There was no coincidence. Pope Benedict arrived in one of the world’s most shrines of Our Lady in time to celebrate her feast. It was also the tenth anniversary of the beatification of two of the three children who saw her as the watched over a flock of sheep on behalf of the people of Fatima.
Jacinta and Francisco Marto both died in the Great Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918-20. Jacinta is the youngest non-martyred child ever to be beatified. The third of the children, Lucia Santos, became a Discalced Carmelite nun and died aged 97 on 13 February 2005. She reportedly saw Mary in private visions periodically throughout her life.
In the plane en route to Portugal, Pope Benedict declared of Fatima’s significance:
“The important point is that the message, the answer of Fatima… is the fundamental response: permanent conversion, penance, prayer, and the three cardinal virtues: faith, hope and charity…”
Pope John Paul II summarised the meaning of Fatima as one of ‘conversion and hope’. Pope Benedict repeated the same theme as he flew towards a country that has produced many great saints and missionaries, reminding the world that God’s power is greater than any evil.
“…We have to re-learn these essentials: conversion, prayer, penance, and the theological virtues. That is how we respond, and we need to be realistic in expecting that evil will always attack, from within and from outside, but the forces of good are also always present, and finally the Lord is stronger than evil and the Virgin Mary is for us the visible maternal guarantee that the will of God is always the last word in history.”
Subsequently, at a Mass celebrated at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, the Pope explained his own reasons for travelling there:
“I too have come as a pilgrim to Fatima, to this “home” from which Mary chose to speak to us in modern times. I have come to Fatima to rejoice in Mary’s presence and maternal protection.”
The Holy Father had not arrived in Fatima merely for personal reasons. He also represented the millions who could not travel to Fatima. Addressing a congregation of more than 500,000 people, he explained that, as the spokesperson for Catholics throughout the world, he was there to tell Mary of the love for her Son that is intrinsic to the life of the Church.
“I have come to Fatima, because today, the pilgrim Church, willed by her Son as the instrument of evangelization and the sacrament of salvation, converges upon this place. I have come to Fatima to pray, in union with Mary and so many pilgrims, for our human family, afflicted as it is by various ills and sufferings… in order to entrust to Our Lady the intimate confession that “I love” Jesus, that the Church and priests “love” him and… and in order to entrust to Mary’s maternal protection priests, consecrated men and women, missionaries and all those who by their good works make the House of God a place of welcome and charitable outreach.”
In his homily, Pope Benedict recalled that it is almost 100 years since Mary’s first apparition at Fatima. It had a profound affect on the lives of the three children.
“This experience of grace made them fall in love with God in Jesus, so much so that Jacinta could cry out: “How much I delight in telling Jesus that I love him! When I tell him this often, I feel as if I have a fire in my breast, yet it does not burn me”. And Francisco could say: “What I liked most of all was seeing Our Lord in that light which Our Mother put into our hearts. I love God so much!””
The message of Fatima, in the 93 years since Mary’s first appearance on 13th May 1917, has struck a chord in the hearts of Catholics throughout the world. Then, as now, the world was in turmoil and people were searching for meaning and answers:
“At a time when the human family was ready to sacrifice all that was most sacred on the altar of the petty and selfish interests of nations, races, ideologies, groups and individuals, our Blessed Mother came from heaven, offering to implant in the hearts of all those who trust in her the Love of God burning in her own heart. At that time it was only to three children, yet the example of their lives spread and multiplied…”
The Holy Father later hinted to the Portuguese bishops at his personal suffering as he has tried to deal with recent ecclesial and global concerns. His role is to be an ‘alter Christus’ (another Christ).
“The Pope needs to open himself ever more fully to the mystery of the Cross, embracing it as the one hope and the supreme way to gain and to gather in the Crucified One all his brothers and sisters in humanity. Obeying the word of God, he is called to live not for himself but for the presence of God in the world.
Yet whilst living the Crucifixion, there was also the joy of the Resurrection. The Pope met members of various Portuguese social and pastoral care organisations when he visited Fatima’s church of the Holy Trinity. He later told the country’s bishops:
“I confess to you the pleasant surprise that I had in making contact with the movements and the new ecclesial communities… to see how, at a moment of weariness in the Church, at a time when we were hearing about ‘the winter of the Church’, the Holy Spirit was creating a new springtime, awakening in young people and adults alike the joy of being Christian, of living in the Church, which is the living Body of Christ.”
Pope Benedict was realistic. Although 90% of Portuguese are Catholic, only a small proportion is practising. This phenomenon is echoed in countries throughout the world. Thus the Church must examine her priorities and determine the unique challenges that confront her in today’s world. If the ‘message of Christ in all its richness’ is to enrich the people of ‘every tribe and tongue and people and nation’, then there are special responsibilities laid upon all those who make up the Body of Christ:
“In truth, the times in which we live demand a new missionary vigour on the part of Christians, who are called to form a mature laity, identified with the Church and sensitive to the complex transformations taking place in our world. Authentic witnesses to Jesus Christ are needed, above all in those human situations where the silence of the faith is most widely and deeply felt.”
Pope Benedict’s prayer for the bishops of Portugal is also one that he extends to the whole Church:
“I entrust all of you to Our Lady of Fatima, and I ask her to sustain you with her maternal care amid the challenges which you face, so that you will be promoters of a culture and a spirituality of charity, peace, hope and justice, faith and service.”