Review of the "Fatima Handbook"
- from New Directions

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Fatima Handbook. Leo Madigan. Gracewing, 252pp. Pbk.

From New Directions. June 2001. P.29.

A clear, comprehensive, if slightly old fashioned, guide to Our Lady's Shrine at Fatima in Portugal. And therefore a good thing, for while Fatima is well known in this country, it is not as well loved as it might be.

Still less than a hundred years old, the message of Fatima can seem eerily old fashioned on first encounter, a cosmic battle between totalitarian regimes that leave the little Protestant democrats from an off-shore island rather fearful and suspicious. The warring claims of fascists and communists that darkened most of the decades of the last century are part of what makes the continent so foreign.

It is the candles that express this best at Fatima. Pilgrims to Walshingham will light many, perhaps several times during a visit, and while it is not part of the intention nor the prayer offered with them, there is a pleasure in the beauty of so many small, twinkling lights in the darkness of a holy space.

The candles at Fatima are big, anything up to six feet tall, all in thick brown wax. To one side of the huge open square, next to the Capelinha (the Chapel of the Apparitions), are some large, blackened troughs up against the wall in which these assorted candles can be burned; it is called the "Candle Pyre", and if that evokes recent images of the foot-and-mouth burnings, then you are getting close to the right picture.

Like Knock, Fatima is big and bleak and not of much interest if you are simply a tourist. But as a pilgrim, it offers an unusually challenging encounter with God. Challenging, because Our Lady's message and the manner in which it is mediated at the shrine is entirely at odds with anything one might associate with being English or with having lived in the twentieth century.

It is almost wholly "other", and yet millions come here, both to offer faith and to receive it. As evangelicals would love to say, it is either mad, bad or true. Madigan has an aerial photograph of the vast crowds on 13th May 1957; part of me wishes I could have been there, to have had my English Protestantism terrified by the mass devotion of these peasant citizens of a dictatorial regime.

The Cold War is ended, the Iron Curtain has fallen, Portugal is now a democracy, a member of the European Union and its people more prosperous. As if to mark this change, the Third Secret has been revealed, leaving a sense of anti-climax and bathos. Fatima moves towards its centenary as a more rounded shrine, with a less obvious political agenda.

If this means it will have to develop a broader ministry to a wider spectrum of pilgrims, I am sure it will succeed; there was always more in Mary's visitation than communist-bashing. Fatima is a truly important place on earth.

Madigan gives an excellent survey of the history, the buildings, the devotions, the context; he explains the Portuguese and its pronunciations for the principal prayers; he covers just about everything. I would strongly recommend it as a preparatory reading in this country, if you are thinking about or preparing to visit this shrine of Mary.

NT


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