Pope faces a multitude of adoring women

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The Independent Online

By Elizabeth Nash in Fatima

14 May 2000

Pope John Paul laboured against his failing strength yesterday as he beatified two shepherd children in Portugal's holy shrine of Fatima, on what many believe may be his last big foreign trip. His surprise revelation of the "third secret of Fatima" confirmed the impression that the Pope might be putting concluding touches to his pontificate before preparing to retire.

Before a sea of the overwhelmingly female faithful of modest origins, and in glorious sunshine, the Pope set the children who saw visions of the Virgin Mary in 1917 on the final step to sainthood. With visible effort, he read a sermon in Portuguese, celebrating their lives and issuing a message for world peace.

The crowds who flocked to the shrine on the anniversary of the appearance of the first reported vision were only half of the million widely predicted, but they were still enormous. As the sun rose high, umbrellas raised 24 hours earlier in torrential rain provided welcome shade in the vast square before the sanctuary's basilica.

The Pope threaded through the multitude in his Popemobile for 40 minutes en route to the basilica, waving in greeting, though stooped and frail and tightly gripping the rail in front of him. Two cardinals behind him occasionally put out steadying hands.

"I adore him," said Laura Figueiro, 66, who had come from Lisbon for this moment. "I see the Pope as Jesus Christ on earth. He has a good heart. He brings grace to Portugal."

Mrs Figueiro, widowed at 22 with three small children, had toiled all her life in a factory, and this was her 40th visit. "I love this sacred place - it's enchanted. I have a lot of faith in the little shepherds. Now we have our own two saints from Portugal."

The surviving shepherdess, Lucia, revealed years later that the Virgin had shown them a vision of hell, thought to predict the Second World War, and had forecast that communist Russia would eventually return to God, and peace would be back in the world. It is hardly surprising such a message should appeal so strongly to the anti-communist Polish Pope.

The astonishingly compelling appeal of Fatima arouses passions more associated with Latin American frontier lands than a prosperous EU member. The Pope is particularly fond of the place, saying the Virgin of Fatima saved him from an assassination attempt in 1981, the "third secret".

On his visit to the shrine's chapel on Friday night, he placed inside the crown of the statue of the Virgin a ring given to him in 1978 when he became Pope by his mentor, the late Primate of Poland, Cardinal Wyszynski.

It has been a long haul for Fatima's Catholic authorities, especially the Hungarian priest, Father Luis Kondor, who has spent 40 years trying to win this ultimate blessing from the Vatican.

The visions of the Virgin attributed to Jacinta and Francisco Marto and their cousin Lucia were controversial from the start. And many Catholics are repulsed by the excessive devotion of pilgrims who crawl to the shrine on their knees, often bloodied and bruised from the stony approach. Critics, including the dissident Portuguese priest, Mario Oliveira, rail against the Church's assumption of the visions into official dogma. His book Fatima Nunca Mais (Fatima Never Again) - not widely available in Portuguese bookshops this weekend - reckons the whole thing is nonsense.

The two children beatified yesterday died of pneumonia in 1919 and 1920. The survivor, Lucia, now 93, entered a convent in 1921. Their family and local priests were initially suspicious of their confessions, and imprisoned and beat them for making up stories.

Only after their voices were effectively silenced, critics say, and pilgrims increasingly flocked to the site, did local bishops give credence to the tale and assume control of the phenomenon, strengthening their hand in a moment of crisis in Portugal.

The recently founded republic was struggling, and the Portuguese army sent to France to fight for the Allies was wiped out in 1918. There followed several coup attempts before the armed forces seized power and the fascist Oliveira Salazar became prime minister in 1932. During his dictatorship, Portuguese say, they were dominated by "fado, football and Fatima", and the fascist authorities promoted the site as a huge pilgrimage destination.

Sceptics suggest the visions of swirling sun and hovering clouds were simply the effect of electric storms, common around here, upon frightened children sent to mind sheep on the bare hillside all day, having breakfasted on nothing but the local broth of bread, sugar and wine, known as "soup of the tired horse". Often, Jacinta and Francisco's elder brother Joao, who died earlier this month aged 94, would accompany them.

Last autumn, Joao told me of their hard life in the fields. "We would stay from sunup to sundown, with just a little piece of bread and a couple of olives. If we had a sardine it was about this big" - he held out his forefinger - "and we'd fight over how to divide it up."

Joao said he went with Jacinta after she had seen the visions, hoping to see them too. "I didn't see anything," he said. "But I started to believe a few years later because of what they told me, and what others were saying. They told me so many times I knew it had to be true."