Gabriel,” he lied, “and I have been sent to you.”  But the brother wasn’t about to be taken in, and replied, “Think again – you must have been sent to somebody else.  I haven’t done anything to deserve an angel!”  In the face of this realistic self-assessment the devil had to retreat.

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