A Little Piece of Heaven
by José da Silva
October 11, 1951. I was an eleven year old boy, living in a little rural town, 160 kilometres north of Fatima. There was great excitement in my family. My mother busily prepared food to last us a few days. I was about to make my very first journey that would take me further than 25 kilometres from my place of birth. Next morning we'd go on pilgrimage to the famous Marian Shrine with twenty other families. My parents had walked this distance several times in the past, but never took the chance of taking me with them. Deep in my heart I felt this would be a trip I would never forget.
We had rainy weather. A local cattle merchant offered his five ton open truck to be used as transportation charging everybody a minimal fee. We had more comfortable means available, but all our families were so poor we could not afford anything else.
At 8 a.m. on the 12th, we started our trip. A big green canvas was placed over the box to protect us from the cold and rain. The owner installed two long benches along the sides. In the center we had enough folding chairs so everyone could sit during the two and a half hour trip.
When we departed, the driver who usually transported cattle, began driving his normal speed ..... as fast as the vehicle could move. Whenever the truck entered a curve, people magically left their seats and instantly assembled in what looked like a big swarm made of stirred bees. Some men, tried to get back to their seats fervently invoking the name of the Blessed Mother asking for protection from the raving maniac at the wheel. A few others however, who never went to church, let alone Fatima, spoke a language of their own, while desperately trying to free themselves from that human hive. Their pious wives hoping for a miraculous conversion had convinced them to come along. As the ladies resumed the rosary, their husbands discussed aloud how they were going to get rid of the driver, once he would come to a stop. They were so convincing in their threats that I really feared for the man's safety. As we got closer to Fatima the truck slowed to a crawl. Here, the first miracle I ever witnessed started unfolding.
The roads were packed with pilgrims travelling on foot. We lifted the canvas on the side so we could have a better view. One could see that most of these good people had been walking for several days. Some were limping from the long walk, others were limping due to some disability, but in all, their faces showed serenity and peace.
We noticed a great calm mood had descended upon our group. The men who just minutes before had threatened to kill the driver, now sat silently or joined in prayer. As some women observed their countenance, they could not hide their emotion.
We finally arrived into a sea of humanity. A few hours later over a million people had arrived to that holy place. That afternoon we had some showers that turned into a constant cold drizzle in the evening. Those million souls from every corner of the earth stood in the rain all night, and prayed for peace in the world. I'll never forget that wet cold night when I was a little boy, all wet trembling with cold, but happy to see so much warmth pouring out of the human heart.
The faith and splendor of our Church, that I witnessed that day, will be engraved in my soul till the day I die.
Years later already living in North America, I heard a televised sermon given by our beloved Bishop Fulton Sheen. He told the audience he spent that very night in Fatima standing vigil with the faithful. He told the story how he had a cot and at three a.m., dead tired, he retired to have some rest, but he couldn't sleep. He said: "as I laid enjoying the luxury of a cot, I couldn't sleep, thinking about those million souls standing in the rain. I got up and joined them."
It was on this date that Warner Brothers shot parts of the classic movie "Our Lady of Fatima." It was filmed on location with the faithful unaware of it. One has an opportunity to see the size of the crowds on that day, by watching the film.
Since then, I have been to Fatima often, but only in recent years I started to have an understanding what Fatima means to the world. I believe now more than ever, that the secret of the world's destiny, was revealed to three humble children in that blessed Portuguese village.
I feel fortunate to have met Mr. John Marto, surviving older brother to Francisco and Jacinta. When I go to Fatima I always go to the house where the children used to live, and where John and his family still reside. It was in this humble dwelling both visionaries were born, and little Francisco died.
Ti Marto, (Uncle Marto) as people know him in Fatima is a man of few words, but when he recollected for me what he and his family went through during the times of the apparitions, his eyes got moist and his voice trembled. My 14 year old son, Carlos, witnessed our conversation, and when we left the house he remarked; "I wonder what it feels like when you are blessed to have a brother and a sister who truly are saints in heaven."
The last time I was in Fatima was in 1990. I got there May 11 and found lodging at the Dominican Sisters. The sister at the desk told me I could stay only one night as they had every room reserved for the 12th and 13th. I had brought a tent with me so on the 12th at noon I checked out, walked over to the Sanctuary and set the tent under the trees on the eastern wing of the plaza. I left for the afternoon services at the Capelinha and when I returned a few hours later, there wasn't a square metre unoccupied. Hundreds of families had their blankets spread on the ground, and were either snacking or cooking supper on their Coleman stoves, anticipating a long night of vigil and prayer.
Very close to the tent a family of five had set up for the evening; a couple in their late sixties, a lady in her mid-thirties dressed in mourning black, and two children, a boy and a girl around eleven or twelve years old.
The children sat quietly with the old folks while the lady in black busily cooked on a Coleman. The gentleman introduced himself and introduced me to the rest of his family; his wife, his daughter and his grandchildren. He casually complimented the quality of the tent. He said his grandchildren had been bugging him for a long time to buy one. He explained the prices of those things were outrageously high in Portugal and he couldn't afford one. I looked at the kids as they sat quietly listening to the conversation.
It was starting to rain and my memory took me back 39 years, when I was a kid their age without shelter for the night. I asked the grandparents where they were going to stay. "Right here" was the reply. I said, "but it's starting to rain, what about the kids?" "We'll be all right" answered the boy in a calm voice.
I remembered I had a sub-zero sleeping bag and figured I could set it anywhere. I told them I wanted them to move into the tent for the night. I explained about the sleeping bag. I could find a place to rest if I needed. The children politely refused, while granddad told me they would not feel good if they evicted me out of my tent. I brought the children inside, showed them my cameras and valuables that I left unattended in the afternoon. I said they would be doing me a favor to watch my belongings. I told them I intended to keep vigil all night, and would feel better if they would move in. Both looked to grandfather for approval when he said: "Ok, I don't feel right about this, but if you insist, we gratefully accept with a condition; that you have supper with us." "Accepted," I said. It was the most delicious and peaceful meal of my life.
During supper granddad told me the children had lost their father in a car accident six months earlier. Deep inside I became sad. I could see they missed their father dearly. Towards the end of the meal they asked to be excused, started moving their belongings into the tent piling them neatly. I cannot describe the happiness I felt when I left for the evening, seeing them both smiling for the first time, obviously enjoying the comfort of a tent protected from the cold and threatening rain.
That night, I thanked Our Blessed Mother for allowing me to be there, and let me see things I had almost forgotten.
At two o'clock in the morning after the night services, I found a couple of square feet on the marble floor, under the arches of the basilica not covered by resting human bodies. I squeezed into the sleeping bag, having as my pillow someone's legs covered by piles of blankets, while an oversize fellow deep in sleep, stretched his long legs over my feet. I fell asleep with the happiness one must feel when we are in heaven.
In gratitude to the White Lady of Peace for the most blissful three hours of rest I ever had, towards the end of my holidays, I telephoned the children and told them to come and get the tent. Unfortunately I wasn't home when they came. My parents who still live in the same house where I was born and raised, told me they had never seen such radiant smiles on the faces of two youngsters.
I pray, Our Blessed Lord will allow me to visit that little piece of Heaven again, before He calls me to His Presence. It is my most sincere wish that anyone reading these lines, will enjoy the Peace I felt that night in Fatima, serene garden in our lives, where we stop to lay our crosses and rest our weary feet.