My first visit to Fatima was on a whim. In September 2005, my dad and I had walked 200 miles across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. With a few days to kill before our flight from Madrid, a quick coach trip down to Lisbon sounded like fun. And seeing as how we’d be passing by anyway, I suggested, why not call in at Fatima – just an hour and a half’s drive north of the Portuguese capital – for the night?
Truth be told, I didn’t know much about Fatima. But having just finished up a theology degree, and about to start a master’s on Vatican II, now seemed like a good time to find out.
I was, at this point, still some sort of atheist. I say ‘some sor’ because – as attentive readers may already have spotted – in hindsight I suppose some warnings signs were already there.
Fatima, away from the Basilica and its surrounding shops, is a much smaller and sleepier place than – as I would later find out – Lourdes. One really needs to go with serious devotional intent; there is not must touristing there to do.
Still, I at least learned the basics of the Fatima story: three little shepherds, visits from Our Lady, miracle of the Sun, ominous prophecies. Moreover, even as an outsider, I found something moving about the place: my first real taste of Catholic piety – candle-lighting, processions, penitents walking around on their knees – on a grand and baroque scale.
I cannot say that it was Fatima, directly, that transformed this atheist into a Catholic. (I wish I could: it would help sell books, for one thing.) But I dare say it contributed in some way, along with a great deal else, accumulating gradually over a long time. In any case, less than three years later, I was baptised in Rome.
On returning to Britain as a Catholic, I was given a how-to pray-the-rosary pamphlet by a friend. Naturally, the existence of something called “the Fatima prayer” caught my interest. So too did its brevity, at just 29 words: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those with most need of thy mercy. Amen.”
I am not, I’m afraid to say, a great memoriser of prayers. Perhaps if I was a greater pray-er of them, I would find it easier. Here, though, was one I thought that even I could manage.
I’m glad I did. For while concise, it is remarkably profound. It addresses, head on, the great themes of Christianity: sin, hell, Heaven, mercy. It is a prayer for both others and oneself. It even has, for those that like that sort of thing, the frisson of theological daring: the plain and natural reading of “lead all souls to Heaven” is that it evinces, at the very least, a hope that all may be saved. And all disarmingly prefaced by so simple and direct an address as a child (or three) might use: “O my Jesus”.
According to the second-century theologian Tertullian, the Lord’s Prayer presents us with “a whole summary of the Gospel”.
Now, I am not quite enough of a ‘Fatimaniac’ to go that far in this case. But I will say this. Even if believers and unbelievers alike hadn’t seen the Sun dance in the sky in 1917, this theological marvel-in-miniature would be plenty sufficient to be sure something supernatural was afoot at Fatima.
For most devotees, the prayer is typically used after each decade of the rosary as, indeed, Our Lady requested it be. But the saintly siblings Francisco and Jacinta – the younger two of the three children to whom Mary appeared; they both died soon after in the Spanish Flu pandemic – would often use it as a standalone prayer too.
For what it’s worth (after all, my own prayer life isn’t exactly one to aspire to) that’s also how I most often use it. While solemnly processing up for Communion, for example, I find it a good way to focus on both the gravity and privilege of what I’m about to do. During a recent bout of depression, it was sometimes the only prayer I could summon the energy or conviction to utter. In the midst of a couple of scarily dark episodes, pleading for those “with most need of thy mercy” felt like a concretely practical bit of self-care.
Twelve years on from my first visit, then, perhaps it’s high time I returned to Fatima. This time, the lack of touristic diversions mightn’t bother me so much. I’ll find plenty there to fill my time – and my heart.