Thursday, 21 April 2011

Trip to Portugal

It was with some excitement that I travelled to Portugal in south western Europe with my wife and daughter last week. Our main purpose was to visit the famous Marian shrine of Fatima where, in 1917, the Virgin Mary appeared to three Portuguese shepherd children and up to 70,000 people witnessed the famous Miracle of the Sun. After landing in Lisbon we travelled by bus to Fatima, about 110km north of Lisbon.

The Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima was a beautiful neoclassical building with a tall spire, on top of which stood a golden crown and a cross. The crown of course symbolised the building’s Marian connection. On one side, in front of the basilica, was an open-air chapel called the Chapel of Apparitions, built on the site where the apparitions took place. A statue of the Virgin Mary, enclosed in a glass case, marked the exact spot where she appeared. There was a unique sense of peace and calm here. One could easily spend a long time sitting on one of the wooden benches quietly praying and meditating.

We attended the International Rosary and International Mass, much of which was said in Portuguese. Nevertheless, we were happy to join in these special celebrations that take place on the 13th day of every month. There must have been a few hundred people for the Rosary and even more for the mass. The mass was celebrated in the new Church of the Most Holy Trinity, a rather plain looking building with an enormous seating capacity of around 9,000. The majority of pilgrims seemed to be Portuguese.

In the heat of an afternoon sun, we walked the Stations of the Cross just outside Fatima. This took us to the village of Valinhos where the Angel of Peace appeared to the children and prepared them for their meeting with Mary. This place was quite wild, covered mainly by shrubs and trees. Then we walked into the small village of Aljustrel where the children lived. The children’s homes had been carefully preserved over the years, and we were struck by how small and simple they were. That three peasant children, from such an isolated and humble setting, could be chosen by God for His divine purpose demonstrated to us how very often the values of heaven are contrary to those on earth.

From Fatima we headed south, past some of Portugal’s renowned vineyards, to the bustling city of Santarem. From the main bus station, we cut across the gardens and walked along narrow cobbled roads to the Church of the Holy Miracle (Igreja do Santissimo Milagre), home to a 13th century eucharistic miracle. An elderly guide in the church took us behind the altar to view the blessed sacrament, carefully preserved since the 13th century. The story surrounding this miracle involving a spurned wife, an unfaithful husband and a Jewish sorceress is quite an interesting one. I had some questions to ask, but unfortunately our church guide knew little English; so I was unable to get the answers that I sought. Nevertheless I took comfort in the knowledge that I visited this famous pilgrimage site which St Francis Xavier also visited before he left for India.

Finally we toured Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city. Although not as big as London or Paris, we felt the lifestyles of people here were not much different to those in other Western European capitals. This was a totally different world from the little village of Aljustrel. Situated on hilly terrain, Lisbon has many tall coloured buildings, tree-lined streets, mosaic pavements, smart cafes, and bright yellow trams. A half day guided tour took us to the main attractions in the city including Belem Tower, Jeronimos Manastery, Monument to the Discoveries, the Coaches Musuem and Alfama. In the Jeronimos Manastery we saw the final resting place of Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer, who in 1498 landed in Kappad near Calicut, India. We also visited St Anthony’s Church, built on the birthplace of the great saint, as well as Lisbon Cathedral.

We enjoyed our short visit to Portugal and in particular Fatima. Unlike that other famous Marian shrine, Lourdes, Fatima is not as commercialised. Here one does not feel overwhelmed by a multitude of shops, restaurants, cafés and hotels. The setting is actually quite prayerful. We were glad to partake in the celebrations as well as spend time quietly praying. I got the impression that the events in Fatima in 1917 had made a deep impact in the country, and because of that there was still some respect for religion in this overwhelmingly Catholic European nation.

Although relatively small, Portugal is a charming country where there is much to see and do. There is variation from north to south, the north being more green, hilly and industrious. The weather during our tour was gloriously sunny, sometimes a bit too sunny for our liking. We enjoyed tasting Portuguese food including a common type of egg pastry called pastel de Belém. We found the Portuguese people fairly mellow and well mannered; some were quite friendly. Unfortunately very few of them knew English, and as we knew little Portuguese, communication was sometimes a bit tricky. Fortunately everything went smoothly and we had no major problems.

Ultimately it was the message of Fatima that brought us to Portugal, a message that continues to spread around the world. I believe the purpose of the apparitions there was to help people grow more in faith, hope and love. And what better way to do this than imitate the Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ?