Jeanne Smits reports for LifeSiteNews — For the first time in 103 years, at the Cova de Iria where Our Lady appeared for the first time to three little shepherds on May 13, in 1917, there will be no pilgrims present on the gigantic esplanade where thousands, and then hundreds of thousands of Portuguese and foreign Catholics usually have gathered at that time of year in order to commemorate the extraordinary event, to thank the Virgin Mary for graces received or to present her with their supplications. Because of the lockdown against the Chinese coronavirus, the National Guard of the Republic (GNR) started deploying hundreds of military personnel all over the country on Saturday morning in charge of offering “pedagogic” advice to would-be pilgrims in order to dissuade them from trying to access the sanctuary on foot or by car.
According to the Portuguese media, 3,500 members of the GNR will be operating on Tuesday and Wednesday, May 12 and 13, around Fatima and on the ways of access from different parts of the country in order to prevent Catholics from reaching the sanctuary, which, in any case, will be closed to the public and “protected” by barriers.
Should there still be a large public accumulation, more “heavy-handed” measures will be employed, according to the Civil Protection unit of Santarém some 100 km south of Fatima, which recalled last Friday that the sanctuary cannot offer any of the usual assistance it affords to the faithful who join the large pilgrimages that take place every month from May to October on the 12th and 13th (and August 15th). The large parks where pilgrims leave their cars before proceeding on foot to the basilica, the esplanade, and the tiny chapel that marks the place where Our Lady visited the three shepherds so many years ago will also be closed.
There is no question of placing Fatima under a “siege,” nor is the operation a “demonstration of force,” stated a spokesman for the GNR. However, as the left-wing daily O Público remarked, “the desired effect will be the same: the absence of pilgrims in Fatima.”
Strangely enough, it is not the Portuguese government that required Fatima to stay closed in these, its most important days of the year, but the bishop of Leiria-Fatima himself, as well as those directly in charge of sanctuary. Cardinal Antonio Marto was named by Pope Francis and is considered to be close to Francis.
The mobilization of the Armed Forces appears as a response to the requirements of the religious authorities who are being helped to keep the zone free from believers who want to pray, give thanks, and do penance, especially in these difficult times, answering Our Lady’s explicit and repeated calls.
Contrary to many Marian sanctuaries, such as Lourdes, Fatima is not primarily known for graces of physical healing. Instead, it is a place where many experience spiritual conversion. Large numbers of Portuguese walk the difficult routes toward Fatima, high in the mountains, walking tens or hundreds of kilometers over days and weeks in order to celebrate one of the major ceremonies there. They are truly penitential pilgrimages, which some end on their knees to cover the last few hundred meters to the “Capelinha” or small chapel of the apparitions.
All those who were hoping to come and deposit their offering of faith, prayer, and penance and to ask graces from Our Lady of Fatima on the 12th and 13th of May must now cope with the realization that it is the local hierarchy of the Catholic Church that is leaving them out in the cold.
On May 2, the Portuguese health minister, Marta Temido, went on record saying it would be “a possibility” to allow the public to join the religious ceremonies of May 12 and 13, if the sanctuary leaders so desired, as long as sanitary rules were observed.
The sanctuary of Fatima had announced one month earlier, on April 6, that the international anniversary pilgrimage of May would be celebrated this year “without the physical presence of pilgrims” because of COVID-19, although the main religious ceremonies will take place.
The minister’s offer to allow the sanctuary to organize the presence of faithful actually shocked those in charge, who said that they had been “taken by surprise.” The sanctuary considered options but went on to confirm that the faithful would not be welcome. On May 3, the cardinal-patriarch of Lisbon, Don Manuel Clemente, asked for there to be no going back on the first decision. He had only just sent a letter to all the priests of his diocese warning them that all public ceremonies remain prohibited “for the good of public health,” adding that the government will authorize no celebrations until the end of this month.
Despite Marta Temido’s willingness to allow organizers of public events to decide for themselves whether they can take measures to avoid risk of contamination, the Catholic Church in Portugal did not take advantage of the possibility to let the Portuguese people honor their Queen.
It is in the same spirit that the demonstration of the Portuguese communist workers’ union CGTP was allowed to take place on May 1 in Lisbon, with participants announcing their presence beforehand and being assigned a spot that would ensure “social distance.” Temido commented after the event that that celebration “was in line with the exceptional measures allowed by the presidential decree under the condition that distancing rules would be respected.”
Portugal has been largely preserved from the effects of the Chinese coronavirus, which hit neighboring Spain particularly hard. To date, less than 30,000 Portuguese have been contaminated by the virus, and the total number of deaths in the country is 1,144. Confinement measures are slowly being lifted as the contamination curve continues to follow the same model as in other countries — that chose confinement or not — having remarkably slowed since more than a week.
The Portuguese have been invited to celebrate “Fatima at home,” and in their hearts, and to place candles in their windows on Tuesday at nightfall in order to mark their spiritual presence in the sanctuary of Fatima.
The rector of the sanctuary, Fr. Carlos Cabecinhas, made this appeal, adding: “This is a sorrowful moment: the sanctuary exists to welcome pilgrims and not being able to do that is a cause for great sadness; but this decision is also an act of responsibility for the pilgrims, defending their health and their well-being.” But in an interview with 70X7, a medium of the Portuguese bishops’ conference, he also recalled the deep economical distress many businesses and workers are experiencing in Fatima as a disastrous side-effect of the coronavirus lockdown. He has made clear that he hopes for a return to normal — that is, massive pilgrimages to Fatima — by October.
For the moment, this question has not been answered by the local Catholic hierarchy: does the physical well-being of hundreds of thousands of Portuguese require that they be deprived of the sacraments, let alone their spiritual well-being?
Many Portuguese have spoken touchingly of the sadness they feel at not being able to “thank our Lady for the graces received during the past year.” “I prayed more and I have offered up this sorrow,” said Noémia dos Anjos, explaining that the pain of “not being able to thank Our Lady for the many graces received” during the year is worse than the pain associated with the physically demanding walk to the sanctuary.
Both Francisco and Jacinta Marto, the two youngest seers of Fatima, died of the Spanish flu that immediately followed the First World War from which Portugal had been spared. The illness killed many young people, while children and the elderly were protected, claiming between 40 million and perhaps even 100 million victims all over the world — many times more than the present count of victims of the Chinese coronavirus — and between 60,000 and 118,000 victims in Portugal alone, one of the worst hit countries. But the Spanish flu did not stop pilgrimages to Fatima. For the two now canonized little shepherds, it truly opened the gates of Heaven and was accepted in a spirit of penance and supernatural hope.