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INTERVIEW

The confessions of George Clooney

The Hollywood actor on his Catholic boyhood

FEATURE

A great gift the Church gave me

Lionel Blue thanks God for retreats

Also inside:

The year in review, short stories and our Christmastide quiz

DECEMBER 22, 2006 Christmas and New Year supplement

CHRISTMASTIDESUPPLEMENT

Where we bring what we cannot bear

Kevin Grant , a devotee of Lourdes, didn’t know what to expect when he travelled to the other great European shrine to Our Lady: Fatima

The Fatima story begins, appropriately in this Christmas season, with three visits from an angel. The Angel of Peace appeared in the spring, summer and autumn of 1916 to three Portuguese peasant children –Francisco, Jacinta and Lucia –a year before the apparitions of Our Lady herself. The angel asked the children to pray and make sacrifices to atone for men’s offences against God and thereby to draw down peace upon their country. Two of these visits were at the Loca da Anjo, just a few hundred yards from where Our Lady was to appear. The summer apparition was at the well at the bottom of the garden of the house where one of the visionaries, Lucia, was born. Then, at about noon on May 13, 1917, a “Lady more brilliant than the sun, all dressed in white” appeared to the three children at Cova da Iria. She asked the children to pray and to come back at noon on the 13th of each of the next five months. These apparitions took

place as promised, except that the visionaries were in the custody of the authorities on August 13 and so Our Lady appeared to them at Valinhos, quite close by, six days later. In the course of her appearances Our Lady invited the children to sacrifice themselves for sinners. She gave them the prayer many say after each decade of the rosary: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell and lead all souls to heaven, especially those who have most need of thy mercy. Amen.” At the final appearance, on October 13, she told the children that she was “The Lady of the Rosary” and asked that a chapel be built there in her honour. And then, after she had left them, a miracle promised to the children occurred. A crowd of 70,000 people was able to look straight at the sun, spinning round and looking like a silver disc. Pope Pius XII was also to see the sun moving in the same supernatural way, while walking in the Vatican gardens. The miracle took

place on, or near, December 1, 1950 –the day on which he declared the Dogma of the Assumption. This was my first visit to Fatima. The modern pilgrim is the ubiquitous and perennial traveller, so when I was invited to join a small parish pilgrimage group, in pleasantly off-peak November, I was delighted to go. Our private itinerary, hand-tooled for the parish by Pax Travel, began with three days in Lisbon and would include visits to magical Sintra, Coimbra, Batalha, Nazare and Tomar, as well as to Our Lady’s great shrine. Fatima, though, was our goal. We were in the company of the four million other pilgrims who visit the shrine each year. Here, as at Lourdes, Walsingham, Aylesford and Guadalupe, wherever her Son may send her to us, Mary is ever our Mother and the Help of Christians. That is why we respond to her calls. Lourdes, where I have been many times, is a place of comfort and sweetness. This is so even in

‘A crowd of 70,000 people saw the sun spinning ’

the face of the great suffering of the sick, made easier by loving care but harder by travel. I wondered how the message of Fatima, from 1917, would touch me, or rather, find me out, on my first visit there. With a new rosary round my finger is my rough answer so far. Pax had provided us with excellent couriers. Paola, an Italian girl with a good command of Portuguese, taught us the essentials: “ Bom dia! ” and “ Obrigado ”. Our hotel, the appropriately named Fatima, was excellently appointed, only strides from the shrine. We arrived as it grew dark and I hastened to the sanctuary area, negotiating the beggars, to orientate myself to the great basilica, so familiar from postcards. The first feature, on the left, after an information office, is a long selfserve counter for candles, uniformly pale yellow of every size and price. A few paces on is set a great angled bank of iron candle holders, roofed over and 40 feet long perhaps, the holders in tiers,

with rings for each width of candle. Even at that quiet hour on a November evening there was a blaze of candles along much of its length, the great heat melting and buckling the wax so that many candles tumbled down into what can only be described as an inferno –a disturbing sight. Next is the brightly lit Capelhina , the Little Chapel of the Apparitions built in the Cova da Iria, where Our Lady appeared to the three children. It is open and welcoming at the front and its side walls are glass so that at once it engages the pilgrim, warmly and inescapably. You cannot pass by. Inside, on a marble pillar marking the precise spot where Our Lady appeared, is her statue. In a low wall, just beyond the chapel, is a holm oak, similar to the one above which Our Lady first appeared to the children. Sadly, the original tree has not survived. Each evening, much as in Lourdes, the pilgrims gather in the

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