Pope arrives in Portugal to visit Fatima where three shepherds had visions of Mary 100 years ago
The Argentine pontiff landed at a military base north of Lisbon to wild applause some 40 kilometres (25 miles) away in Fatima where Catholic faithful watched the arrival of his plane live on giant screens.
“This trip is special, it’s a trip of prayer and a meeting with God and the Holy Mother of God,” he told reporters on the plane, whose pilots put up a small Portuguese flag outside the cockpit on landing, followed by that of the Vatican.
After holding talks with Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, Pope Francis was due to fly to Fatima by helicopter to meet the crowds.
There, pilgrims from countries as varied as China, Venezuela and East Timor filled a giant, white esplanade that faces the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima in a display of fervour... with a dose of politics mixed in.
“Virgin of Fatima, I ask you for freedom for Venezuela,” read a message printed onto a flag carried by a pilgrim, competing with other banners above the crowd of faithful that filled the 400,000-capacity esplanade.
“We are going to pray to Fatima and Pope Francis so that they can intervene for a peaceful solution for Venezuela,” said Jose Ornelas, a 59-year-old librarian who came all the way from Caracas, which along with other cities has been wracked by deadly anti-regime protests.
“We are living in a violent spiral with so much hate and so much helplessness.”
Fatima has become a major holy site since the Virgin is said to have appeared six times between May and October 1917 to three impoverished, barely-literate children -- Jacinta, 7, Francisco, 9, and their cousin Lucia, 10.
She apparently shared three major prophecies with them at a time marked by the ravages of World War I and persecution of the Church in a relatively new Portuguese republic.
These reportedly included a warning of a second war.
On Saturday -- the 100th anniversary of the first reported apparition -- Pope Francis will canonise Jacinta and Francisco, who have officially been credited with two miracles.
One of these apparently took place in 2013, when a five-year-old Brazilian boy called Lucas recovered at lightning speed after he fell more than six metres (20 feet) from a window, smashing his skull.
Many pilgrims trekked for days on foot to the central Portuguese town -- some finishing the last few metres on their knees. Others staked out a prime spot next to the railings marking off the route where Pope Francis will ride his “Popemobile” later on Friday.
Carolina Palacios, a 48-year-old civil servant from Paraguay, said she and her fellow group members had taken turns sitting on fold-up chairs through the night to make sure no one took their spot.
“We came and went. We stood guard just like soldiers,” she joked.
And while the atmosphere was one of joy, some pilgrims also sought solace from a difficult past.
Among them was Dung Lu, a refugee from Vietnam living in Denmark after she and her mother fled their country in the late 1980s, partly because they were unable to practise their religion under the communist regime.
With tears in her eyes, she remembers praying to the Virgin Mary when she was still in Vietnam and her father was jailed after the war and then fled the country, leaving them behind. They were later reunited. Standing nearby, her young daughter interrupted her, asking why she was crying.
“It’s difficult to tell them how hard it was. They (were) born in freedom,” she said.