Ourém, District of Santarém – Central Portugal
On our way to Lisbon, we stopped at the pilgrim sanctuary of Fatima.
Our hotel was 11 kilometres from Fatima in the medieval village of Ourém. Built within the castle walls, driving to our hotel was a hair-raising experience. Once we reached the uphill and winding cobblestone road to the village, there was no turning back. On the plus side the road seemed to takes us in a one-way direction – for the most part. At the entrance of the village, inside the castle walls, we had to manoeuvre through a narrow archway. I inched the car along, scraped by the large stone walls, careful not to scratch the vehicle or damage the side mirrors. Missing the hidden turnoff to the hotel, I had to repeat the whole ordeal, after circling around the castle grounds, driving down the one-way and back up to our destination. I must have wanted to make sure this village and its imposing castle would be indelibly etched in our memories!
Our stay at the Pousada Conde de Ourém, was by far the nicest accommodation; I’m a bit biased though, favouring being surrounded by nature and tranquillity. It was early afternoon and we sat at the pool for a while, enjoying the beautiful view of the valley and surrounding areas below. Once the temperature cooled somewhat, we climbed to explore the 12th century Muslim fortification, standing watch over the village and the region. We had a sweeping view; it was easy to understand the strategic location of this fortress.
Count Alfonso, laid claim to the fortress and brought it into Christian hands. He later donated the castle to his daughter, Princess Theresa.
The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 left the castle in ruins. What is left offers nonetheless an imposing sight.
During Muslim rule, the village was called Abdegas. After the Portuguese conquest, it was renamed Portus de Aurem, which later became Ourém.
Legend has it that during a surprise attack, Gonçalo Hermigues kidnapped the Moorish Princess Fatima (Fatima is an Arabic name). Gonçalo took the princess to a small village of the Serra de Arre Hills. Fatima fell in love with the Christian Gonçalo (would this be what we refer to as Stockholm Syndrome?!). She took the name Oureana. The princess and the knight married. Gonçalo gave Fatima a town as wedding gift, which she named Ourém, after her Christian name.
After exploring the castle grounds and ruins, we descended to the small parish church. In its crypt the fourth count of Ourém, Don Alfonso, was laid to rest in an elegant Gothic tomb. He was credited with bringing prosperity at Ourém during the 15th. Century.
Shrine of Fatima- District of Ourém
Next morning we left early and made our way to the Shrine of Fatima. We made sure to arrive before busloads of pilgrims would invade the grounds. The parking lot was already filling up with families and couples who were starting their pilgrimage. We had seen the afternoon of our arrival, how a kilometers long colonnade of cars, coming from both direction, were inching along, looking for places to park.
The Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima and the esplanade behind it are monumental in size. The bell-tower, is about 65 m (210 ft) high; the top of the spire enclosed by a bronze crown weighing about 7,000 Kg (15,000 lb.)
A 4,7 m (15 ft) high statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is ensconced in a niche of the spire and weighs 14 tons (15 US tons). Inside the Basilica there are 15 altars representing the 15 mysteries of the Rosary.
At the far end of the esplanade stands a giant Rosary centerpiece and a cross to one side of the Basilica of the Holy Trinity in the middle
Outside, at the right side of the esplanade, we watched as the faithful threw tall lighted tapers into a roaring pyre that swallowed the candles within minutes; I haven’t quite been able to find out the meaning of this custom.
From a Christian perspective, so much of what takes place at these shrines dedicated to Mary contradict the very tenets set out in Scriptures, that salvation is secured through Christ alone. It was therefore with great unease that I watched as pilgrims shuffled on their knees from one end to the other of a long clear white penance strip (for self or for loved ones). The strip stretched from the semi-circular plaza to the steps of the basilica.
In one of her apparitions to the three little shepherds, Mary presumably said that in order to save sinners: “God wishes to establish a worldwide devotion to my immaculate heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved . . . “ (as related in the accounts of Lucia, one of the children; although the events at Fatima are disputed by some Roman Catholic theologians, such as Edouard Dhams S.J. and others) This devotion then is expressed through the daily repeated recitation of the Rosary.
Such pronouncements are personally difficult to digest; it renders Christ’s atoning sacrifice, his death and resurrection that made reconciliation with God possible – according to Scriptures – of no value, or secondary at best. The Biblical narrative doesn’t provide any grounds for such human toil at securing salvation or the need for an extra mediator besides Christ; quite the contrary.
I must admit that observing the various prayer and penance stations, and ever-present donation boxes made me physically ill (and upset at the clergy who perpetuate these traditions).
While my friend soldiered on, I returned to the car and mulled over the day’s impressions, marvelling at the human desire of wanting to venerate or worship any form that can be seen and touched. As French theologian Jacques Ellul once remarked: “The human heart is an idol factory”. We humans, have this fundamental need to want to give homage to what can be perceived by the senses. An invisible deity just doesn’t seem to cut it, and shrines are one way to satisfy those needs. The source behind the apparitions is, from my perspective, not adequately investigated.
Relieved to be moving on to our next destination, it was nonetheless important to have witnessed one of the sites that attracts millions of people.