Pope Francis visited the Portuguese town of Fatima on Saturday to pray for peace at a shrine known for apocalyptic prophesies of hell, peace and Soviet communism that have found new relevance with Russia’s war in Ukraine.
But for the third time of his trip to Portugal for World Youth Day, Francis ditched his prepared remarks and didn’t even recite a prayer written for the occasion pleading for peace. The prayer had been expected to be a highlight of Francis’ visit to Fatima, given the shrine’s century-old affiliation with exhortations of peace and conversion in Russia.
Francis instead “prayed silently for peace, with pain,” while meditating for a long period before a statue of the Virgin Mary, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said. And the Vatican later tweeted the prayer.
The unusual morning unfolded at the shrine where, according to legend, three young peasant children in 1917 saw visions of the Madonna. The apparitions turned the small town nestled in the fields of vineyards, olive groves and fruit orchards north of Lisbon into one of the most popular Marian pilgrimage sites in the world, drawing millions of visitors each year.
On Saturday, an estimated 200,000 turned out for Francis’ visit, packing the central esplanade long before the red-tinted moon set and the sun rose. Nearby wildfires turned the sky smoky black and sent ash snowing down on the crowd.
Francis’ visit marked a side trip from his main program in Lisbon to preside over the World Youth Day Catholic festival. The featured protagonists in Fatima were also young, including some young people with disabilities who read aloud prayers and young inmates who were allowed to attend. Babies were out in force, as parents offered them up to Francis to bless as he looped through the crowd in his popemobile.
“We are here with great joy,” said Maria Florido, a 24-year-old Spaniard who also saw Francis in Lisbon. “We woke up very early to come here and see the pope ... and we’re here with great enthusiasm.”
The Fatima story dates back to 1917, when according to tradition, Portuguese siblings Francisco and Jacinta Marto and their cousin Lucia said the Virgin Mary appeared to them six times and confided to them three secrets. The first two described an apocalyptic image of hell, foretold the end of World War I and the start of World War II, and portended the rise and fall of Soviet communism.
In 2000, the Vatican disclosed the long-awaited third secret, describing it as foretelling the May 13, 1981, assassination attempt against St. John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square, which fell on the anniversary of the original vision.
According to later writings by Lucia, who became a nun and died in 2005, Russia would be converted and peace would reign if the pope and all the bishops of the world consecrated Russia to the “Immaculate Heart of Mary.” Lucia later claimed that John Paul fulfilled that prophecy during a 1984 Mass, even though he never specified Russia in the prayer.
Fatima has long captivated Catholics, because of its blending of mystical, Marian apparitions, apocalyptic prophesies about the rise and fall of Soviet communism and the death of a pope. While Saturday’s wildfires and related ashfall were easily explained, they also harked back to another element of the Fatima phenomenon, an unusual weather phenomenon known as the “Miracle of the Sun.”
According to legend, on Oct. 13, 1917, the Fatima “seers” predicted that the Virgin would perform a miracle that day, and tens of thousands of people flocked to Fatima. They saw what witnesses reported was a vision of the sun “spinning” in the sky and zigzagging toward Earth.
Francis’ visit to Fatima fell on the anniversary of another odd weather phenomenon at a Marian church closely related to Fatima: According to that church legend, on Aug. 5, 1655, it actually snowed outside St. Mary Major basilica in Rome, where Francis always goes to pray before an icon of Mary at the end of each trip.
Vatican Media had said before the trip that Francis would pray for peace in Ukraine and the world while in Fatima. It seemed logical, given Francis had already consecrated both Russia and Ukraine to Mary in a prayer for peace following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, essentially fulfilling Sr. Lucia’s exhortation.
In the prayer tweeted by the @Pontifex account but not read aloud, Francis didn’t name either country but consecrated the church and world, “especially those countries at war,” to Mary. “Open paths where it seems that none exist,” he wrote. “Loosen the tangles of self-centeredness and the snares of power.”
Fatima Bishop Jose Ornelas made a prayer for Ukraine explicit in his remarks. “We associate ourselves to Your Holiness’ prayer for peace, for which this sanctuary is profoundly identified, thinking in particular of the war in Ukraine and so many other conflicts in the world,” he said.
In explaining the changes, Vatican spokesman Bruni said Francis “always addresses firstly the people he meets, as a shepherd, and speaks accordingly.” The 86-year-old Francis often deviates from his prepared remarks, even more when speaking in his native Spanish. Bruni denied the changes had any other serious reason, including with his eyesight.
Francis has been hospitalized twice this year, including in June when he spent nine days in the hospital recovering from abdominal surgery to repair a hernia and remove scar tissue on his intestine. Saturday was perhaps the most grueling day of his five-day visit to Portugal, given the round-trip helicopter ride to Fatima and a planned prayer vigil that wasn’t expected to begin until his usual bedtime in Rome.
To give him more rest before the vigil, the Vatican planned to move up an afternoon encounter with his fellow Jesuits, Bruni said.
On Sunday morning, Francis is to preside over a final, outdoor Mass – on a day when temperatures in Lisbon are expected to top 40 degrees C (104F) – before returning to the Vatican.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition