Fátima and the Church
Fatima, unique phenomenon of popular religiosity, imposed itself on the Church – and not the other way around.
Unlike what many wrongly suppose, the Catholic hierarchy reacted prudently to the echoes of the first apparitions occurred during spring and summer in Cova da Iria. Newspapers connected to the Church (like A Época and A Ordem) and even members of the ecclesial hierarchy spoke with extreme caution and sometimes even with sceptical expressions on the apparitions phenomenon. A generalised precaution was mainly at hand, against “popular beliefs” phenomena, as they were called back then.
“An aspect worth mentioning in the historical reconstitution concerns prudence, hesitation, the difficult and gradual nature of the initial Catholic response to Fatima, which goes from silence to reservation, from the calling to prudence, to the acceptance and the defence against anticlerical attacks, always on the background,” stresses the historian Bruno Cardoso Reis in the Análise Social magazine (2001).
In Fatima, the people always walked ahead of the clergy. Without complexes.
This was evident in the construction of the Capelinha das Aparições (Chapel of the Apparitions), two years after the 13th of May, 1917. It was built by popular will and it was born at the hands of a humble bricklayer from the region, called Joaquim Barbeiro: he started the task on the 28th of April, 1919 and concluded it on the 15th of June of that same year.
According to tradition, the chapel stands right where the little holm oak stood, where, according to the seers, Our Lady had appeared to them initially. A few months later, almost nothing was left from that tree: the populations started removing leaves and branches from it, piece after piece, saving them as relics. And some Carbonari from Santarém cut what was left of the trunk in the night of the 23rd of October, 1917, taking it in “procession” in the capital of Ribatejo.
The first mass was recited there, already with episcopal authorisation, on the 13th of October, 1921. Gradually, the Church recognised the spiritual dimension of Fatima.
The popular movements that arose spontaneously in Fatima bothered the strongly anticlerical Republican Government. The Republican press, of a more ideological nature, linked to Freemasonry and Carbonari, sought to mobilise public opinion against what was called the “superstition phenomena.” The newspaper O Mundo, the official communication organ of Afonso Costa’s Democratic Party and organisations such as the Portuguese Federation of Free Thought, stood out in this campaign.
Still in 1917, these sectors come to organise a “secular pilgrimage” to Ourém and Fatima with a showy escort of Guarda Nacional Republicana (Republican National Guard), after the so-called “miracle of the sun.” A sporadic occurrence that did not stop the popular movements.
The Interior Minister, António Maria da Silva, came to prohibit manifestations of religious nature in Fatima. This led the Catholic press, already without the reservations of the first months, to call openly on civil disobedience.
The Catholic-oriented newspaper O Dia would write “We will fight against the Government.” Nothing similar happened in other areas of the country, particularly in the sanctuaries of Bom Jesus and Sameiro in Braga, despite the religious intolerance of the Republican Government.
ATTACK AGAINST THE SMALL CHAPEL
The Republican regime tried by all means to prevent the public gatherings in Fatima, unceremoniously using GNR (Republican National Guard) forces for such purpose. Always in vain.
Facing the indifference of the police, masonic activists approached the pilgrims, insulting them and sometimes beating them. On behalf of “free thought,” which is rather ironic.
The culmination point of this campaign took place on the 6th of May, 1922, when the Chapel of the Apparitions was partially destroyed by a bomb. By ecclesial permission, the mass was already celebrated there since the 13th of October, 1921.
The attack caused widespread outrage: the bombs had been placed in the four corners of the chapel, with the deliberate intention of reducing it to rubble. But not all of them exploded. And the bombers reached the opposite effect to that intended: the chapel was quickly rebuilt, always by the sole will of the pious people, and more and more pilgrims flocked to Fatima since then.
The crowds were swelling, especially in the two dates considered most relevant: the 13th of May and the 13th of October. In the second half of the 20s, between 100,000 and 200,000 pilgrims already gathered there every year. On the 13th of October, 1922 the newspaper Voz de Fátima begins to be published.
THE VIRGIN IMAGE
The image of the Virgin Mary – carved in Braga, in 1920, by the sculptor José Ferreira Thedim and blessed that same year on the 3th of May in the parish church of Fatima, entering the Chapel of the Apparitions one month later – contributed greatly to the Marian devotion in Fatima.
The wooden image in Brazil cedar is 1.10 metres tall and served as a model to thousands of others that have been carved ever since all over the world.
The Catholic press reports – namely the Catholic newspaper Novidades, launched in December 1923 – allow us today to draw several similarities between the pilgrimages of those early years and the current ones.
At that time, just like today, the celebrations of the 13th of May and the 13th of October were dominated by the recitation of the rosary, the pilgrimages on foot in fulfillment of promises, the procession of candles (the night before), the mass, the blessing of the sick people and the impressive farewell to the image of Our Lady with many thousands of scarves flapping in the air.
At the time, the only thing missing was the building of the basilica, which began to be erected in 1928, with the first stone being blessed by the Archbishop of Évora even before the ecclesial recognition of the apparitions of Fatima. It would only be solemnly inaugurated in 1953.
THE RESTORED DIOCESE
The restoration of the Diocese of Leiria by Pope Benedict XV on the 17th of January, 1918 was a keystone in the process of Fatima. It had been abolished in 1882.
On the 15th of May, 1920, the diocese begins to have a titular bishop: D. José Alves Correia da Silva – who would remain in that function until his death, in December 1957. This prelate was essential to the recognition of the apparitions of Fatima, in which he always believed.
D. José opened the canonical process destined to validate the apparitions on the 3rd of May, 1922. On the 24th of August, 1925 he administered the confirmation of Lúcia, the only survivor of the three shepherd children. And on the 26th of June, 1927 he chaired an official ceremony in Cova da Iria for the first time, after the blessing of the Stations of the Cross from Reguengo do Fetal, located 11 kilometres away.
The prelate would keep on insisting, whenever he could, to accelerate the process of Fatima. He argues that the Catholic people had already “confirmed” the veracity of the apparitions.
The long process of recognition of the apparitions with ecclesial approval would only end on the 13th of October, 1930. It occurred with the approval of the pastoral letter Divine Providence, in which the Bishop of Leiria considers “the visions of the children of Cova da Iria worthy of credit” and officially authorises the cult of Our Lady of Fatima.
That same month, Pope Pius XI grants plenary indulgences to pilgrims. The official recognition had taken 13 years. A lot longer than the time spent on the ecclesiastical seal of the apparitions of Lourdes, which occurred in 1858 and were soon validated in 1862.
On the 13th of May, 1932, the Portuguese bishops meet for the first time in Fatima taking part in a national pilgrimage to Cova da Iria, which, according to press reports of the time, would have gathered about 300 thousand people.
“It was not the Church that imposed Fatima, but it was Fatima that imposed itself on the Church,” D. Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira, Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon, would later recognise. In fact, Fatima had imposed itself on the Church definitively. As it had imposed itself on the country, regardless of the difficulties. As it would impose itself on the world.