During the 1970s and early 1980s, I led several tours to such far-away places as the Holy Land, Rome, Lourdes and Ireland. With advancing years, I decided to leave such strenuous activities to younger people and had “hung up” my travel bag. But it was not to be.
Early in February of this year (1990), I received an urgent phone call from Terry and Nancy Parkes – one on each phone. They are the husband and wife who conduct a very successful Marian Hour radio program each Sunday. They asked me if I would consider “leading” a Pilgrimage for Life to Fatima in May. I made appropriate noises and suitable excuses, but all to no avail. Terry was sighing and Nancy was snuffling and almost audibly wiping her eyes. I was obviously letting the side down and was fast slipping off a pedestal. Just before hitting the ground – under some sudden infusion of grace – I flipped in mid-air and said, OK, I’ll go. I landed on my spiritual feet and “Miracle for Life’ was on the launching pad.
But there were problems. We wanted to be in Fatima for May 13, as that is the anniversary of the first apparition of Our Lady to the three children in 1917. It is the busiest weekend of the year. Normally it is necessary to book seats beforehand. We had less than three months. But Terry and Nancy were determined to go ahead and trust in Our Lady. My faith is not so strong. The agents, Portuguese Airlines (TAP), were doubtful it could be organized in such a short time but were prepared to try. Their representative was Marie Dias, and she seemed to be infected by the Parkes’ enthusiasm. The Pilgrimage – it was not a “tour” – was advertised in the Catholic Register, The Interim and in numerous parish bulletins.
By mid-March nothing had happened and TAP was very worried as they had booked space on two airlines and rooms in hotels. While Terry and Nancy were still optimistic, I must admit that I was almost certain the pilgrimage was a “non-starter.”
Then, suddenly, things began to happen. There were phone calls from Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, Kitchener, Hamilton and Woodstock. TAP had booked 45 seats on one plane and 20 on another and they had to start refusing applicants. The Miracle was on the move.
The first plane departed from Toronto on May 8, with 45 pilgrims aboard, including my “doubting Thomas” self. The other plane left on May 11, with 20 pilgrims. Both groups met at Fatima for the Mary 12 ceremonies on the huge Square in front of the Shrine. Significantly, it was also Mother’s Day weekend.
I have seen crowds in my lifetime but never anything like this. The Square holds 800,000 people when full and it appeared to be packed. There were certainly well over half a million pilgrims who seemed to come from “every nation under Heaven” judging form the variety of tongues spoken. The Mass was celebrated in Portuguese on the great high altar in front of the Shrine. I counted twenty-one bishops and more than a hundred priests. One of the things that impressed me was the silent reverence of the huge crowd. During the most solemn parts of the Mass you could close your eyes and imagine that you were the only person present in the Square. At the conclusion of the Mass, the famous statue of Our Lady of Fatima was carried in procession all around the Square. Each person had a lighted candle and hymns were sung and the Rosary prayed. Each time the refrain, “Ave, Ave” is sung the candles are held up high and the effect is breathtaking.
Although there were so many different languages, everybody could join in the “Ave, Ave” refrain and the sound of half a million voices singing “full blast” must have shattered the ozone layer on its way to Heaven.
The ceremony was completed at midnight on Saturday and we had a two-hour bus ride to our hotel in Lisbon. Because of the lateness of our booking that was the nearest hotel we could get. By the time we were all aboard the two buses, it was 1:30 a.m. I got into bed at 4:20 a.m. on Sunday morning. I was tired but happy.
The Scroll for Life
We had brought with us from Canada what is termed “A Scroll for Life.” We had 70,000 names signed on these scrolls, imploring Our Lady to intercede with her Son for recognition of the sacredness of life of the unborn. On Sunday afternoon we were back again in Fatima. I celebrated Mass in the Chapel of the Apparitions and we laid the Scholl on the high altar. It was a very touching and emotional moment. A young man from Smith Falls named Greg McNeely had carved a beautiful box in wood in which the scrolls were placed. He was not on the Pilgrimage but his contribution was considerable.
While in Fatima we visited the homes of the three children and met the brother of two of them, Francisco and Jacinta. He is now in his eighties. The houses are tiny, one-story buildings. I was in the room where Francisco and Jacinta were born and where Francisco died.
As well as visiting Fatima, on three occasions, we did quite a lot of very interesting sightseeing. The entire trip was extremely well organized and I would like to pay tribute to TAP, and particularly to Maria Dias, who met us in Lisbon and tied up any loose ends.
Our guide was a very attractive Portuguese girl named Isabel. Isabel really was a belle! She spoke very good English and was an expert on the history and geography of the country. Each day we had Mass arranged in a different church. We were met by the pastor or his representative. There were the necessary books in English and we had the church or a side chapel to ourselves. Most of the churches are historical monuments and Isabel gave us a short tour and a history lesson on the kings and queens who are buried in the crypts. Some of the churches date back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
The weather and the ocean
Everything seemed to be going our way. The weather was vintage Mediterranean. The sun shone all day. Two of our hotels were right on the Atlantic Ocean and you could look out your window and see the sunbathers strewn all over the beach. A few of our people ventured into the ocean. I didn’t. I’ve been there before!
Fatima, like Lourdes, is very commercialized. There are religious goods stores everywhere – except in the Square. But I think it has to be. I know that more than four million people visit Lourdes every year from May to October and I am sure Fatima cannot be far behind. Everybody wants to take home souvenirs – rosaries, medals, statues, pictures etc. So, it is a question of supply and demand. At first, looking at the well stocked stores, I wondered if they could really sell all that stuff. But having seen what our own pilgrims purchased on a few shopping trips, I wondered if there could be anything left at the end of the season.
Our return journey was pleasant and uneventful. We bade farewell to the many friends we had made on our Pilgrimage with the usual promises to meet again. Even though we do not see any immediate results, our faith assures us that our prayers – and some sacrifices – will not go un-rewarded. In God’s good time, Miracle for Life ’90 will benefit the unborn.
By the way, there will be another Miracle for Life Pilgrimage In October. Why not come with us?