Pope Francis urged Catholics on Friday to “tear down all walls” and spread peace as he traveled to Fatima, Portugal to mark the 100th anniversary of one of the most unique events of the 20th-century Catholic Church: the visions of the Virgin Mary reported by three illiterate shepherd children and the “secrets” she told them.
Thousands of pilgrims lined Francis’ motorcade route and tossed flower petals, evidence that Latin America’s first pope has a huge following in the largely Catholic country.
Francis is spending fewer than 24 hours in Fatima to celebrate the centenary of the apparitions and canonize two of the three shepherd children. He hopes the message of peace they reported 100 years ago will still resonate today.
During an evening vigil at the chapel built on the site of the apparitions, Francis bowed his head in silent prayer before the statue of the Virgin and left a gold-leaf rose at its base, following a tradition of popes leaving golden roses at Marian shrines.
“We will tear down all walls and cross every frontier, as we go out to every periphery, to make known God’s justice and peace,” he said.
The Fatima mystery has fascinated people for a century, blending visions of the Virgin, supernatural meteorological events and apocalyptic messages of hell, World War II, communism and the death of a pope.
It all began on May 13, 1917, when three cousins, aged 7-10, Francisco and Jacinta Marto and Lucia dos Santos, reported that they had seen a vision of the Virgin Mary as they grazed their sheep. They returned to the same spot in the coming months and reported similar visions.
Portuguese church officials initially doubted them. Many doubters, though, became believers after the so-called “miracle of the sun” on Oct. 13, 1917. The children had predicted that the Virgin would perform a miracle that day, and tens of thousands of people flocked to Fatima and saw what witnesses reported was a vision of the sun “spinning” in the sky and zigzagging toward Earth.
The Portuguese church declared the visions authentic in 1930.
The children reported that the Madonna revealed to them three “secrets,” and urged them to pray for peace and turn away from sin. Francisco and Jacinta Marto died of influenza two years later, and will be declared saints by the pope Saturday, the 100th anniversary of the initial vision.
Lucia, who later became a nun and wrote of the children’s experiences, is on track for beatification, the first step toward becoming a saint. Her case couldn’t begin until after her death in 2005.
In 2000, the Vatican disclosed the long-awaited third secret of Fatima, describing it as foretelling the 1981 assassination attempt of John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square, and the persecution of other Christian faithful.
In his evening prayer, Francis said God’s mercy was made real on this spot 100 years ago when a “Lady robed in white” appeared to the young children and confided her secrets of love and peace to them.