Friday, October 12, 2007

90 Years On, Fatima Gets a New Church

This weekend, an international flood of pilgrims tipped at 250,000 has converged on the Portuguese shrine of Fatima to mark the 90th anniversary of the final Marian apparition there and the dedication of a new shrine church with a capacity of, appropriately, 9,000.

On 13 October 1917, the three young shepherds who reported seeing the Blessed Mother for the five months prior were joined by a crowd estimated at around 70,000 -- many convinced, but just as many curious. While only the three visionaries were able to see the apparition, at its final occurrence the rest reported "that the sun spun about itself like a ring of fireworks, that it came down almost to the point of burning the Earth with its rays."

Now known as the "Miracle of the Sun," the occurrence put most doubts to the credibility of the visionaries' claims to rest, and changed the landscape of the small farming town as, by the thousands, the pilgrims descended (the visitor-count now exceeds five million a year).

Two of the visionaries -- the siblings Francisco and Jacinta Marto -- died of influenza just over two years later and were beatified in 2000 by John Paul II, whose special devotion to all things Marian reached its nexus at Fatima given his survival from the assassination attempt of 13 May 1981, the 64th anniversary of the first apparition there.

The last of the surviving visionaries entered a convent and became Sr Lucia dos Santos. Following her 2005 death at 97, the Carmelite's funeral was presided over by the prelate serving as this weekend's papal legate -- Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB, now Secretary of State.

In her life, and while he held the #2 post at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Bertone was the Vatican's point-man on anything Fatima, having collaborated with the cloistered Lucia in the release of the "Third Secret" of the visions, which was first revealed at the 2000 beatifications. (On a side note, some Fatima die-hards have sought to dispute Bertone's assertion that, with the final message made public, no hidden Fatima secrets remain.)

Fluent in Portuguese, earlier today the "Vice-Pope" inaugurated the new shrine church, a mammoth successor to the classical Basilica built on the site in the years immediately following the apparitions.

The modern structure was built at a cost of €80 million ($113 million) and -- again, appropriately -- will get its electricity thanks to solar panels.
Pope Benedict XVI will send a live televised message to the gathered faithful on Sunday, the 90th anniversary of the last time that the Virgin of Fátima was reported to have appeared before three Portuguese shepherd children, delivering a series of apocalyptic visions of the future. The National Republican Guard, the country’s paramilitary police, will have 300 officers and 150 paramedics on hand.

Local church officials had long complained that the existing basilica was far too small. Pilgrims should not be disappointed with its successor. It comes equipped with five chapels, nearly 50 confessional booths and a café for worshippers to “rest and reflect”. The oval building has no internal columns to avoid obstructing live television broadcasts. Computers will keep lighting levels constant and solar panels will provide energy.

The church includes a 500sq m mural of New Jerusalem made of thousands of handmade Portuguese tiles. The walls will bear passages from the Bible in 23 languages.

“I thank God I have not had to worry about money,” said Monsignor Luciano Guerra, the rector of the sanctuary. Even holy projects can be bedevilled by delays and cost overruns: the church was originally to cost €40 million and open its doors on May 13.

Alexandros Tombazis, the Greek Orthodox architect responsible for design, has described his new church as humble. He said that he made it relatively low-slung to avoid overshadowing the Basilica of Fátima.
Tip to New Advent.

Reuters/Nacho Doce