welcome to emmas housethought

the story of fatima

I attended a rather pious little Catholic primary school where a spooky caricature of a priest presided over our Christian indoctrination.

If you can stay clear of the paedophiles priests and the violent nuns, a Catholic upbringing can be very entertaining for a child. Catholicism is full of drama & costumes, and of fear of the titillating kind children suck up. Father Gayley of Our Lady of Good Counsel (no one knew what that meant) was of the damnation school of teaching, but in a reasonably benign way. As far as I know nothing nasty happened, he just freaked us out with his oldness and weirdness and the way he shouted at you if you had nothing to say at the confessional. Both my sisters recall having to lie about sins they’d committed to avoid receiving penance for… lying.


from the excellent wax museum at fatima

The most thrilling of our Thursday afternoon catechism class was when Father Gayley pulled something out of his collection of 16mm films. Setting up the projector was fraught with problems and the projection results pretty dodgy which just added to the mystique of the films themselves and of religion lessons generally. If Jesus was in the movie, you never saw his face, and if god appeared the special effects went into overdrive. The sound was always bad too. All this created a baffling atmosphere in which it was impossible to determine what was fact or fiction.

Thus The Story of Fatima was taught to us. How exciting to find, as a grown up, that Fatima the location was a real place and the children really existed!

At this point I would cross to wikipedia to check the facts before regaling you with my version of events as I remember it. Except that in this case there are very few actual facts. We can rely on the idea that the event happened and the characters existed – a bit like Jesus Christ – but after that the story is tainted either by religious belief or by those with vested interests or indeed by both.

So, back to the story as I was told it then.


In 1917 three children – Jacinta, 7, Lucia, 10 and Francisco, 9 – were out in the fields of Cova da Iria, near Aljustrel, Fatima, Portugal shepherding sheep. An angel appeared to them out of the blue and asked them to repent, pray and come again next month. So this they did and the next month on the same day she appeared again with a few more messages, and told them if they came again every month she’ll eventually tell them who she was.

In between dates with the angel they told a few people and were forbidden by their mother to ever see the angel again (not hard to believe). The local “anticlerical administrator” person interrogated them but they stoically kept to their story. Word spread about the visions and on the next few visits by the angel they were joined by an increasing number of onlookers. The angel started showing them stuff like visions of hell and asking them to get the world to repent and said stayed tuned for next week’s episode. By the 6th visit, the angel had been replaced by the Virgin Mary herself and the crowd had swelled to 70 thousand people – a mixed gaggle of the pious, the curious, at least one journalist, one scientist and those with nothing else on that afternoon.

They all waited with great anticipation and watched the sky and the nice but mysterious patterns the clouds were making. They all looked at the sun a lot and when the Virgin appeared, although she could only be seen and heard by the children, most other people experienced some sort of solar event of significant colour and magic. This was considered a miracle, one that had been requested by the clergy, via the children, to prove that they weren’t bullshitting. The swirly sun thing satisfied everyone and the Virgin went away and was never seen again.


apparently this is an actual photo of people witnessing the "Miracle of the Sun"

The following year Jacinta and Francisco died from the Spanish flu, (thanks for nothing Virgin Mary) leaving only Lucia to carry the whole story. The children had been told three secrets, it seems, which were of interest to the Catholic church as was the Fatima story of interest to Portugal. In the visions various predictions had been made about things I’m not convinced the children would’ve understood at the time. Take the prediction of another world war (when WW1 was still being played out), the conversion of Russia (where’s Russia, the kids must have asked, near Porto?) and the assassination attempt on the Pope, in 1983.

Whatever was said, the Fatima story hit a chord and became a huge success for the Catholics. Pilgrimages by the faithful to Cova da Iria started almost immediately and a chapel was built at the site. Lucia had become so famous that she though best to second herself in a nunnery where she wrote books about the experience.

Theories about what really happened at Fatima are as numerous as the variations on the story from a believer’s point of view. A UFO, magic mushrooms, gases which caused hallucinations, mass hysteria or religious zeal, whatever. The prominent scientific explanation for the “Miracle of the Sun” is that everyone simply stared at the sun too long.

But for me,  there are bigger holes in the story. If you were an omnipotent being, would you choose three illiterate children to convey your message? If you were an omnipotent being and you had some predictions for the 20th century, would you really put the ‘conversion of Russia’ ahead of say, the holocaust? Is the attempted assassination of a Pope really more important than Hiroshima? Yugoslavia? Burundi & Rwanda? Just who is this omnipotent being anyway for failing to warn us about Hitler?


The Catholic church has a long history of visions and the 19th and 20th Centuries they were particularly in vogue. Other stories of seers may well have been told to the children of Fatima, as they are just the type of story that travels well by word of mouth. The most notable in their time was in 1858 in Lourdes, France where 14 yr old Bernadette saw visions. Unlike Lucia, she was not particularly religious beforehand and only initially identified the vision as being of a small young woman. In later appearances, the figure identified herself as the Immaculate Conception, a concept only recently invented by then Pope Pius IX. Bernadette’s family, extremely poor and illiterate, claimed that Bernadette could not have heard the term before. The story of Lourdes is even more curious than Fatima.


The success of the Fatima phenomenon needs to be seen in the context of the socio-political landscape of the time. Since the 19th century, religious participation had become more the domain of women rather than men. Catholicism had seen a feminisation in favour of the worship of Mary and female biblical stories and saints. Contemporary visions of Mary were almost always reported by women or children. Portugal’s monarchy had been abolished in 1910 and since then its government was in constant flux. The first republic was anti-clerical and the rural classes (traditionally monarchist) must have felt disenfranchised. Portugal was also fighting in the Great War. The children at Fatima had overcome the local authorities’ wish to suppress the story and Fatima’s followers continued to grow massively every year. This was a huge coup by the Catholics against the ruling classes. Lucia, along with the growing faithful, continued to keep the story alive long enough to have it recognised by the Pope. By this time Salazar had come to power.  Catholic and ultra conservative, with an agenda to keep the Portuguese people quiet and ignorant (and thus retain power), the Fatima story complemented his ideals.


Fatima today receives about 4 million visitors a year, but if you come to experience a quaint story of shepherds and angels you’ll be disappointed. Surrounded by souvenir tack shops (nice sheep with halos though), the shrine of Fatima is a utilitarian worship factory housing two large and charmless (especially by Portuguese standards) basilica centred around one humongous concrete quadrangle. The latest one was finished in 2007 and is apparently the fourth largest church in the world. Built at a cost of 60 million euros, it’s another example of grotesque which begs the question,  if the Catholic church never built a single cathedral would there still be poverty today?





  1. John February 14, 2012 12:12 am Reply

    I visited last year, with 3 ardent Slovakian Catholics. “Are you in awe?” I was asked. I should have retorted “only in the gullibility of man”. I didn’t. I live in Portugal. Someone may have heard me…

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: February 14th, 2012 at 4:39 am

    🙂 I was mightily surprised when a friend said “have you been to Fatima? Isn’t it beautiful?”… “ah, no. Beautiful it aint” was my reply. I’m baffled why anyone would take “beautiful” away from that place. I forgot to mention in the post the faithful crawling on their bloodied knees towards the shrine. Horrible. Tragic. Stupid. Funny how they managed to make fatima so bereft of charm when the rest of the country is cute. Only Vila Nova de Poiares is more hideous. Cernache de Bonjardim is pretty yuck too. Ooo I feel a post coming on: the ugliest places in Portugal 🙂

    [Reply to comment]

    António   Reply: February 10th, 2013 at 11:17 am

    @Emma, Why it says this about the Cernache Bonjardim? I visited and found one of the most beautiful villages of Portugal, for fátima have the same opinion as you.

    [Reply to comment]


  2. Papgena February 14, 2012 3:03 am Reply

    I really like your last question!! Those 60 million euros are making fun of us all!
    Although I was raised in a chatolic family I don’t have bad memories of the catechism: I only attend one time a week and basically didn’t pay attention to it! 😀 I actually heard more about christ’s life at home, in books and movies that in catechism!!!
    I went to school shortly after April 25th that help too, everibody was agnostic or anticlerical back then!

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: February 14th, 2012 at 4:55 am

    Yep, it was interesting reading about the first republic and how politics affected religion in such an abrupt way. Same thing must have happened in ’74, that the non-religious population became visible. I always thought that secularisation was a slower process, but there you go.

    [Reply to comment]


  3. spike cherrie February 14, 2012 7:46 am Reply

    dear emma,
    you are brilliant. how do you find the time to research and do your renovations as well? what a beautiful mind.


    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: February 14th, 2012 at 10:10 pm

    research, collect firewood, help husband with tax, feed husband, put clothes on line, renovate, feed husband again, attend to pets’ relentless needs. honestly spike I feel like superwoman sometimes.

    My secret is I dont bathe. The time saved!

    I’ve been having memories of that caterer who made porridge with cream – at 5am and freezing oh what bliss!

    [Reply to comment]

  4. Gin February 14, 2012 3:44 pm Reply

    Brilliant Em! Such fun to read! Takes me back to when i snitched the holy cards from the back of the church trying to get a whole set! I still can’t remember the film though, too busy trying to remember my sins and which were menial and which were cardinal!
    Love gin

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: February 14th, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    mate, that picture of our lady of lourdes made me go all soft for holy cards again. I wanted to fill the post with posing, radiating saints, their lazy eyes gazing gently into space…

    [Reply to comment]

  5. Horatio February 14, 2012 9:23 pm Reply

    Love your writing!
    In all the years I’ve lived in Portugal, my only response to anything related with Fatima has been a menacing Freudian growl….grrrrr, stop wasting my time, woof!!
    So yeah, I read your whole article wagging my tail.
    I have a little farm here in Peniche, why doesn’t anybody see a holy ghost there so I can sell it for millions? This is dog’s life.
    Horatio in Peniche

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: February 14th, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    I’m feeling your pain, brother. We’ve been trying to whip up a miracle here for years. I’ve even started a ministry of miracles and put the lazy dog in charge. Nothing so far (no surprises there). He has dug a few holes though, looking for healing springs… I hope.
    Keep the faith

    [Reply to comment]


  6. João Santos March 2, 2012 3:20 am Reply

    Hello Emma, first I have to say I am a big fan of your blog it’s a great way to see how a foreigner see us.

    , I work as Tour Guide in Portugal (OFFICAL btw) and in college when studying Fatima the first thing I learned was that “If you don’t believe, you have to respect” let me correct you in a few things:

    The angel appeared in 1916 , in the 13th May of 1917 the 3 children saw a Lady dressed in white.
    You said correctly that there were journalists in the crowd, some of them in fact worked for Republican/Anti-clergy journalists that in fact described the “Miracle of The Sun” in the newspapers!

    About the secrets of Fatima they were visions and metaphors so they can be interpreted in many ways: The first one was a vision of Peace – the end of WWI and vision of hell to come (WWII) so that includes Hitler/hiroshima etc… the second secret the one about Russia was a warning about the dangers of communist russia who persecuted catholics in Easter Europe! (some say Comunism was responsible for 60million deaths all over the world). The 3rd secret was a vision of a bishop dressed in white – Pope John Paul II survived an assasination attempt on his life exactly on the 13th May .
    He later offered the bullet to the sactuary, they decided to put the bullet in the special crown (a very valious one offered in the late 40’s) and the bullet had a perfect fit under the cross of the crown!

    But if you “hate” fatima you have a lot of sites of interest in the area: 30km to the east of Fatima you can visit the old Knight’s Templar headquarters in Tomar ! some say they chose the site because they knew that Fatima would be important one day 🙂
    30 km to the west of Fatima you can visit the Monastery of Batalha, that celebrates the famous battle of aljubarrota of 1385 where 6000 portuguese defeated 30000 castillians! the “general” of the battle was Nuno Alvares Pereira who then quit the military life and joined the religious life! In 2009 he was canonized (Saint Nuno) and many say that the victory was Fatima’s first miracle!

    Sorry about the lecture, I’m not even a Catholic but religious tourism is a very important part of my work (In the high season I visit Fatima more often than I visit my mother) I just wanted to clarify some mistakes and advice some alternative sites in the area!

    [Reply to comment]

  7. Mike Coelho April 20, 2012 1:06 am Reply

    Thanks for posting this very insightful look into the Fatima apparitions!!- having grown up with grandparents who lived not too far from Fatima and were 16 at the time of the apparitions- I can tell you that statues, pictures (one which was a hologram of two different “Our Lady” poses) were prominently displayed in the home. I too think it’s extremely important to consider the political and social climate of Portugal at the time that this occurred and the resistance to the secularism that was being pushed by the republican government, when you consider the excesses and abuses of the Church’s presence in previous years, it made perfect sense for the new government to try and move forward beyond this. Unfortunately, for the poor and simple rural people, the concept must have been very hard to comprehend or accept, particularly when, no doubt the clergy of the villages were preaching to the contrary. I also often wonder if Fatima would be such a big part of Portuguese culture if Salazar and his far right wing policies didn’t have such a long and firm hold on the country beginning only around 10 years afterwards (let’s face it, Fatima IS one of the 3 F’s!)

    At the end of the day- believing or not believing is up to the individual- I figure that if belief in this experience helps make some better people, then more power to them- there are definitely worse things to hang your hat on!

    I for one would rather focus on other aspects of Portuguese culture such as fado (a passion of mine and one that’s resurgence in the last few decades has made my heart happy!) and Pasteis de Belem which in my opinion is a masterpiece, these cultural gems, soundly trump tacky plastic statues and glow in the dark oversized rosery beads!

    [Reply to comment]

  8. sarah April 23, 2012 12:31 am Reply

    Dearest Emma,
    I was very much enjoying reading your site until I chose to look at your Fatima section. It saddens my heart that few understand the personal penance the faithful seek to gain purity in soul to become closer to our Lord. I am very sorry you had a not so great priest who failed to instill in you the truth and light found only in the face of God. I will pray true peace and joy known only in knowing Him find its way into your heart. May God bless and keep you.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: April 23rd, 2012 at 3:37 am

    yeah, bloody priest, hopeless. I’m sure he did his best.

    [Reply to comment]

  9. Lx September 4, 2012 9:56 am Reply

    Two portuguese researchers, Fina D’armada and Joaquim Fernandes say it was a UFO. One of their books is called: “As aparições de Fátima e o fenómeno Ovni”. This book was also published in english: “HEAVENLY LIGHTS, The Apparitions of Fatima and the UFO Phenomenon”. There are more books on the subject, by the same authors…

    [Reply to comment]


  10. Johnny January 20, 2014 10:08 am Reply

    That first picture of the kids is scary.. first time I see it.

    There’s a very interesting book about Fatima, from Moisés Espirito Santo, Religion Sociologist, Ethnologist and Antropologist that can add someting to you relation to Fatima since you most likely lost something when you visited it after.

    Book its called “Os Mouros Fatimidas e as Aparições de Fátima”.
    The author was at start studying the presence of musslins (Mours) at Portugal, what little is known, and got surprised with alot of paralels and coincidences. Unfortenatly is only at Portuguese language, from Universidade Nova de Lisboa edition.
    In attachement includes the kids initial statements to a Priest that was not really a believer.


    [Reply to comment]

Leave a Reply to Gin Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Posts Widget for Blogs by LinkWithin