Our schedule started early in the day, as typical of most guided tours. It didn’t matter that I was sufficiently under the weather to have taken a slow day, or skipped some locations if we were vacationing on our own. A guided tour meant that we have to move with the group, no matter what.
We saw the more important places in Lisbon, ate the world-famous Portuguese egg tarts, but only went on our way towards the highlight of the day well after noon. Yes, we were going to Fátima, the town of the famed Marian apparition that appeared six times before three shepherd children back in 1917.
For the uninitiated, the Blessed Virgin Mary first appeared to three shepherd children Lucia (aged 10), Francisco (aged 8) and Jacinta (aged 7) as they were tending to their flock in a pasture not far away from Fátima, in May 1917. In subsequent months, the Lady appeared to the children five more times, and further entrusted them with three secrets, famously known as The Three Secrets of Fátima. The first two secrets were released in full in 1941. The third secret, though written in 1944, was only revealed in 2000 and is shrouded in mystery. Till today, many believe that the third secret has not been revealed in full, or is false.
The two younger children Francisco and Jacinta Marto, whom had several times predicted their deaths to their mother, died in 1919 and 1920 respectively, and were beatified on 13 May 2000, on the 83rd anniversary of the first Marian apparition they saw. Lúcia Santos, the eldest of the three children, lived the longest till the age of 97, in Feb 2005. A year later, her remains were laid to rest in the Shrine of Fátima. And we happened to have visited the Sanctuary of Fátima several months after this.
Fátima is used to serving large numbers of pilgrims, an average of 4 million every year, and that includes their no-frills cafeteria too. We had a simple lunch after arriving and had an interesting, lengthy discussion with our fellow tour mates about Catholicism, Christianity and the different denominations.
Having visited in May 2006, we happened upon the sanctuary when it was commemorating its 90th anniversary (since the first Marian apparition was recorded). And the good thing about travelling with a tour? It was fairly easy getting a fellow tour mate to take pictures of us, for us. I looked so pale. 😥
We cleansed ourselves at the Holy Water Font prior to entering the basilica, a little surprised at how cold the water was.
It took us quite a while to finally step foot in the Basilica and we were surprised by how cool it was inside, juxtaposed against the hot, humid weather we experienced at the plaza. And just as how quickly my cheeks sizzled to a bright red like tomatoes sitting on a barbecue grill when we were outside, my flushed face started cooling rapidly in the shade. It was almost reflective of my inner state of mind: in a turmoil versus a strange calm. At this point, it is probably important to mention that I had visited Fátima in a disturbed state of mind, having had a lot on my mind. And of course, I was also having a cold.
I took time for my eyes to adjust to the darkness (it was in fact much darker than what was shown in the photograph below). When I was ready, I genuflected at the end of the centre aisle before proceeding slowly towards the altar ahead, in awe of the calm and peace washing over me.
As I was approaching the altar, an elderly, stooping lady I assessed to be of Eastern European descent was headed towards me, in the opposite direction. Under normal circumstances, I would have moved to the right to allow her passage but I was arrested by the kindness I saw in her wrinkled greyish-blue eyes. And understanding. She reminded me so much of my late grandmother (she was truly quite a figure to fathom with: very mean to her daughters-in-law but I was the apple of her eye) whom I missed so much.
Instead of walking on, I halted on the spot, with the mister standing right behind me. The elderly lady continued to approach, stopped in front of me, and then lifted her hand to caress my cheek adoringly. It took me completely by surprise and I couldn’t recover quickly enough to react to her motherly gesture. She gave me a smile, and then went on her way.
When we could finally find our voice again, the mister commented, ‘Maybe she has never seen an Asian before?’
I shook my head. That wouldn’t explain the elderly lady’s queer behaviour. Furthermore, this is Fátima, a world renown Catholic pilgrimage site where there are no lack of Asian faces amongst pilgrims hailing from all around the world. I won’t go as far to say that it was a spiritual encounter, and it wasn’t so amazing as to cure my cold instantaneously… but it was definitely strange. Very few cultures in the world actually sanction touching a stranger’s face, or am I wrong?
This encounter weighed heavily on my heart long after we left Fátima. Some years later, I signed up for RCIA to complete my spiritual journey. I once shared with the Brother in charge of our RCIA journey about my unique experience in Fátima and after some contemplation, he gave me a new perspective that was food for thought. He said, perhaps the elderly lady was an angel sent by my grandmother to comfort me in my time of need.
Whatever it was, this inexplicably strange encounter played a key role in my decision to return to the Church. And because of this, Fátima shall forever be a very special place for me, spiritually.