It may well have been that the faithful, having observed at first hand the undeniable prodigies of October 13, felt some reason to believe that the enemies of religion in Portugal would, for at least a respectable little while, postpone their vicious and scandalous attacks against the Church. But it did not work out that happily.
The truth is that a kind of fury possessed the wilder of the anti-clericals. Through what magic or witchcraft the children’s promises had been fulfilled, they did not know. Yet it seems certain that if the world had split in half like an apple to splatter seeds on other planets, they would still not have been convinced. Their only reaction was to retaliate with new excesses of disrespect.
In the general area around Fatima, the focal point of undisciplined prejudice could be found at the Masonic Lodge at Santarem, a town not far away. Here the bigots, at the cost of some pain and planning, made plans for a mock-religious procession which would satirise and by some means, not exactly clear to themselves, expose the alleged wonders of Fatima as a fraudulent imposition on the gullibility of the people. Their plan, well conceived, was carried out with professional skill.
During the night of October 23, as duly recorded in the newspaper, Diario de Noticias, some gentlemen from Santarem [whose names, incidentally, are listed] joined with some other apostles of enlightenment from Vila Nova de Ourem, then continued on to the Cova da Iria. Here is part of the contemporary newspaper report:
With an axe they cut the tree28 under which the three shepherd children stood during the famous phenomenon of the 13th of this month. They took away the tree, together with a table on which a modest altar had been arranged, and on which a religious image [of our Lady] had been placed. They also took a wooden arch, two tin lanterns, and two crosses, one made of wood and the other of bamboo-cane wrapped in tissue paper.
[28. Maria da Capelinha relates: “On this occasion, they took the lanterns, the table and the arch for their parody in Santarem. They thought they had taken the tree but they made a mistake and took another. Meanwhile the government did not leave things where they stood. In the place of the apparitions people had put an arch and lanterns which were kept alight. Lucia also refers to the event: “One night some men came in a motor car to tear down the arch and to cut the tree where the apparitions had taken place. In the morning the news spread rapidly and I ran to see if it was true. Imagine my joy when I saw that those wretched men had made a mistake and instead of taking the real tree [which was by then nothing but a small trunk] they had cut one of the saplings nearby. I asked our Lady to forgive them, and I prayed for their conversion.”]
These prize exhibits, including, as a footnote explains, a bogus version of the tree, were placed on exhibit in a house not far from the Seminary at Santarem, and an entrance fee exacted from those who wished to enter and be entertained at the widely advertised religious farce. One disappointment to the sponsors was the fact that not everyone, even among the Church’s active critics, agreed it was amusing. The profits from the exhibit were to be turned over to a local charity, but the beneficiaries said very politely, “Thank you; no.” Later, in the evening, a blasphemous procession was held.
A newspaper account reveals:
The parade was headed by two men thumping on drums, while just behind it came the famous tree on which the Lady is said to have appeared. Next came the wooden arch, with its lanterns alight, then the altar table and other objects which the faithful had placed upon it at the Cova da Iria. To the sound of blasphemous litanies, the procession passed through the principal streets of the city, returning to the Sa da Band Eira Square, at which point it broke up.
Further research discloses that many of the demonstrators, less than satisfied with the appeal to bigotry they had attained, reorganised on a street not far from Sa da Band Eira Square, and were about to start parading anew when a woman, from a window above them, dropped a pail of water on their heads. She succeeded, less willingly, in drenching a local policeman as well, and the commotion in the street was considerable. A more substantial force of police then came along and dispersed the gathering.
The newspaper concludes:
The affair was a disgrace. How is it possible that the authorities tolerate such a thing while at the same time refusing permission for the processions of the Church to which nearly the whole population belongs and whose ceremonies in no way offend the religious convictions of others?
The general reaction appears to have been one of revulsion, not only on the part of believing Catholics, but unanimously among all decent citizens. Literate and intelligent Catholics did not allow themselves to be intimidated by either hostile government policy or the unbridled bigotry and force of their Masonic antagonists.
Protests came from all parts of the nation, and they are rather well typified by the following letter, written by Dr Almeida Ribeiro, and dispatched to the government’s Minister of Interior:
As believers, and sons of a nation which has been made great by the faith of its warriors and the heroism of its saints; as citizens of a city which has been in the forefront of civilisation and culture, we strongly and earnestly protest against the scandalous processions tolerated by the public authorities, which, on the night of the 24th of this month passed through the streets of Santarem.
In this procession, which was worthy only of savages, the objects stolen from a place where people gather with the most pacific of intentions, were shamelessly exhibited. It took place in the presence of the whole population which, however, was disgusted at this degrading action on the part of a few people who can only be called pustules of society. The cross of our Redeemer… and the image of the Virgin who has presided over our destinies in all periods of our history, were held up to sacrilege and profanation.
The Litany of our Lady, whose name is the strength and comfort of our soldiers on the field of battle, was drunkenly intoned by the organisers of this satanic orgy.
There has not been in living memory such a repugnant attack on the faith of our people, directed against the traditions and dignity of a nation which prides itself on its respect for the beliefs of others.
It is impossible for us not to raise our voices against such flagrant provocation, and to repudiate this horrible parody with the greatest energy. Impossible not to make public our bitterness of heart in face of such an attack on the faith of our fathers and our own; an attack also on the honour of this city on the part of a few miserable youths.
If we did not publish our disclaimer, we should be considered at home and abroad as the most cowardly and unworthy of Portuguese.
We, therefore, proclaim blessed the cross of Christ which in other days rode the seas with our caravels when they went forth to conquer new worlds for the faith and for civilisation.
We also proclaim blessed the great Protectress of Portugal who, through the troubles and trials of our history has watched with maternal solicitude over our destiny, May God, forgive these impious men, destitute of all decent feeling, who blaspheme her adorable name, and may He withhold the punishment which would justly fall on a nation which consented to such crimes. Santarem, October 28, 1917.
Signed: “A Group of Catholics.”
Actually, of course, in their almost satanic desire to discredit Fatima as a shrine of hope and reparation, these fist-shaking and heaven-defying bigots did much to increase the local deposit of faith, to fortify the belief of the people in the miracle of the Cova da Iria, and to nourish that final and wonderful rebirth of religion in the Terra de Santa Maria.
But we have not yet run out of villains. A resourceful enemy of the Church, and a man devoted to heaving bricks at angels, real or imagined, was Senhor Jose Vale, editor of the Portuguese newspaper, O Mundo. A dedicated atheist and political anarchist, Senhor Vale was also an able and energetic pamphleteer, who set about flooding such places as Torres Novas, Vila Nova de Ourem and other neighbouring districts with some flaming samples of his talent. This gentleman’s freely distributed epistles shrieked with invectives, not only against the supposed apparitions, but with special venom against the Church in general, and those sly agents of Vatican wickedness, the Jesuits, in particular. Finally, at the Senhor’s instigation, all liberal-minded opponents of clerical hocus-pocus were invited on the following Sunday to assemble outside the Fatima church, there and then to unmask this pious comedy of the children and their fantastic Lady-in-the-Sky.
Senhor Vale, for this adventure in public enlightenment, had gathered many mischievous recruits, and it was a situation very alarming to Father Ferreira, the parish priest at Fatima. Prudently, the worried priest arranged for Mass to be said that Sunday in the Chapel of Our Lady of Ortigo, rather than at Fatima. Fearing as well that Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta might be molested by an unruly mob, he decided that they ought not to remain at Aljustrel in this critical time. Good fortune came to his assistance then, since it happened that a young noble known as Dom Pedro Caupers was staying at an ancient farm-estate, about four miles away. It was here the children were warmly received, along with certain members of their families.
Naturally then, with no one present in Fatima for himself or his followers to ridicule, the plans of Editor Jose Vale did not go as he had intended. The truth is that he did arrive at the parish church on the appointed hour, accompanied by Senhor Arthur Santos, the mayor, some strong-arm guards and a variety of friends, but the only one his marching and hooting delegates were able to find there was Senhor Francisco da Silver, the parish official. The scuttling of Editor Vale’s clever intentions could not have been more humiliating. But by no means a timid or thin-skinned man, the Senhor rallied his frustrated band for a march on the Cova da Iria, his aim being to stage a mock pilgrimage, and here, at least, he found no lack of audience.
One enterprising man from Lomba da Egua, a believer in the apparitions, and a great disbeliever in Senhor Vale, had prepared an unusual reception. Assembling a variety of donkeys, he had tied each one of them to a tree, and being a student of both donkeys and men, he had managed to place under the nose of each jackass a modest quantity of a certain liquid that caused them to bray with loud and comic effect just when the “pilgrimage” arrived.
Maria da Capelinha testified:
We did our best to annoy them, and they knew it very well. When I arrived with two of my neighbours at 11:30 that morning, we hid near the place where the Chapel of Penance was later to be built. Three men, who were our friends, had climbed an oak tree to watch the demonstrators. One of the demonstrators then began to preach against religion, and every time he said something especially offensive, we would answer, “Blessed be Jesus and Mary!” A boy, perched in another tree, began to say the same thing in response to their insults, and they became so furious at us that they sent two of their guards down after us, but we ran away through the trees and they could not find us.
Then after a while the men and the boys who had been to Mass at the Ortigo chapel came by, and seeing what was happening in the Cova da Iria, they began to shout all kinds of things at the speakers and the guards. “Country bumpkins! Fools!” the demonstrators shouted back. They sent their guards after our people again, but not one did they catch. We just kept running away and jeering and laughing at them as hard as we could. After a while they went off in the direction of Fatima, and we never saw or heard anything of them again.