Pope Benedict XVI took a break from the relentless news about the sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church and flew to Portugal this week to worship at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, one of the world's most venerated shrines with over 5 million visitors a year.
The devout pilgrims who have come to Fatima to see him – many camping in cars and tents in the fields around the shrine – are mostly Portuguese, although dozens of different countries are also represented, judging by the flags waved by the crowds.
Fatima has had an important role in the Catholic Church ever since the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared to three poor shepherd children here in 1917. The children said she spoke to them and entrusted them with three prophetic revelations known as the three secrets of Fatima.
The first two secrets were made public early on. But the mysterious "third secret" was not revealed until 2000, when it was interpreted to be a prediction of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981.
Pope Benedict, in a rare conversation with reporters, explained in his precise Italian that the interpretation of the third secret does not stop there, however. The third secret, he said, has a permanent and ongoing significance. The Pope said its significance could even be extended to include the suffering the Church is going through today as a result of the recent reports of sexual abuse involving the clergy.
The Vatican press corps, having been embroiled in the abuse story for months, found themselves feverishly digging out their notes about the "secrets" of Fatima and debating their meaning once again. The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, had to answer repeated questions at the daily briefings: "Hadn't we had the definitive answer to the third secret back in 2000?" "Do we have to decipher the Virgin Mary's messages all over again and repeatedly?" "How could this be?"
John Paul II, who survived the attempt on his life in 1981, believed it was Our Lady of Fatima who saved his life by diverting the bullet that day. John Paul travelled here three times as Pope.
Pope John Paul later donated the bullet which had been removed from his body to the shrine. It is now lodged in the bejewelled crown of the statue of the Virgin Mary of Fatima, housed in the "Capilinha," the chapel built on the site where she is said to have appeared to the children in the center of the large sanctuary complex.
Fatima is not especially scenic. The shrine sits above the small town, surrounded by a hodgepodge of cafes, restaurants, guest houses and souvenir shops. They sell an assortment of religious trinkets, rosaries, crucifixes, painted tiles depicting the Madonna, plastic holy water bottles, statues of the Madonna of Fatima and the most popular saints in assorted sizes, and super thin, six-foot-tall, white candles.
The souvenir shops also sell body parts made out of white wax that hang in a jumble on the storefronts. They come in different sizes and different shapes – right or left arms, hands and feet, ears, kidneys, hearts, stomachs, livers, intestines, heads, eyes, breasts along with wax figures of babies and children. All can be bought for a few Euros each.
Little wax houses, cars, boats and figures of two people on a motorcycle are also for sale next to the body parts. They are known as votive offerings. Pilgrims drop these wax replicas of the sick part of their bodies, accompanied by a prayer, into a fire next to the chapel, hoping for a miraculous cure of their ailments. Sanctuary officials allow the offerings, though they would much prefer the lighting of simple candles.
The open area of the sanctuary is twice the size of St. Peter's square at the Vatican. Catholics have been flocking here since 1919. Pope Benedict's visit has brought 500,000 pilgrims to the site this week.
During the religious ceremonies celebrating the Virgin Mary of Fatima, her sweet-faced statue is taken off its pedestal in the Capilinha and carried very slowly in procession around the square. The Virgin Mary is carried on a gilded wooden platform bedecked with dozens of white roses by eight men in military uniforms, wobbling from time to time as they stagger under the weight.
And over these two days, Pope Benedict XVI, this very theological and rational pope, showed his deep belief in the supernatural events that took place here.
"The devotion and affection of all of you, the faithful who have come here from all around the world, is clear to me," he told the crowd Wednesday night. "I bring with me the worries and hopes of our times, the sufferings of our wounded humanity and the problems of the world, and I place them at the feet of Our Lady of Fatima."