Outside the towering colonnades that line the Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima, the square is awash in the light of thousands of flickering candles and the sound of pilgrims singing Ave Maria. For Jenny Chitti, the experience is profound.
Here she finds herself in Portugal. Home is on the other side of the globe and she’s standing in one of the world’s grandest and most renowned landmarks of Marian devotion. Mere metres away is where Our Lady of the Rosary appeared to three shepherd children in 1917. Her son, Laurie, is one of four pilgrims carrying the statue of Our Lady during this Anniversary Procession, solemnly making his journey down the hill to the Monument to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
“Seeing my son go down there was just beautiful. Seeing the whole family kneeling down and praying in Fatima… It was so special,” Jenny explains. “The ones carrying the statue, they’re all dressed in white. It was like Our Lady was leading the service, leading my son and other people there… Like she was taking them and their petitions to the arms of Jesus. It was so, so moving. That to me, was incredible.”
What made this moment even more exciting was it was part of a pilgrimage Jenny was experiencing with three generations of her family. “When you go on a pilgrimage it’s like… you have a little glimpse of heaven. I don’t think I’ve been on a pilgrimage that I haven’t felt that closeness with God… Going with my son, his wife, my granddaughter, and my husband was just something that you would get once in a lifetime,” she says.
Together, they explored the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima: pausing to pray at the Basilica’s 15 altars which are dedicated to the 15 mysteries of the Rosary, and the tombs of the young visionaries, Francisco, Jacinta and Lucia Marto; kneeling inside the open-air Chapel of Apparitions, built on the site where Mary appeared to the children; and celebrating Mass in the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, which is large enough to seat 9,000 people.
Seeing my son, his daughter, and his wife going to confession, praying everyday, was really beautiful.
So too, Jenny says, was the procession of the Adeus (farewell) to Fatima, where the Statue of Our Lady is brought back to the Chapel of Apparitions. “We all waved goodbye with our white handkerchiefs. Just a sea of white, that looked like white doves, flying to Our Lady. It was just unimaginable. You can see a lot of the world but you will never get the feeling that you do there.”
Jenny’s pilgrim group left Fatima and travelled through Avila, where they visited Saint Teresa’s birthplace inside the South Gate of the old town, and her cell inside the Monastery of the Incarnation. “My daughter was just rapt. She identifies with and loves Saint Teresa; her fortitude, her quick wit, and her determination,” she says.
For her granddaughter, it would be the later visit to the Cave of St Ignatius that changed her perspective of the saints. “[My granddaughter] goes to St Ignatius College, and when we went to Manresa, it just felt as if St Ignatius came alive for her.”
The group made their way through the Pyrenees Mountains to Lourdes, using the road trip as an opportunity to talk about their experiences with the other pilgrims. “The afternoon trip went so quickly because there were questions that people were asking and [Father Andrew] was answering so deeply.” Jenny says being able to explore faith more deeply is one of the biggest advantages of traveling with a spiritual chaplain. “Sometimes you think, ‘Who is there to ask?’ Or something’s in your mind and you think, ‘One day I’ll ask.’ [Our Chaplain] answered so many questions about everything for all of us.”
At Lourdes, thousands of people made their way around the sanctuary; a multi-level basilica built on top of a cliff, and underneath it, the small and humble Grotto where the Virgin Mary appeared to the poor peasant girl (now saint) Bernadette Soubirous, and led her to discover the spring that has been the source of healing water for the past 150 years. Rather than being distracted, Jenny was moved by the crowds. “You just marvel at all the young people around with so much reverence… so much vibrancy… there is so much faith.”
The Chitti family visited the birthplace of Saint Bernadette, the prison cell where her family lived, and prayed along the Upper Way of the Cross of the Espélugues, where 115 lifesize figures illustrate the Lord’s passion in expressive detail. Back at the Grotto, hundreds of pilgrims shuffle along to see the spring and the statue of Mary, the rocks around it smooth and dark where millions of hands have touched it as they’ve prayed.
“There’s so much reverence around [the Grotto],” Jenny says. “On our last night we were putting our petitions to Our Lady and we had Mass there. Having the Mass under Our Lady’s gaze, with the candles burning and the singing, I just felt such a warm feeling.” That night, soldiers from all over Europe arrived to participate in a procession. “It was packed,” Jenny describes. “It was a sea of people just marching with all the candles, it was just magical.”
For Jenny, taking the opportunity to pause life and soak in the richness of the Marian traditions has been unforgettable. Seeing the faith of her family and people from all the world come to life at these sites is a memory she now carries into her daily life. “We just live a too busy a life and pilgrimage is like being taken into a spiritual oasis,” she says.
The saints, Mary, everything comes alive. It’s like a little retreat. You go for a little time, you know, you put your life on hold and into God’s arms and his presence. There’s nothing like that. God, Mary, and the Saints, they become a part of you, and I think you bring them home forever.