In Fatima, Francis asks for humanity to 'tear down all walls'

Pope Francis visits the Little Chapel of the Apparitions at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal, May 12. The pope was making a two-day visit to Fatima to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Marian apparitions and to canonize two of the young seers. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Fatima, Portugal — Offering a prayer at the spot where three shepherd children reported seeing Mary in a field 100 years ago, Pope Francis asked Friday that humanity might have the courage to choose a culture of encounter over a culture of conflict and would "tear down all walls."

In his first visit during a 25-hour trip to this famed center of Catholic pilgrimage, the pope asked that society might follow the example of Jacinta and Francisco Marto, who after seeing Mary on May 13, 1917, gave themselves over to communicating her call for peace in the midst of World War I.

Before a statue of Mary at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, the pope prayed that in following the Martos' example "we will travel all the roads, we will be pilgrims on all paths, we will tear down all walls and overcome all boundaries."

Francis also prayed that humanity would realize that "God dwells in the midst of the poor yesterday, today and for all eternity."

The pope made the prayer May 12 in the sanctuary's Chapel of the Apparitions, built over where the 7- and 9-year-old Martos and their 10-year-old cousin Lucia dos Santos said they had seen Mary appear six times starting that May a century ago.

The May 12 prayer was the first part of a relatively light schedule the pope is keeping during his two-day visit to Portugal. Unlike other trips of his pontificate, in which the pope has delivered complex geopolitical messages, Francis is undertaking what the Vatican has called an "apostolic pilgrimage."

The pope told journalists traveling with him on the papal flight to Portugal that his trip to the country would be "a journey of prayer, an encounter with the Lord and the holy Mother of God."

Upon landing at the Monte Real Air Base, Francis had a brief private meeting with Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa at the air base and then headed directly to Fatima by helicopter.

Later Friday evening, Francis recited the rosary with crowds at the sanctuary, estimated to include about a million people.

In brief remarks after he blessed some candles in front of the chapel, the pope told the pilgrims not to treat Mary as "plaster statue from whom we beg favors at little cost." The pope also told them that God emphasizes mercy over judgment.

"Great injustice is done to God's grace whenever we say that sins are punished by his judgment, without first saying -- as the Gospel does -- that they are forgiven by his mercy!" he said.

"Mercy has to be put before judgment and, in any case, God's judgment will always be rendered in the light of his mercy," said Francis.

On Saturday, the pope will celebrate an outdoor Mass where he will also canonize the Marto siblings, who both died only a few years after seeing Mary. Dos Santos, their cousin, became a nun and died in 2005 at the age of 97. 

Tens of thousands of pilgrims have been arriving in Fatima over recent days so they could be present for Francis' trip. After landing at the sanctuary May 12, the pope rode among the crowds in the pope-mobile.

As the pope approached the sanctuary’s chapel he presented the statue of Mary there with a bouquet of flowers. He then stood in prayer before the statue, his head bowed, for eight minutes.

While Francis' security in Fatima has not appeared as high a concern as on other papal visits, Portugal has taken a series of abnormal measures for the pope's trip.

The country has reinstated border controls for a few days by suspending the Europe-wide free travel agreement. Officials have also put in place large cement blocks in the open spaces around Fatima to deter the possibility of drivers undertaking attacks such in recent months in Stockholm and Nice.

Local officials have also assured the pope that his trip here will have a lasting legacy. They renamed the area soccer stadium the Estádio Papa Francisco, unveiling a small plaque to mark the change as he landed in Fatima.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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