, LISBON, May 12 – Pope Benedict XVI will head on Wednesday to Fatima, one of Christianity\’s most visited shrines, on the second day of a four-day visit to Portugal.
His personal pilgrimage to the shrine, 120 kilometres (72 miles) northeast of Lisbon, is being billed by the Church as the highlight of his visit and a giant outdoor mass has been planned for as many as 500,000 people on Thursday.
The mass will mark the anniversary of the day in 1917 when three Portuguese shepherd children reported seeing visions of the Virgin Mary.
The pope put Fatima at the centre of his visit immediatly on his arrival in Lisbon early Tuesday. "I come as a pilgrim to Our Lady of Fatima," he said from the airport tarmac.
Around four million pilgrims flock to Fatima each year to pray at the site, many crawling on their hands and knees up the steps and across the esplanade that leads to the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima.
Lucia Santos, 10, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, aged nine and seven — say they saw a vision of the Virgin Mary on May 13, 1917 and then again on four other occasions.
They also say they saw her on August 19 of that year in the neighbouring village of Valinhos.
Since then it has been one of the Church\’s most important pilgrimage sites. Pope Paul VI went there in 1967 and Pope John Paul II in 1982, 1991 and 2000. John Paul said Our Lady of Fatima saved him from an assassin\’s bullet in May 1981.
After his short helicopter ride from Lisbon, Benedict\’s first stop will be to pray in front of the statue of Our Lady of the Rosary at the Chapel of Apparitions built on the site where the children said they were told holy secrets by the Virgin Mary.
Before he leaves Lisbon, where he celebrated an open-air mass late Tuesday, the pope will meet with leading lights from the world of Portuguese culture, including 101-year-old filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira.
John Paul beatified Francisco and Jacinta 10 years ago on Thursday. Their bodies have lain in the site\’s main basilica since 1957. Their cousin Lucia died in 2005 at the age of 97, and is also buried there.
Lucia said that the Virgin Mary had told the children three secrets. Two were revealed at the start of the 1940s, one described hell, and the second a terrible conflict which some say were the two World Wars.
The third secret was revealed in May 2000 during John Paul II\’s final visit. According to the Church, it predicted the attack on the pope in Rome in 1981, strengthening the prophetic nature of Fatima.
Today the bullet that hit John Paul II is part of the crown on the statue of the Virgin Mary in the basilica.