Cardinal Rigali leads Diocese of Knoxville faithful on a Fatima pilgrimage to mark 100th anniversary of Marian apparitions
By Jim Wogan
One hundred years ago this month, on Oct. 13, 1917, the Blessed Mother fulfilled a promise of her appearance and a miracle at what has now become a sacred site for pilgrims from around the world: Fatima.
The sixth and final apparition of the Virgin Mary at Fatima has been the focus of a year-long celebration to commemorate the centenary of a remarkable series of events — six visits by the Blessed Mother before three young shepherd children in a rural area of Portugal.
Seemingly, the world is converging on Fatima this year.
Among the pilgrims to travel there recently was Cardinal Justin Rigali. In September, His Eminence led an eight-day journey with 46 pilgrims from the Diocese of Knoxville and other regions of the country to Fatima and Lourdes, France, the site of another shrine to Marian devotion.
It wasn’t Cardinal Rigali’s first visit to these holy shrines, but it was noteworthy for two significant reasons. First, it was his first visit to Fatima in 52 years. He was an ordained priest during his initial visit there in 1965, and he was on his way to establishing himself as a leader in the Church.
Second, the pilgrimage offered His Eminence an opportunity to connect two very different Marian experiences.
“This was actually the first time I combined both Fatima and Lourdes in the same pilgrimage, so that, in itself, has been very beautiful,” Cardinal Rigali said while being interviewed in front of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at Lourdes on Sept. 7.
His first visit to Lourdes was in 1959, when he was in seminary.
“Just as I had come to Fatima and Lourdes before, you always come bringing a lot of intentions, and as a priest you bring not only the intentions of your family but you also bring the intentions of your ministry and of the diocese in a special way. So yes, this time I come as a bishop, and I come with all the intentions that I have been facing over many, many years.”
Cardinal Rigali is familiar with and comfortable leading pilgrimages. He has done it numerous times. But unlike visits to the Holy Land and Rome, a journey to the sacred Marian shrines in Fatima and Lourdes offered a different opportunity to experience the beauty and truth of the Catholic faith.
“A pilgrim is someone who goes to a sacred place and you go there for a special reason, you go there in order to have an encounter with God, a special encounter,” Cardinal Rigali said.
“This journey to Fatima and Lourdes is a special encounter with God and with his Mother. This is something wonderful. You come here with hope because you live with the hope that you will respond to the graces that the Lord gives us, that it will have benefits for you, but also for the people that you carry in your heart,” His Eminence said.
The Marian encounter began on Sept 1. After an overnight flight to Portugal, the pilgrims arrived in Lisbon, where they visited the birthplace of St. Anthony of Padua and then continued on a drive north to the city of Santarem, home of the Church of the Holy Miracle, where the pilgrims witnessed evidence of a 13th century eucharistic miracle, the bleeding Host of Christ. Inside the church, Cardinal Rigali celebrated Mass with Father Michael Hendershott, pilgrimage chaplain and associate pastor of Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville, and Monsignor Patrick Garrity, pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in Farragut, who participated in the trip as a pilgrim.
The Virgin Mary spoke to the three shepherd children on six occasions from May to October 1917. Five of the apparitions were at the Cova Da Iria, where the Chapel of the Apparitions was built. The chapel and surrounding area are now part of the Shrine of Fatima, which includes the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary and the more modern Basilica of the Most Holy Trinity.
All three of the shepherd children who witnessed the apparitions are buried at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary. Two of them, siblings Francisco and Jacinta, died young and were declared saints by Pope Francis in May 2017. Their cousin, Lucia, became a nun and died in 2005 at the age of 97. She has been beatified.
On Sunday, Sept. 3, Cardinal Rigali celebrated Mass in front of an estimated 20,000 pilgrims on a colonnade outside the Basilica of our Lady of the Rosary. Father Hendershott and Monsignor Garrity concelebrated with priests and deacons from around the world. The following day, the cardinal led a Mass at the Chapel of the Apparitions, where Mary appeared five times in 1917.
“I think it showed me the universality of the Church. That so many people from so many different countries are able to come together to honor the Mother of God, to thank her for the graces received, to ask her for the things we think we need …. The human condition is joyful when we have confidence in the merciful love of the Savior and the Mother of that merciful love,” Father Hendershott said.
Mass was an important component of the pilgrimage. Cardinal Rigali was the lead celebrant and homilist for all of the weekday Masses — except one, on the final day at Lourdes, when close to 50 priests and deacons squeezed into the tiny grotto where the Blessed Mother appeared to St. Bernadette in 1858.
“She is the Mother of God. That is her greatest dignity,” Cardinal Rigali said. “All of this is part of an opportunity that we have at special moments, and extended moments of prayer here at the Grotto, to meditate, to honor Mary, to proclaim Mary, to invoke Mary, all of this is something very, very special.”
In between the visits to Fatima and Lourdes, the pilgrimage, led by professional guide Sandra Lains and organized by Canterbury Pilgrimages of Bedford, N.H., visited the Cathedral of St. Mary of Burgos, and the family home and conversion site of St. Ignatius of Loyola, both in Spain. Mass was celebrated at both locations, with Cardinal Rigali delivering homilies reflecting on Christ’s love and mercy.
The pace and the purpose of the trip were not lost on the pilgrims.
“A pilgrimage is very prayer- and spiritually centered,” Monsignor Garrity said. “You are aware of that before you leave, while you are there, and even on the plane ride back home. You are aware of the fact that you had a spiritual experience. You went for a particular purpose. You went to encounter the grace of God.”
In Lourdes, as in Fatima, Cardinal Rigali joined the Diocese of Knoxville pilgrims in prayer, meditation, reflection, and three candlelight processions. While most in the group were from East Tennessee, the pilgrimage included faithful Catholics from Wichita, Kan., and Phoenix.
“This was very important to us. As a family, we try to say the rosary a lot and pray to Mary. It’s something that I have been learning more about, especially coming from a Protestant background,” said George Kunnen, a Catholic convert and a pilgrim from Arizona, who was travelling with wife Jill.
“It’s not necessarily natural for me to (venerate) Mary, so that is something that I am kind of developing in my own personal spiritual life. This was a neat experience being able to visit some of the shrines. We have been learning about Fatima and Lourdes in our family, with our kids, and talking to them about it,” Mr. Kunnen said.
He noted that being a pilgrim with Cardinal Rigali was an unexpected bonus on this trip. And while His Eminence has years of experience serving and leading the Church, the significance of his first visit to Fatima — 52 years ago — resonates even today.
“The final measure of what a pilgrimage does, you can’t really measure that like you can something with a thermometer,” Cardinal Rigali said. “I remember being deeply impressed, and maybe the Lord did give me some special grace on that occasion to be able to persevere in my vocation. I think all we can say, it’s always a special grace to come on a pilgrimage, and I certainly think it was a special grace for me then, and it is a special grace for me now.