By John C. Preiss
In central Portugal the terrain is rocky, and the soil is very poor. The summers are extremely dry, and it seldom rains. Olive oil is the chief marketable commodity for the farmers, so it is especially tragic when fire destroys large numbers of olive trees.
In June, the farmers harvest wheat; in early fall, corn and grapes. In August of each year, on the 13th, hundreds of farmers bring sacks of wheat to the basilica at the Cova da Iria, to donate for use in making flour for altar breads for the following year. These breads, the humble farmers know, will be consecrated into the Body of Christ and distributed at Masses celebrated during the coming year for the teeming pilgrims who will come to Fatima.
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary stands atop the hill where Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta played games while herding their sheep. It is there that they encountered Our Lady for the first time. As we recount the apparitions, imagine that you are one of the three shepherds on that hill, and Our Lady is appearing to you.
In spite of the Angel’s earlier apparitions, the three children never assumed that anything of great significance would happen again. They had the sheep up on the family property called the Cova da Iria and were playing as usual when all of a sudden, it happened.
This is how Sister Lucia described that first appearance of Our Lady on May 13, 1917:
While playing with Jacinta and Francisco on the hilltop in the Cova da Iria, making a little stone wall around a furze-like clump called moita, suddenly we saw a flash of lightening. “There is a flash of lightning,” I said to my cousins, “a thunder-storm may come on. It would be better for us to go home.” “Oh yes, of course,” they said. And we began to descend the hill driving the sheep along towards the road. When we reached a large holm-oak about halfway down the slope the light flashed again. Then a few paces further on, we beheld a beautiful lady dressed in white, poised over a holm-oak sapling very near us. She was more brilliant than the sun, radiating a sparkling light. Struck with amazement, we halted before this vision. We were so near that we were bathed in the light that radiated from her person to a distance of about three feet.
Then the Lady said: “Do not be afraid; I will do you no harm.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I am from heaven.”
“What do you want of me?”
“I came to ask you to come here for six successive months, on the 13th day at the same hour. Later I will tell what I want. And I will return here yet a seventh time.”
“And I, shall I go to heaven?”
“Yes, you will.”
“She will go also.”
“He will go there too, but he must say many Rosaries first.”
Then I remembered to ask about two girls who had died recently. They were friends of mine and used to come to my home to learn weaving with my eldest sister. “Is Maria das Neves in heaven?”
“Yes, she is.”
“And Amelia?” She will be in Purgatory until the end of the world.” (It seems to me that she was between 18 and 20 years of age.)
“End of the world” is properly interpreted as a very long time. This was because people were not praying for her. In this moment, Our Lady confirmed the existence of Purgatory. Her words to the children are a reminder to us that we should not forget to pray for the poor souls there. Sister Lucia continued with Mary’s words:
“Do you wish to offer up to God all the sufferings He desires to send you in reparation for the sins by which he is offended, and in supplication for the conversion of sinners?”
“Yes, we do.”
“Go then, for you will have much to suffer, but the grace of God will comfort you.”
While pronouncing the words “the grace of God,” Our Lady opened her hands for the first time, shedding on us a light so intense that it seemed as a reflex glancing from her hands and penetrating to the innermost recesses of our hearts, making us see ourselves in God, who was that Light, more clearly than we could see ourselves in a mirror. Then by an interior impulse, also communicated to us, we fell upon our knees, repeating in our hearts: “Oh, most Holy Trinity, I adore Thee! My God, my God, I love Thee in the most Blessed Sacrament!” (Fatima Today, pg. 21)
This first apparition of Mary occurred on the Church’s Feast of Our Lady of the Eucharist, and already the Mother of God was drawing the children to adore our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. As our heavenly Mother, Mary desires to lead all her children closer to the Eucharistic heart of Jesus, our food for eternal life.
After a few moments, Our Lady spoke to the children again: “Say the Rosary every day in order to obtain peace for the world and the end of the war.” Sister Lucia then describes the end of the apparition:
Then she began to ascend serenely, going up towards the east, the light that surrounded her seeming to open up a path before her, until she finally disappeared in the immensity of space, the reason why we sometimes said we saw heaven opening.
On their way home after the apparition, the children decided not to tell anyone about the Lady they had seen. Jacinta was so impressed by the Lady’s beauty, however, that she was unable to keep quiet, and told her mother about their encounter with the Mother of God. News spread quickly through the small village. While some were predisposed to believe the children’s story, others immediately dismissed it as childish imagination, a bid for attention, or lies. Over the months that followed, many more people heard about what was happening in Fatima and the crowds grew.
The message of this first apparition was not only for three shepherd children in 1917; it is for all of us even today. Mary’s message to the children at Fatima invites us to offer up our sufferings for the conversion of sinners. Each one of us has something to offer on a daily basis. Our Lady also asks us to pray the Rosary for peace. The response we give is up to each one of us.