FATIMA, Portugal – In a city often dubbed “land of the Virgin,” Pope Francis called on the hundreds of thousands gathered in Fatima to be “pilgrims with Mary,” but the one found in the Gospel, not one that is “unapproachable” or “one who restrains the arm of a vengeful God.”

After asking the faithful of “which Mary?” were they pilgrims, the pope spoke of several, contrasting different ways in which Catholics sometimes perceive the mother of God: There are those who follow the one who was “blessed because she believed,” and those who believe in a “plaster statue” from whom “we beg favors at little cost.”

There’s the Mary venerated by the Church, Francis said, but also one “of our own making: One who restrains the arm of a vengeful God; one sweeter than Jesus the ruthless judge; one more merciful than the Lamb slain for us.”

Pope Francis’s words came as he addressed a crowd participating in a prayer service on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima to three young, illiterate shepherds.

During his remarks he said that God’s mercy always has to be put before judgement, and that insisting on the punishing of sins without first speaking about them being forgiven by his mercy, is doing a “great injustice” to God’s grace.

“Mercy has to be put before judgment and, in any case, God’s judgment will always be rendered in the light of his mercy,” he said, reading his remarks in Portuguese. “Obviously, God’s mercy does not deny justice, for Jesus took upon himself the consequences of our sin, together with its due punishment.”

This, the pope clarified, does not mean that Jesus denies sin, but that he “redeemed it on the cross.”

Those who are united to the cross of Christ through their faith, Francis said, are freed from their sins and put aside the fear “as unbefitting those who are loved.”

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Pope Francis arrived in Fatima on the afternoon of May 12, and he will be in Portugal for some 25 hours, leading a very tight official agenda that has left no pockets of time for his usual unplanned surprises during his trips abroad.

Pope Francis, looks at the crowd gathering in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima from the window of his helicopter as it approaches the city of Fatima, Portugal, Friday, May 12, 2017. (Credit: L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP.)
Pope Francis, looks at the crowd gathering in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima from the window of his helicopter as it approaches the city of Fatima, Portugal, Friday, May 12, 2017. (Credit: L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP.)

Upon landing, he met with the president of Portugal at the military base Monte Real, some 25 miles from Fatima. He was then choppered in to a local stadium, from where he traveled in the Pope-mobile to the Apparitions Chapel, built in the place where Mary first appeared here on May 13, 1917.

Those first long minutes, in which the pope prayed in silence and with his eyes closed in front of the image of Our Lady of Fatima, the same one that has in her crown the bullet that almost killed St. John Paul II 36 years ago, Francis led the crowd in prayer.

For over seven minutes, the pope ignored the crowd and prayed, a reminder of what happened when he visited the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Mexico, where he had asked to “please” be left alone with Virgen Morenita for some time.

Considering the vast crowd that had waited on him for hours, on Friday Pope Francis wasn’t alone, but his concentration and the deafening silence that accompanied him during those minutes, gave the impression that he was.

The Apparitions Chapel, a little, open-air shrine that sits to the side of the famed esplanade that unites the old and new shrines of Fatima was built on the exact place where the Virgin first appeared, on a small hill once known as Cova do Iria.

Upon arriving, Francis set at the feet of the image a bouquet of flowers, which he eventually replaced with a gold rose, keeping with papal tradition of giving such a gift when visiting a Marian shrine.

The crowd, with a colorful collection of made-for-the-occasion t-shirts, flags, banners and statues of Our Lady of Fatima, listened carefully, in silence and many with tears in their eyes, as Pope Francis prayed, introducing himself as a “pilgrim of the Peace that, in this place, you proclaim,” and also as a “bishop robed in white,” perhaps in reference to the third part of the Fatima secret.

Although the Vatican has long said this part of the secret, which speaks of a bishop dressed in white who, while making his way amid the corpses of victims, “falls to the ground apparently dead, under a burst of gunfire,” spoke of John Paul II and the assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square, there are pockets of Catholics who contend this version.

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Choosing to call himself this, which is in tune with the fact that he often describes himself the bishop of Rome – one of the many titles the pope has – and that he is in fact, dressed in white, at a place such as Fatima is not devoid of significance.

However, all he said was that as a bishop dressed in white, “I call to mind all those who, robe in the splendor of their baptism, desire to live in God and tell the mysteries of Christ in order to obtain peace.”

He read the prayer, which he penned himself, in Portuguese, a language he used before, during World Youth Day in Rio Janeiro, Brazil, in 2013.

In the prayer, that included a choir singing various Marian invocations, the pontiff implored “concord among all peoples,” and asked the Virgin to draw all people together as “one human family,” the sorrows of which she keeps “in the depths of your being, in your Immaculate Heart.”

Speaking of Blessed Jacinta and Francisco Marto, two of the young shepherds who saw the Virgin, and whom Francis will declare saints on Saturday, the pope asked in his prayer that they might become an example for all those who devote themselves to proclaiming the Gospel.

“Thus we will follow all paths and everywhere make our pilgrim way; we will tear down all walls and cross every frontier, as we go out to every periphery, to make known God’s justice and peace,” he said.

Pope Francis is the fourth pope to visit Portugal, following after his predecessors Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The first came in 1967, on the 50th anniversary of the apparitions, which took place back in 1917. The Polish pope made three trips, including one in 1982, on the first anniversary of the attempt on his life, from May 13, 1981 (feast of Our Lady of Fatima).

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Benedict XVI instead, came only once, in 2010, to mark the 10th anniversary of the beatification of two of the young shepherds to whom Our Lady of the Rosary appeared. Pope Francis is scheduled to declare Francisco and Jacinta Marto saints on Saturday, during the only Mass he will celebrate in the two-day trip.