Crossing the world to be in Fátima
tanja Wessels, Alice Kok
In Mid may in Portugal, all roads lead to Fátima.
Close to the Marquês de Pombal roundabout in Lisbon, an enormous white panel with the face of Pope Francis hangs draped over buildings for several days, announcing the visit of the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church to Portugal and the Sanctuary of Fatima. In that same location, that of Marquês de Pombal, on May 13th, the celebration of the 36th title of the Portuguese football championship of Benfica took place. Fatima, football and the Eurovision Song Contest, with the victory of Salvador Sobral, all celebrated in unison.
In supermarkets, a well-known napkin brand uses a pop art image of the Virgin Mary a la Andy Warhol on their latest product line. In bookstores, works on Fatima, shepherds and religion reach fever pitch. On TV, the action is followed directly, with interviews of people on the street, and commentary by experts well versed on the subject. On country roads, women and men, duly identified by their fluorescent vests, walk towards Fátima, to see the first Jesuit and South American Pope, and the long-awaited canonization of the shepherd children Francisco and Jacinta.
They are devotees like those filmmaker João Canijo captures in his movie Fátima. It is estimated that this year, faithful from more than 50 countries travelled to Cova da Iria, according to the figures made available by the sanctuary. Over two days, in the presence of the Pope, eight cardinals, 71 bishops and around 2,000 priests, more than 500 thousand people filled the sanctuary.
The believers came from many parts of the world and also from Macau and Hong Kong. In Coimbra, two days after the official ceremonies, a large group of devotees took advantage of the rainy afternoon to visit the Monastery of Santa Clara and the Memorial of Sister Lúcia before heading to Cova da Iria. Macanese Felicia Dillon returned to the city where she previously worked for many years. Today, Coimbra is a part of the path of her faith, which began early in life, but which needed fresh attention.
“My mother was a firm believer, and since childhood we were brought up with an intense religious education. At the time, when we were little, we lived in Macau, in Barrio Tamagnini Barbosa, and there was an Our Lady of [Immaculate] Conception devotee. Our home received Our Lady for nine days and we made the novena (9 days of devotion). At the time I did not understand it very well, because I was very young, I was around eight years old,” she recalls.
Life continued and distanced Felícia from the church.
“I came to live in Portugal and my faith was not so strong. It will be 10 years since I reconciled and I went back to God our Father and to our dear mother. At the time it was thanks to an invitation extended to me to go to Medjugorje [a place of pilgrimage in Bosnia and Herzegovina] and I said at once that I wanted to go,” says Felícia.
The invitation came from her younger sister. “She said to me: ‘Do not answer immediately, because you are not going to go shopping, or walk around, you will simply pray, listen and learn.’ I went and it really changed my life in terms of faith, my affection for Our Lady and Jesus. It’s very moving.”
Since then Felícia has visited different places of the Catholic faith. “My relationship with Fatima is also very intense, because since my reconversion we have always been devotees. I went to Jerusalem twice, to Medjugorje twice, I followed in the footsteps of St. Paul in Greece, I went to Turkey as well. When there were no such trips, I would come to Portugal and stay with my sisters for a few days, to relax, to meditate - I felt very well, there was great inner peace and harmony,” she reflects.
Felícia is “very happy to be able to enjoy these moments” of the centenary of Fatima. Arm-in-arm with her sister under an umbrella, a Louis Vuitton handbag over her shoulder, the Macanese Catholic enters the Carmelite church of Santa Teresa to pray, where Lúcia dos Santos (Sister Lucia) lived, and died in 2005.
Outside, a group of more than 30 people, including the former Secretary for Security of Macau, Cheong Kuok Va and his wife, are trying to shelter from the rain. Sixty-two-year-old Hong Kong native Abraham Law is the group coordinator and this is their third trip to Fatima. The first time was ten years ago, but he still remembers “the church of Our Lady of the Rosary and the big square. I knelt there at five in the morning, everything was quiet, no one else was around, there were no tourists. I felt very calm in that moment.”
Abraham Law’s personal journey with religion didn’t begin in childhood, as it did for Felicia Dillon.
“I did not grow up in a Catholic family, my parents were not Catholic. Actually, I was baptized when I was almost 30 years old. This happened through my sister, who is a very devout Catholic.”
Since then, Abraham’s life “has become completely different. Before I was 30, I was a little secular, interested in my career and material things. Then I joined the church and became a legionary in the Legion of Mary. Since my baptism I became a regular churchgoer and a volunteer. I have my job, but I do a lot of volunteer work at the church. For example, coordinating this excursion. For more than 20 years I have coordinated tours like these.”
Being in Portugal for the centennial of the visions of Fatima “is something that happens once in a lifetime,” he says, saying he is “very blessed to have this opportunity.” Abraham is pleased with the “two roles” he has to fulfil on this journey: “First, as a Catholic; second, as leader of this group of devotees. Many people from Hong Kong made this journey just to pray and to visit the holy site of Fatima.”
The more than 30 devotees who form the group come from various parishes in Hong Kong and, according to Abraham, “have very different backgrounds. Some of them didn’t even know each other before coming on this trip. After only a week in Spain, they are now familiar with each other and understand that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and that is the most important thing. When you come with an ordinary tour group, you don’t have that kind of feeling. We have some devotees who are over 80 and we help each other, there is this spirit of unity, of being all brothers and sisters around the world.”
The relationship between the Vatican and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association - never an easy one - worries Abraham. It is estimated that there are more than 24 million Catholics in China.
“It’s a complex issue. I think that with the present Pope and his strategies, there will be a much better relationship between China and the Vatican, between these two worlds. We sincerely hope that this will happen because there are many Catholics in China, but in all honesty, they have been suppressed. They can’t name their own priests, or their own bishops. I don’t think that’s right. I am confident that the relationship between the two sides will improve greatly,” he says.
While assisting at the Catholic Association of Hong Kong, Abraham visited Macau’s churches and Catholic communities several times. Although Catholics in Macau are smaller in number than in Hong Kong, Catholics in the territory are “more devout.” “I don’t know why, maybe because there aren’t that many secular activities,” he says. The way I see it is: if you want to have faith, you have to live a simple life. You will be closer to God if you live a simple life.
“It is as if the Portuguese carry a need for sacrifice in them”
Atheist filmmaker João Canijo decided to film the pilgrimage to Fátima and a group of women on the verge of a nervous breakdown as they try to find the path of faith. The filmmaker sees Fátima, with Rita Blanco, Anabela Moreira and many other actresses, as a portrait of “the most Portuguese thing there is.” Ana Maria (Rita Blanco) is a small and strict woman, the natural leader of a group of women from Vinhais, in the north of Portugal, who decide to walk to Fátima once again. Céu (Anabela Moreira) is a big yet fragile woman, with a body and shape that are difficult to fit into a small mobile home where she sleeps before lacing up her shoes for Cova da Iria. The other nine devotees from the group make up the rest of Fátima, by João Canijo, a film that starts on the road to Fátima but doesn’t leave it there. The director of Mal Nascida and Sangue do Meu Sangue explains his interest in working at the frontiers of fiction and reality.
Watching the movie, one wonders why nobody has made a film like this yet. How did you come up with this idea?
I also wondered how one never had the idea of doing something like this, even if it was only in apologetic terms, but no one ever did. I was looking for a situation where a group of women were forced to be together 24/7 and pushed to the extreme limit of their emotions. And I suddenly came up with the idea of the most Portuguese thing there is, which is a pilgrimage to Fátima on foot. This combines the human nature of the women with the paradox of being on a path where they go in search of God, where they demonstrate the need for God.
There’s a near absence of men in the movie. Until one appears and is a destabilizing element. Why?
It is for practical reasons. To me, women have a greater ability to deliver, greater capacity for exposure and more availability. It would be difficult to find a group of men who aligned with the same will in this idea of making a pilgrimage to Fátima on foot.
Tell us about the process of preparing for the film.
They all undertook real pilgrimages integrated into groups of true devotees, but they were separated, two by two, in different groups, because if they were together it would not work. Some made larger pilgrimages than others, primarily because of their age. Some of them even made it from Bragança to Fátima, which is 430 kilometres, and some made it from Vila Flor, which is less than 60 kilometres, which means two days less of travel. After that they collected all the information and research they did and made a false pilgrimage, already with the conditions seen in the film, but not a total pilgrimage. Then they went to live in Trás-os-Montes for four months, to have this experience - the people, the accent, this contagion - and from there the filming began.
Did you feel that for some of the actresses religion carried a weight that made this film special?
All of them, except one, found a way to relate to religion and put themselves in the circumstances of a character who believes in God, each in her own way. There were some who, soon after the true pilgrimage, those who were already believers, became more so. This soon passed, of course.
What is your relationship with faith?
There isn’t one. I am not religious, I am an atheist, but it really makes an impression on me to see the sacrifice of suffering that people make for the sake of God, to walk those miles to Fátima on foot. Most people do it with a promise, of course, but many people do it without a promise, just as a depuration ritual, shall we say.