I can’t explain my faith. I have no particular need to. I know it works for me and that’s what matters. I’m not much for organised religion even though I go to mass most Sundays and have daily conversations with my God. While there’s a lot about the Roman Catholic Church that I don’t like, it’s the faith I was born into and it’s too much trouble to change. Anyway, religions are man-made institutions, riddled with their associated foibles and prejudices. If there’s a perfect one out there, I’d be surprised. But at their core is the simple ethos: be kind, be true, be honest, be faithful. Not all that difficult really and yet the faithful manage to screw it up on a regular basis. I remember a quotation by Kofi Annan that I read on the walls of a church in Malta:
The problem is not the Koran, nor the Torah, nor yet the Gospel. The problem is never the faith – it is the faithful, and how they behave towards each other.
It’s no wonder that the world wonders where God has gone.
That said, from the outside looking in, Catholicism has to seem a little mad. Our churches are full of gilded statues while our people in many parts of the world are starving. Churches in Liverpool and Birmingham we built on the back of tithes from Irish workers whose kids went without food so that the priest could have shoes and the people could have a place to workship. In America, too. Catholic immigrants built the great churches and tithed and lived in fear of the almighty.
A stranger walking in to a Catholic church might wonder what the chap on the cross is doing. They might also have a hard time understanding the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation or buying into either. And as for confession… that for many looking in that seems like a free pass to do what you will when you want.
For me, though, the most wondrous part of all that is Catholic are the Marian Apparitions. They’re spread around the world – four in France, one in Ireland, two in Belgium – seventeen in all said to be approved by the Holy See (this varies mind you… man-made institution with man-made reporting and all that). The first was Guadalupe, Mexico, in 1531. The most recent was in Kibeho, Rwanda in 1981.
Fátima has been on my list of places to visit for years. The multiple apparitions here puts it high on the Roman Catholic Pilgrimage Trail. In 1916, three children – Lucia Dos Santos aged 9, and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, aged 8 and 6 – saw an angel who appeared to them three times, paving the way for Our Lady. The stories of Fátima sound fantastical but the miracles accredited to those who believe and pray to Our Lady are legendary. I was amused to read the that
railing a little at the idea of someone telling me what’s worthy of belief.
Francisco died on 4 April 1919, Jacinta died on 20 February 1920, and Lucia lived till she was 97, dying on 13 February 2005. Now there’s a woman I’d have liked to have met. All three are buried in the Basilica.
I didn’t expect Fátima to be so… well… new. I know my dates and I know that’s irrational. It is massive. The square is bigger than St Peter’s Square in Rome. If there were 200 people there the day we visited, that was it. We were lost in a place built for hundreds of thousands. On 13 May and 13 October, it is said that a million people come to pay homage. The Basilica and its colonnades are fabulous The new church, finished in 2005, can hold 9000 people and is said to be the largest in Portugal.
Pilgrims walk (?) on their knees to the Church of the Apparition where rosary is regularly said. They then do three circuits, again on their knees, all the while saying the rosary. Those in the know had come prepared with their knee pads. I had a badly bruised knee from a spill I’d taken a week previously and with no pads just managed the one turn. But, of course, I hadn’t done my homework and didn’t realise till an hour into it all that there’s a procedure. If you go as a pilgrim, bear right to the Nativity and pick up your brochure there. It’ll tell you the rest and give you the prayers to be said and tell you where to say them. If you go as a tourist, enjoy.
I’m not sure what I had expected. I’m very glad I went, if for no other reason than lighting the myriad candles I’d promised to light for various people around the world (you know who you are).
There is a quietness about it all, a sense of reverence, an almost tangible belief in something greater than human form. Was I expecting an apparition? No. Do I believe that it all happened 100 years or so ago? Yes. Do I expect anyone else to believe? It doesn’t matter. As I said, my faith is enough for me. And that simple realisation, I’m truly grateful.