VATICAN CITY – When Pope Francis travels to the Portuguese town of Fatima this weekend, he will be lending his blessing to a religious phenomenon that has captivated Catholics for a century: It involves visions of the Virgin Mary, supernatural meteorological events and apocalyptic prophesies of hell, Soviet communism and the death of a pope.
For doubters, the Fatima story is a trumped-up tale built around hallucinations. For believers, Fatima's message of peace, prayer and conversion from sin is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago, when three illiterate shepherd children first reported seeing visions of the Madonna.
The pope will canonize two of those children on Saturday and is likely to make his own Fatima message of peace and conversion as a weapon against secularism and the persecution of Christians today.
Here are details about Francis' Friday-Saturday trip to Fatima.
WHAT HAPPENED AT FATIMA?
The three shepherd children, siblings Francisco and Jacinta Marto and their cousin Lucia aged between 7 and 10 at the time, said the Virgin Mary appeared to them six times in 1917 and confided to them three secrets. The first two described an apocalyptic image of hell, foretold the end of World War I and the start of World War II, and the rise and fall of Soviet communism.
In 2000, the Vatican disclosed the long-awaited third secret, describing it as foretelling the May 13, 1981, assassination attempt against St. John Paul II in St. Peter's Square.
John Paul credited the Virgin Mary with saving his life. One of the bullets fired at him rests in the crown of the statue of the Virgin at the shrine.
Portuguese church officials initially doubted the veracity of the apparitions. Many doubters, though, became believers after the so-called "Miracle of the Sun" on Oct. 13, 1917. According to legend, the Fatima "seers" had predicted that the Virgin would perform a miracle that day, and tens of thousands of people flocked to Fatima and saw what witnesses reported was a vision of the sun "spinning" in the sky and zigzagging toward Earth.
The Portuguese church declared the visions authentic in 1930.
WHAT WAS GOING ON AT THE TIME?
At the time of the apparitions, Europe was still in the grip of World War I and Portugal's Catholic Church was facing a crisis after Portugal became a republic in 1910.
The republican government introduced a host of anti-clerical laws, including prohibiting religious teaching at schools. Priests and bishops were exiled.
In that context, the visions helped reinvigorate a persecuted church, giving it "a strong eruption of the supernatural in that difficult moment," said Monsignor Carlos Azevedo, who headed the commission that compiled 15 volumes of Fatima documentation.
Church officials point to the reported secrets about a Second World War, the dangers of Soviet communism and the persecution of the pope and Christians in general, as evidence of Fatima's prophetic message.
WHAT DO PEOPLE DO IN FATIMA?
Like the shrine at Lourdes, France, Fatima draws millions of pilgrims from around the world — about 6 million annually — to give thanks to Our Lady of Fatima, or to pray for help.
Many walk to the town, which is 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Lisbon. Some complete the last few hundred meters (yards) on their knees. Others toss wax limbs into a fire beside the Chapel of the Apparitions as they recite prayers for healing.
The shrine also contains dozens of shops where trinkets are sold alongside rosaries, bibles and assorted images of the Virgin Mary, including one that changes color with the weather.
WHY IS THE POPE GOING NOW?
Initially, Francis had planned to travel to Fatima merely to mark the 100th anniversary of the apparitions. Francis added a bonus event to his visit by announcing in March that he had approved the miracle needed to make saints of Francisco and Jacinta Marto — who died of influenza within two years of the initial apparitions.
He will be the fourth pontiff to visit Fatima, after Pope Paul VI marked the 50th anniversary in 1967, John Paul came three times and Benedict XVI visited once, in 2010.
After becoming a nun, Lucia became the main raconteur of the Fatima secrets. She died in 2005. In February of this year, Portuguese church officials completed the first phase of her beatification cause by sending more than 15,000 pages of testimony and documentation to the Vatican for review.
WHAT WILL THE POPE DO IN FATIMA?
Francis arrives on Friday afternoon and meets privately with Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.
After a spin in his popemobile at Fatima, he'll pray at the chapel dedicated to the apparitions and send a greeting out to the crowd, which is expected to number up to 1 million people.
On Saturday, Francis meets with Prime Minister Antonio Costa and visits the basilica built on the site where the children reported the first apparition. He'll celebrate the canonization Mass in the main square, lunch with his bishops, and return to Rome in the evening.
Barry Hatton reported from Fatima, Portugal.