For Donna Depointe, a parishioner of the historic St. Joseph’s parish in Cumberland, a pilgrimage to Fatima was a trip that she had only dreamt of taking, but never realistically thought was possible. When she mentioned to her husband Stevan the opportunity to take part in a special diocesan-sponsored pilgrimage to Portugal, he agreed immediately.
“It just seemed like the perfect next step for our journey together,” she said. “And it exceeded all of our expectations.”
The Fatima pilgrimage began as a way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Marian apparitions as well as a chance to answer Bishop Thomas J. Tobin’s call to celebrate a special Year with Mary our Mother in the Diocese of Providence.
From August 10 – 18, Bishop Tobin joined fellow priests, seminarians and a small group of faithful from Rhode Island on an unforgettable opportunity for grace led by pilgrimage spiritual coordinator Father Jeremy Rodrigues.
The group of 21 pilgrims visited numerous sites of devotion and worship, enjoying many cultural and historic highlights from Lisbon to Fatima and Coimbra to Porto. They visited the Church of the Holy Miracle in Santarem, where a Eucharistic Miracle from the 13th century is on display, and also celebrated Mass at many holy sites including the convent where Sister Lúcia spent her last years on earth. It was Sister Lúcia, along with her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, who witnessed the Marian apparitions in Fatima in 1917. On May 13, Pope Francis, canonized two of the Portuguese shepherd children who are said to have seen the Virgin Mary 100 years ago.
A shared spiritual highlight of the pilgrimage was a visit to the Shrine of the Fatima which included a candlelight procession in which Bishop Tobin, Father Rodrigues, Father Carl Fisette and diocesan seminarians Matt Boni and Dan Mahoney processed among tens of thousands of people in prayer.
Depointe, who has shared a special devotion to the Blessed Mother for the past 25 years, said that witnessing the procession made her and her husband feel closer to Mary in many ways.
“To see the devotion that others have and feel for our Holy Mother was amazing,” she said. “The evening candlelight vigil was so spiritually moving, it felt like a dream. We were continually overcome by the emotion of actually standing in Fatima square. When they brought her statue out and the crowd began to sing it was the moment of a lifetime. Words cannot accurately describe the feeling of being there. We just kept looking at each other with amazement and couldn’t believe we were there taking part in the 100 year anniversary celebration. Together, we enjoyed a very spiritual experience. One that we will carry with us forever. This trip felt like a gift directly from Mary.”
As he processed among the great crowd of faithful, Bishop Tobin explained that it was really wonderful to walk with the statue of Mary.
“To me, that became a symbol of what we should do in our lives — we should always walk with Mary. For me personally, it was very helpful and very encouraging as well. One of the reasons for my own participation in the pilgrimage was because of a few upcoming milestones in my life. In December, I will celebrate 25 years as a bishop and next April I will turn 70. It’s a good time to step back and just try to put things into perspective.”
One aspect of the pilgrimage Bishop Tobin felt to be awe-inspiring was the large numbers of faithful as well as the great devotion of their faith.
“Tons of people traveled from all around the world and made the long distance trip to be there,” he said. “The faith of the people we saw was very intense. Just the numbers of people who were coming to pray, light candles, say to the rosary. Many older people, women holding their children and crippled people traveled hundreds of yards on their knees as acts of penance, conversion and devotion. It was grueling and difficult for them.”
Father Rodrigues explained that even with the large crowds, the atmosphere was reverent and prayerful, and at the time of the procession “you could hear a pin drop.”
“To witness the tens of thousands of people that were there raising their candles in prayer and singing was very moving,” he said. “Especially sharing that beautiful expression of faith which reached so far internationally in its diversity as we all prayed in so many different languages. It was a very grace-filled experience for me as a priest of Portuguese descent and I’m hoping that everyone else left with as many graces that were afforded them.”
Father Rodrigues also joined pilgrims from the diocese in a special opportunity to literally walk in the footsteps of the saints as they prayed the Stations of the Cross along the path across the fields where the visionaries herded their sheep on what would have been their walk home.
He added that what makes a pilgrimage particularly special is that it promotes a sense of unity more so than a typical tour because the pilgrims are all connected in a spiritual way through their common Catholic faith.
“It’s a shared experience of their faith and gets beyond just seeing the sights and I think that fostered more of a solidarity,” Father Rodrigues said.
“They were all there for a very specific purpose. A lot of them had different reasons for coming on the trip and it was important for them to be there. The people that came on the trip were just wonderful to be with. They were a very faith-filled group.”
Pilgrim Lillian McIntyre who traveled with her husband as part of the diocesan contingent, said that the pilgrimage was much more personal because of the size of the group. She added that it was nice to spend such a long period of time sharing such an important religious experience with members of the clergy.
“It is not often that the laity gets to spend an extended period of quality time with members of the clergy. This past week afforded us the opportunity to appreciate the many gifts they bring to our church — their thoughtfulness, dedication, prayerfulness and even their sense of humor,” she said. “The trip was awesome and humbling at the same time. We were honored to be among the many thousands of pilgrims from all over the world who were united in prayer and asking our Blessed Mother’s intercession in bringing peace to our troubled world. It truly was a blessing and a privilege to offer our petitions.”