FATIMA, Portugal – Over the past 10 years the Fatima shrine has seen an uptick in the number of pilgrims who visit from all over the world, particularly from Asia.
The increase is credited to the relevance of Our Lady’s message as the centenary of her apparitions approaches.
“The last few years the number of pilgrims has increased,” Dr. Pedro Valinho Gomes, director of pilgrim services at the Fatima shrine, told CNA in an interview.
While there has been an additional spike in the past 3-4 years as preparations have been underway for the celebration of the centenary of the Fatima apparitions, the number of visitors to the shrine was already steadily increasing for some time, he said.
Valinho said they have hosted “some 5-6 million pilgrims” a year – an estimate that comes from the number of people who participate in the different activities the shrine offers, although there are many who pass through without registering or attending any formal celebrations.
Although the reasons for the increase are many, he said it can be seen as a response to not only the centenary anniversary, but also the relevance of Our Lady’s message in light of the various crises the world is facing.
While the majority of pilgrims come from Portugal and neighboring Spain, Valinho said a large number come from Europe, particularly Poland and Italy.
“We believe there is a strong connection with Poland to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima through the presence of John Paul II,” he said, while adding that a large number also come from the Americas, especially the United States and Brazil.
However, he noted the number of groups and pilgrims from Asia has been climbing noticeably amid the general increase in pilgrimages, “which is something rather new that has started in the past 10 years.
“They have really increased the number to the point of being in our top ten groups,” he said, explaining that the number of pilgrims from South Korea is among the highest, with at least one group coming on an almost weekly basis.
One group of South Korean pilgrims, after visiting the Fatima shrine, decided to build their own shine to Our Lady of Fatima along the border with North Korea in a bid to end the division between the two countries.
The gesture is particularly meaningful given the warning Our Lady gave in one of her “secrets” about the loss of faith and the resulting rise of Soviet Communism, as well as the fact that the Fatima shrine is home to a piece of the Berlin Wall.
But in addition to South Korea, pilgrims from the Philippines and India have also increased, and there are even groups coming from China, Valinho said, noting that these are “different destinations that were not so usual 10 years ago, (but) have started to be a significant presence in Fatima.
“We have the whole world present here.”
Pope Francis has himself paid special attention to Asia, particularly in regard to the rapid growth of Christianity on the continent.
Although his wish be a missionary in Japan as a young Jesuit was never fulfilled, Francis visited Asia twice in less than two years after his election, traveling to South Korea in August 2014, and to Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January 2015.
In terms of numbers for the Pope’s May 12-13 visit to Fatima, Valinho said they haven’t made any official predictions, though other sources at the shrine have said they expect some 800,000 pilgrims for the Pope’s Mass and vigil the night before.
Many groups have already signed up, he said, adding that “we have felt from the first months of 2017 an exponential increment of groups registered in the Shrine in January, February and continuing, so we do expect that May will be a wonderful day with many pilgrims in Fatima.”
While in Fatima, Pope Francis will preside over the official celebrations for the centenary of the Fatima apparitions, and will canonize visionaries Francisco and Jacinta Marto.
Francisco, 11, and Jacinta, 10, became the youngest non-martyr children in the history of the Church to be beatified, on May 13, 2000, the 83rd anniversary of the first apparition of Our Lady at Fatima.
The brother and sister, who tended to their family’s sheep with their cousin Lucia Santo, witnessed the apparitions of Mary now commonly known as Our Lady of Fatima.
During the first apparition, which took place May 13, 1917, Our Lady asked the three children to pray the Rosary and make sacrifices for the conversion of sinners. The children did this and were known to pray often and care for others, giving their lunch to beggars and going without food themselves.
In addition to the regular opportunities available to pilgrims to go to Mass, to pray the rosary and the Liturgy of Hours, and to go to Confession, a special service will be offered to pilgrims who arrive on foot.
The ministry, called the “service of the washing of the feet,” is carried out entirely by volunteers throughout the year.
When the tired and often haggard pilgrims arrive after having walked long distances, they will be welcomed by volunteers who will wash their feet and give them whatever treatment they might need after their journey.
There are many volunteers that have already signed up to “offer some time of their lives to do this service to the pilgrims, the washing of the feet, in the likeness of Jesus who had this gesture in the middle of the Last Supper,” Valinho said.
“So it’s a gesture that actually says a lot about the life of the Shrine and what the Shrine is all about: in the sequence of the message of Fatima, proposing a life that is a life of service to others, a life of selflessness and dedication to the needs of others.”
Each year roughly 3-4,000 pilgrims have their feet washed, he said, explaining that there are typically some 40-50 volunteers who dedicate themselves entirely to this ministry. Combined with those who work in other areas, some 4-5,000 volunteers serve at the shrine annually.
In addition to the Pope’s visit and activities surrounding the May 12-13 centenary celebrations, there are several other events scheduled to take place throughout the year, Valinho said.
These activities will include “cultural events, musical theater or dancing; different arts that will express something of the message of Fatima,” he said, noting that “this has already been done and it will still be done.”
As a wrap-up of the centenary celebrations, a large concert with James MacMillan will take place at the shrine in October to mark the final apparition of Our Lady to the shepherd children.