On the 103rd anniversary of the first apparition of the Virgin Mary to three shepherds in this small Portuguese town of Fatima, Pope Francis asked Catholics to pray to Our Lady of Fatima for an end to the coronavirus pandemic.

“In our prayers we ask God, through the intercession of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, for peace for the world, the end of the pandemic, the spirit of penance and our conversion,” Francis said at the end of his weekly Wednesday general audience.

As has been the case since Italy went into a mandatory lockdown to stop the spread of the virus on March 8, the audience was televised, with Pope Francis accompanied by a handful of monsignors in the library of the Apostolic Palace.

He spoke about May 13 being the feast of Our Lady of Fatima during the final greetings, which are divided into various languages. He mentioned the Virgin when greeting the Polish-speaking audience, the Portuguese-speaking one and the Italians. He only spoke about the pandemic when greeting the Poles, as this Marian apparition has strong ties to Pope St. John Paul II.

As Francis said, the Polish pope “in the salvation of his life saw the maternal intervention of the Holy Virgin.” The reference was to a 1981 assassination attempt against John Paul, which he survived and which occurred on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima.

When addressing the Portuguese-speaking audience, Francis said that he encouraged everyone to “know and follow the example of the Virgin Mary.”

“To this end, let us try to live this month with a more intense and faithful daily prayer, in particular by reciting the rosary, as the Church recommends, thus fulfilling a desire repeatedly expressed in Fatima by Our Lady,” Francis said.

May is traditionally considered by Catholics worldwide as the “Month of Mary,” and in late April the pontiff asked the faithful around the world to pray the rosary daily, involving everyone in one’s household whenever possible, for the end of the pandemic that has killed 292,000 people worldwide.

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The pope also said that today, his heart travels to the diocese of Fatima, to the shrine built there and which has been closed to pilgrims. On their website, they invite wannabe pilgrims to “to an inner pilgrimage, from the heart, towards the encounter with God in the shrine of your innermost, where He is present.”

Our Lady of Fatima has held a special place in the hearts of the last three popes who in different ways have shown their attention and devotion to the Portuguese apparitions, that the Church believes first occurred May 13, 1917.

Yet no pope’s connection can match that of St. John Paul II, who believed he was saved by Our Lady of Fatima from the assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981. Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk, shot Pope John Paul at close range as the pope was greeting a crowd. Two bullets pierced the pope’s abdomen, but no major organs were struck; a bullet had missed his heart and aorta by a few inches.

St. John Paul would later say, “It was a mother’s hand that guided the bullet’s path.”

Pope Francis visited Fatima May 12-13, 2017, on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the Marian apparitions to the three little shepherds. He declared two of them saints – Jacinta and Francisco Marto.

During the audience on Wednesday, Pope Francis reflected on several core aspects of prayer, saying that it’s common to all people, regardless of what their religion is. He also reminded those watching that on Thursday, May 14, people of all religions are invited to take part in a day of prayer for the end of the pandemic, in an initiative promoted by a group born after his 2019 trip to Abu Dhabi.

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Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma