Fatima shrine given €80m facelift to counter zealotry

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The Independent Online

The shrine of Fatima, one of Europe's most visited Catholic pilgrimage sites, has undergone a spectacular €80m (£56m) facelift, to welcome even more pilgrims than the 800,000 who flock annually to this once remote corner of Portugal.

Fatima's revamped Holy Trinity church will be inaugurated next week in a massive ceremony conducted by the papal envoy Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone to mark the 90th anniversary of the supposed last appearance of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children.

Fatima's new church, big enough for 9,000 seated worshippers, is low and oval, built without internal columns so TV cameras can sweep unobstructed over services for live broadcasts.

The facelift is also intended to smarten up the sanctuary's image and eliminate what its rector, Luciano Guerra, calls "exaggerations in the devotion to Fatima". Pilgrims from the impoverished north of Portugal often make the stony final approach crawling on their hands and knees, with cloths to bind their bleeding wounds. Such extremes of zeal lend the sanctuary an atmosphere of medieval fanaticism that church authorities seek to discourage.

The gathering on 12 October will also celebrate the life of Pope John Paul II, who was particularly fond of the shrine, 70 miles north of Lisbon. The late pope attributed his narrow escape from death after being shot in St Peter's Square in 1981 to the divine intervention of the virgin of Fatima.

John Paul visited the following year, and again in 2000 when he recalled before 500,000 worshippers that "when severely struck on 13 May 1981, I was saved from the threshold of death". He beatified two of the young shepherds, Francisco Marto and his sister Jacinta, who had died in childhood. Their cousin Lucia became a cloistered nun and lived until 2005.

The church has five chapels, 16 confessionals, meeting rooms, a cafe and a 500-metre gilded tiled mural created by Portugal's best known architect, Siza Vieira.

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