On Friday, 12 October 1917 many had walked barefooted to the Cova da Iria in Fatima, in central Portugal, to secure a good position for the following day. They slept on the ground that night even though it had rained, turning the dirt to mud. In the morning, people continued to arrive, flocking in from all sides, arriving by luxurious motor cars, by oxcarts, by closed carriages and by carts filled to overflowing with passengers. They came by bicycle and on foot. There was a feeling of “discreet festivity” in the air although the people were “sober and well mannered”. They came in the tens of thousands, attendances estimated at between 50,000 to 100,000. They came devoutly, sceptically, curiously, as we would, to see if the miracle that had been promised, would occur.
It had been raining all night and into the morning and by 10 am on Saturday, 13 October 1917 the darkened clouds which had completely obscured the sky broke and the rain became heavy. Swept by the strong wind it soaked the pilgrims “often without protection against the weather, to the marrow of their bones”. Those who had umbrellas were also drenched through until no-one “had a stitch of dry clothing left”. Still, they waited for the miracle promised at midday.
Strange stories had been coming out of Fatima since May 1917, reports of three shepherd children, Lucia Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto, encountering the Virgin Mary on the thirteenth of each month from May 1917 (save for in August when the apparition was said to have occurred on 19 August). The children had reported that they had been told by Mary that there would be a miracle in October. Secrets about future events in the world as well as a vision of hell had also reportedly been imparted to them.
The crowd that gathered on 13 October 1917 included the devout, the curious, the mockers and the cynical and prominent amongst the last category was Avelino de Almeida, the Editor in Chief of O Seculo (The Century), the secular daily newspaper of Lisbon. His report of what happened after midday that day was published in the newspaper. He wrote: “Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bare-headed, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws – the sun “danced” according to the typical expression of the people.”
Lucia Santos, one of the shepherd children, recounted what she saw: “Opening Her hands, She made them reflect on the sun, and, as She went up, the reflection of Her own light continued to project itself on the sun.”
Dr Almeida Garrett, Professor of Natural Sciences at Coimbra University, also present at Fatima that day, reported that his eyes were drawn to the sun which had the appearance of a glazed wheel of mother-of-pearl and it did not hurt at all to look at it. He recounted: “The sun’s disc did not remain immobile. This was not the sparkling of a heavenly body, for it spun round on itself in a mad whirl when, suddenly, a clamour was heard from all the people. The sun, whirling wildly, seemed to loosen itself from the firmament and advance threateningly upon the earth as if to crush us with its huge fiery weight. The sensation during those moments was terrible.”
Fr Manuel Pereira da Silva wrote that day in a letter to a friend: “The sun appeared with its circumference well defined. It came down as if to the height of the clouds and began to whirl giddily upon itself like a captive ball of fire. With some interruptions, this lasted about eight minutes. The atmosphere darkened and the features of each became yellow. Everyone knelt even in the mud.”
Witnesses recorded two more phenomena. First, that as the sun spun it shot out rays of different coloured light so that there were changes of colour in the atmosphere, from amethyst to yellow, blue and white, reflecting on persons and things, painting everything in different colours.
The second phenomenon reported was that those attending found themselves to be suddenly and inexplicably dry despite the constant rain of the night and the morning.
What happened at Fatima on 13 October 1917? Avelino de Almeida reiterated what he saw in Portuguese publication Illustracao Portuguesa, recounting how the sun “began to dance in a violent and convulsive movement, which a great number of witnesses compared to a serpentine dance, because the colours taken on by the surface of the sun were so beautiful and gleaming.”
He finished: “Miracle, as the people shouted? A natural phenomenon, as the learned would say? For the moment, I do not trouble myself with finding out, but only with affirming what I saw… The rest is a matter between Science and the Church.”
Avelino de Almeida is ultimately less inquisitive than one would expect for a journalist. Whether it was a matter of science or divinity, most of us, surely, would wish to know.
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