In THE Presence
In 2019, I had the opportunity to participate in a pilgrimage that included walking part of the Camino in Spain and ended with a visit to the site of Our Lady’s apparitions in Fatima, Portugal. Both locations were a spiritual blessing. I wrote earlier about one of my experiences on the Camino (see “My Name is Patrick”, posted June 23. 2023). I also wanted to share a glimpse of just some of the graces experienced in Fatima.
My introduction to Fatima came early during my diaconate formation. My work office in downtown Green Bay was less than a mile from a parish that started a perpetual adoration chapel. I tried to get there during at least one lunch hour each week.
The adoration chapel has a modest library of faith-based books. On my visit one day, a copy of The Day that the Sun Danced just happened to be lying on the seat of the pew that I had slipped into. The book provides an account of the story of the Fatima apparitions, including the great miracle of the sun that was witnessed by more than 70,000 people. I had known the basic story of Fatima before, but this book revealed detail that was new to me. The book drew me in and I was especially entranced by the pictures of the three children and the crowd that witnessed the miracle of the sun. I came back successive lunch hours until I finished the book.
Then, I found a copy of In Her Own Words, the personal account of Lucia Dos Santos, one of the shepherd children. I consumed this fascinating first-person account.
Fatima entered into my daily prayer life as I added the Rosary Decade Prayer to my daily rosary and the Angel’s Prayer to my daily intentions. So, while many of my fellow pilgrims considered our trip to be primarily an opportunity to walk part of the Camino with two bonus days in Fatima, my heart considered the Camino as spiritual preparation for Fatima.
It would take pages and pages to share all of what I experienced in Fatima; Instead I will focus on just one experience. Our group was blessed to be able to celebrate Mass at the Apparition Chapel. Our assigned timeslot was 5:30 AM. There were several deacons on the pilgrimage and we took turns serving at the altar. As Providence would have it, it was my turn to serve at that very early Mass.
I woke too early and was too anxious to get back to sleep, so I got dressed and found Father Luke Ferris, our pilgrimage’s Spiritual Director already waiting for me in the hotel's dining room. He was occupied being unsuccessful in figuring out how to work the coffee machine. We decided to skip the coffee and walk over to the Chapel; it only took us about ten minutes.
The Apparition Chapel is unique. There is no back wall or doors as the Chapel welcomes any pilgrim at any hour. There is also a church within a church. When Mary appeared to the children over 100 years ago, one request she had was that a chapel be built at the site. To honor that request, a very small and simple white chapel was constructed in 1919 to mark the exact location where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta.
As the site grew as a place of pilgrimage in its own rite, a larger chapel was constructed around the original chapel which was left intact, and is now situated in the sanctuary of the current church, just behind the altar. There is a short wall around the sanctuary.
As Father Luke and I approached the chapel we went instinctively to the gate in that low wall. Father tried to pull it open several times but it was locked. Just as he was yanking on the gate, a gentleman came up to us and introduced himself as our sacristan. Father Luke pointed to the little chapel in the sanctuary and asked, “Can we go up there?” The sacristan shook his head emphatically and gave a terse, one word answer, “No!” He then told us to follow him and he brought us to the sacristy to vest. When it was time to begin Mass he motioned us out.
When we came into the sanctuary I noticed immediately that because the chapel was open, that about 300 people had joined our group even at this early hour. When it came time for the Offertory and preparation of the gifts I noticed that our sacristan had only given us one large host. My eyes scanned everywhere for a tabernacle, but I didn’t see one. I began to wonder where we were going to get hosts for all of the people. I felt a bit like one of the confused apostles just before Jesus fed the 5,000!
After the sign of peace, the sacristan tapped me on the shoulder and motioned for me to follow him. He went up to the door of the original apparition chapel and reached in his pocket for a ring of keys. He unlocked the door, turned the handle and pushed the door open. Then he motioned me to go inside while he waited at the threshold. As I passed him, he whispered, “Take two of the ciboria.”
I almost felt like I was in a trance as I fully realized that the original chapel itself, the exact spot where the Blessed Virgin had stood, was the tabernacle. There were six very large tabernacles inside, all with their doors wide open. Two were on my right, two straight ahead and two to my left. I was literally surrounded by Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament! I genuflected, feeling briefly like I wouldn’t be able to rise. There were multiple ciboria reposed in each tabernacle. It was overwhelming to realize that Our Lord waited patiently here in this most holy place, to feed the multitudes again and again.After Communion, as I neared the altar, Father Luke leaned over and whispered, “Can I go in there please?” Like all priests that I have served with, Father Luke was typically fine with taking his seat while the deacon reposed the Blessed Sacrament and purified vessels. But here and now he too felt the tremendous privilege of standing in the literal footsteps of the Blessed Mother in the presence of her only Son. I smiled and knelt at the doorway as Father Luke went inside.
A blessing beyond measure!