Eight million messages from all over the world make up the Mail of Our Lady, a section of the archive of the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, in Portugal, practically unknown until now. The Catholic Herald went to get to know this collection of messages, which reveal the profound & frequently familiar relationship that many believers have with the Virgin Mary.
A sheet of paper, handwritten, carries a short message in Portuguese: “(…) you know who I am. There is no need to describe my person…” Another sheet of paper, completely blank. Was it sent by mail to Our Lady of Fátima or delivered in the shrine? What did the person who sent it (or left it) want with this gesture?
Each one carrying its own mystery, these two enigmatic sheets of paper are now collected together with almost eight million other messages of the same kind in the Correio de Nossa Senhora (Our Lady’s Mail) — the name of the archive that, in the Shrine of Fatima, holds letters, notes and all kinds of missives addressed to Our Lady — until now practically unknown.
In it, we find prayers of all kinds: for health or employment, loves forbidden and confessed, existential anguish; prayers for relief from terrible suffering criminally inflicted; prayers for peace in the world, for the ‘conversion of sinners’ and of nations; for an end to war, for example, in the Portuguese colonies.
Some of them are enigmatic. Others are shocking in their frankness.
From London, among requests for a job for a friend and his sister, P. asked, in September 1966: “Dear Mother of God, I don’t want to spend my life alone in my room here in London. I would like to get married, so please grant that I meet someone.” And at the end of the typed letter, she adds: “Please grant an end to the war in Vietnam and we hope that someday Russia will be yours. Remember Mr. Khrushchev and his family and bless all the world.”
This letter aptly illustrates the tone of many messages: one’s own needs or those of close persons intersect with political issues, problems in the family, ways of praying, social needs, faith and devotion. Most ask, explicitly or implicitly, for help to be a better person, a better parent, a better spouse, a better daughter or son, a better Christian — as two other letters, sent by the same person from Colombia, in June and July 1966, express well: “We all wish to be better, much better than we are.”
The letters contain the secrets and pains of the soul: the longings, fears and joys — one’s own, those of close relations or other people of the world — that fill up hearts and days.
One sent by A.E. from London, in April 1964, asks: “1) For the success of my parents’ business and their happiness. 2) For the salvation of the world. 3) For my grandmother’s wellbeing, and 4) For my wellbeing: please help me to lead a normal and happy life, and marry happily. 5) Please help A. and I. 6) Let me die a good Catholic.”
Messages began appearing in Fatima as early as the 1940s, following a tradition of other pilgrimage sites. More than two decades had passed since the events at Fatima in 1917, when three children, Lúcia dos Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto said that they saw Our Lady (Pope Francis canonised Francisco and Jacinta in 2017, on the centenary of the events).
Since the beginning of this century, the volume of correspondence has increased. In 2017, the centennial year, 237 boxes were filled with about 807,000 records (more than 10% of the total) from devotees. Many of them were Polish, because of the Polish Pope John Paul II, who visited Fátima in 1982, 1990 and 2000.
They all write to the same confidante and intimate friend, with many and different invocations, but always with a filial tone: Mother, Dearest Mother in Heaven, My most Holy Mother, My Good Mother.
“The familiarity of Fatima is a revolution,” comments Bento Domingues, a Dominican priest and one of Portugal’s best-known theologians, who has long studied the phenomenon. The pilgrims address “the person they talk to, to whom they pray, with whom they are, in whom they have confidence.”
“It’s a revolution,” he says. “What counts is not religion in its institutions, but rather the journey each person makes. I’m the one in the process of going, in the process of conversion, in the process of walking.”
Several women ask to have a child: “I wish it so much!” exclaims one. Others pray for the health of a baby on the way.
Some also reveal terrible situations of gruesome crime: unspeakably wicked, so silently tolerated.
writes: “I earnestly beg you for purity of body and soul, Lady. (…) How many times have I let my father touch me, not knowing that this act was impure. (…) Make me more intimate and more confident? trusting? with my mother. (…) Convert my father. (…) You know that in the presence of advances from my father, if you do not help me, I will fall into the incalculable mud and go to hell. Mother, do not allow that.”
From the very beginning, the desire for peace has been inscribed in the events of Fatima.
On 13 May 1917, in her first dialogue during the apparition, the little seer Lúcia, then 10 years old, recounts that she asked, “When will the war end?” In the messages, generic requests such as, “Give peace to the world,” and, “Make the war end,” abound.
Early in the 20th century and until the late 1980s, the theme of war also intersects with the anti-Communist dimension that the message of Fatima includes.
In the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Bolshevism and Stalin made Christians and believers in general one of the primary targets of persecution. Starting in the 1920s, millions of believers would be taken to the forced labour camps of the ‘Gulag archipelago’.
In Tuy and Pontevedra (Galicia), where she resided in convents of the Dorothean Sisters between 1925 and 1946, Lúcia would receive such news, which worsened with the religious tensions of the Second Spanish Republic and the Spanish Civil War.
All these reports shaped the references to the ‘conversion of Russia’ and to Communism, which is seen by Lúcia and many Catholics as an enemy of the Christian faith.
Over the last two decades, the United Kingdom has been among the top eight places of origin for pilgrims to Fatima. (49 pilgrimages and 1550 pilgrims in 2017). Until the end of the 20th century, most of the messages originated in Portugal, but there are letters from all over the globe. Many — notably English messages — are just lists of names for which intercession is requested.
“Whoever has never been to the candle procession, doesn’t know what the night is, and what light is, and what hope is,” says Fr Bento Domingues.
In the middle of the night, the candle procession ceremony “lights up” a hope’ and, at the end of each pilgrimage, the farewell procession means people’s departure “to everyday life, to the struggle”. What they want is not to say goodbye, says the theologian.
“The longing that there is in the farewell song is a shedding of tears,” he says. “Why? Because they all have within themselves a farewell: such as death, sickness, all things — and Our Lady is there.”