To a Portuguese boy, speaking about Our Lady of Fatima is essentially speaking about someone who is part of his daily life. This is the case with me. Fatima itself has a special meaning for me and where ever I go I try to explain what that meaning is to me and all Portuguese.
Between May and October 1917, Our Lady appeared in a place called Cova de Iria, to three simple shepherd children. At the time the Catholic religion was being persecuted by the government. A few years earlier all the religious orders were expelled from the country.
Precisely 95 years ago three little shepherds - Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta - saw a beautiful lady dressed in white. She said to them “Do not be afraid”, and on that day she asked them to come back to that same place for the next five months. She would be there to speak to them. Her only other request was that they pray the rosary every day.
On the 13 of each month they would comeback and listen to Our Lady speak about the need for prayer for the world. Today, like back then, Our Lady is still listening to the prayers of any one around the world who asks for her protection.
These three children were faithful. Every month they returned to listen to “the lady” as they used to call her. On the 13th of August, authorities arrested the children and held them for two days. When they were released on the 15th they got together to pray the rosary in place called Valinhos...and the Lady appeared to them there, repeating her request for them to pray for sinners and the world.
In her last apparition on October 13th, Our Lady made her presence known in a big way, as she had promised. Thousands of people came to see the apparition. It was a rainy day and, as Lucia says in her memoirs, she was terrified. When Our Lady appeared she asked every one to look at the sun. The clouds parted and the sun started dancing in the sky. When Our Lady rose back into the sky everyone could see the Holy Family right next to the sun.
Before being assumed back into sky Our Lady repeated her request for people to pray the Rosary. She also demanded the construction of a chapel in that location. The chapel of the apparitions is the answer to that request, and it is the place where pilgrims from all around the world -- including the popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI -- come to lay their prayers at the feet of our Mother from the heaven.
John Paul II and Fatima are connected because on May 13 of 1981 Ali Agca made an attempt on the pope’s life, firing two shots. The now Blessed John Paul II attributed his survival to Our Lady of Fatima. One year later he went to Fatima to offer the Virgin one of the bullets. This bullet was placed in the crown of the statue of Our Lady in the Chapel of the apparitions.
One of my favorite memories of Fatima is also connected with John Paul II when he came to Fatima to beatify the two shepherds Francisco and Jacinta. On that day he knelt in front of the Virgin and offered her his papal ring. At that moment I felt like God was blessing me with the possibility to see someone like John Paul who marked my growth in the faith. He was offering his life, his ministry as pope to the virgin of Fatima, who is so close to my heart. For me it became clear what his papal motto “Totus Tous” meant.
For the Portuguese, Fatima is the place you go to ask for help, to say thank you, through the intercession of Mary, to God. Fatima is the altar of the World because people come from the four corners of the world to say “Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us.”