(Vatican Radio) The local papers in Fatima this morning are filled with facts and figures: 12 and one half-thousand people officially signed onto one of the official international pilgrimages; 450 volunteers inside the sanctuary, anywhere from 1 thousand to 2 thousand others throughout the civil parish of Fatima; 600 thousand to 1 million pilgrims from all around the world expected to take part in the centenary celebrations.
Those are just a few.
The Portuguese government has given employees permission to miss work in order to attend the celebrations, while police, fire, medical, civil protection and a dozen other auxiliary public order services have called in reinforcements from every corner of the country and put them on forced overtime.
It’s one of those days I’m glad I never got into human resources and logistics planning.
I get paid to stand around and tell you what I see: and what I see is a small town that has grown up roughly on the top of what is not the tallest hill in a hilly region – a small town with a very large and roughly rectangular plaza set smack in the middle of it, dominated by two very different and differently opposing structures – and a small, canopied structure that, from before dawn to well after nightfall, seems to get the lion’s share of attention from a number of people far exceeding the most generous estimations of the local population (given at 11 thousand and change in the latest census for which we have data); people brave chilly wind and driving rain to take a walking turn around a tiny chapel – though I hasten to add that, until this morning – Friday morning, May 12th, 2017, the eve of the 100th anniversary of the first apparition of Our Lady to three shepherd children, two of whom are to be declared saints in heaven on Saturday, the anniversary proper – no one has had to brave more than 10 minutes of rain at a stretch.
But what’s the story?
There are a dozen of them in there: logistics tangles; workers playing hooky; security challenges; infrastructure readiness; even the weather and how it might affect perception , coverage, and participation; national papers asking what the bill will be for the Portuguese taxpayer; human interest stories, from the scouts taking part to the pilgrim grandfathers and grandmothers, to the couple camped out for the past two days to guarantee themselves a good spot, to the weeping for joy, relief and resolution everywhere occurring, day and night, everywhere around us in the plaza of the shrine complex – the entirety of which is dedicated as an area of prayer, by the way, an oasis in the middle of what should be a town bursting with bustle, but refuses to be bothered, however busy – like a chastened Martha about her work.
I can tell you what I’ve seen.
The scenes from Thursday evening were very affecting to me, for I was seeing them for the first time, though even they must eventually become familiar – and 100 years is long enough to wear in any hat – but several hundred and perhaps several thousand pilgrims singing Marian hymns and waking in torchlight procession really cannot fail to move even the hardest of hard-boiled observers.
That, I believe, is the key to Pope Francis’ visit: his confidence in the message of Fatima – at bottom a call to conversion – to reach a world that sorely needs it, and for the Christian faithful to be the carriers of that message into the world, by means of simple acts of pious devotion that have immense power – not to persuade, but to attract.
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