When the Seers experienced the sight of the Blessed Virgin Mary in May 1917, Portugal had been in the First World War for less than one year. The First World War was not a happy experience for Portugal. The reasons for its entry into the battlefields of Europe do not make savoury reading. In addition, Portugal had been racked previously by civil war, church persecution, graft and poverty which was the most extreme in Western Europe.
Why then commemorate the events surrounding three young children in rural Portugal, in the middle of nowhere at a time of great tragedy and bloodshed which at the time attracted no attention whatsoever ? In secular human terms the apparitions were a non-event.
Why did the Pope go to Fatima ? He explained his reasons in his Homily at the Mass on the Esplanade of the Shrine of Our Lady of Fátima on Thursday, 13 May 2010
He explained that he went there on pilgrimage, as a pilgrim.
"I too have come as a pilgrim to Fatima, to this “home” from which Mary chose to speak to us in modern times.
I have come to Fatima to rejoice in Mary’s presence and maternal protection.
I have come to Fatima, because today the pilgrim Church, willed by her Son as the instrument of evangelization and the sacrament of salvation, converges upon this place.
I have come to Fatima to pray, in union with Mary and so many pilgrims, for our human family, afflicted as it is by various ills and sufferings.
Finally, I have come to Fatima with the same sentiments as those of Blessed Francisco and Jacinta, and the Servant of God Lúcia, in order to entrust to Our Lady the intimate confession that “I love” Jesus, that the Church and priests “love” him and desire to keep their gaze fixed upon him as this Year for Priests comes to its end, and in order to entrust to Mary’s maternal protection priests, consecrated men and women, missionaries and all those who by their good works make the House of God a place of welcome and charitable outreach."
Amongst other things in his Homily, he concentrated on the importance of Fatima, the place, and what actually happened at the small out of the way village in the middle of nowhere while the world was preoccupied by the events of the First World War.
What the seers experienced all those years ago was through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary was an an "experience of grace": It was an event in history, one of the great events in modern history, but virtually ignored by the world at the time and unknown.
"[T]he Lady “come from heaven”, the Teacher who introduced the little seers to a deep knowledge of the Love of the Blessed Trinity ... led them to savour God himself as the most beautiful reality of human existence. This experience of grace made them fall in love with God in Jesus, so much so that Jacinta could cry out: “How much I delight in telling Jesus that I love him! When I tell him this often, I feel as if I have a fire in my breast, yet it does not burn me”. And Francisco could say: “What I liked most of all was seeing Our Lord in that light which Our Mother put into our hearts. I love God so much!” (Memoirs of Sister Lúcia, I, 42 and 126)."
He went on to say that what was experienced by the seers was "the gentle touch of a reality which is beyond the senses and which enables us to reach what is not accessible or visible to the senses.... [the] light deep within the shepherd children, which comes from the future of God, ... the same Light which was manifested in the fullness of time and came for us all: the Son of God made man. He has the power to inflame the coldest and saddest of hearts, as we see in the case of the disciples on the way to Emmaus (cf. Lk 24:32)."
As a result the Pope said that "the shepherd children, who offered their whole lives to God ... shared them fully with others for love of God. Our Lady helped them to open their hearts to universal love. Blessed Jacinta, in particular, proved tireless in sharing with the needy and in making sacrifices for the conversion of sinners. Only with this fraternal and generous love will we succeed in building the civilization of love and peace."
At the time when the events occurred, they would have been regarded as a non-event compared to the other events happening in Portugal and the other places where the First World War was being waged. Yet who now outside Portugal remembers what else happened in Portugal in 1917 ? As the Pope said:
"At a time when the human family was ready to sacrifice all that was most sacred on the altar of the petty and selfish interests of nations, races, ideologies, groups and individuals, our Blessed Mother came from heaven, offering to implant in the hearts of all those who trust in her the Love of God burning in her own heart. At that time it was only to three children, yet the example of their lives spread and multiplied, especially as a result of the travels of the Pilgrim Virgin, in countless groups throughout the world dedicated to the cause of fraternal solidarity."
Many agree. To the surprise and consternation of some, up to half a million people attended the open-air Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI on 13th May 2010.