An estimated 1.5 million young people filled a field Saturday in the Portuguese capital for Pope Francis’ World Youth Day vigil, braving scorching heat to secure a spot for the evening prayer and to camp out overnight and be in place for his final farewell Mass on Sunday morning.
Temperatures soared to 38 Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) on Saturday in Lisbon and were forecast to top 40 C (104 F) on Sunday. The heat forced pilgrims to shelter under umbrellas and makeshift shades of plastic canvas sheets tied between trash bins in the otherwise exposed field on the edge of the River Tagus.
Crews blew misters at the pilgrims to try to cool them down as they made their way into the venue, many flying their national flags. They formed long lines in the heat of the day to fill water bottles from what organizers said were more than 400 faucets around the field.
Smoke from a spate of wildfires that broke out around Portugal during a weekend spike in temperatures cast a haze over the sky as they arrived on foot from all around the city for one of the liturgical highlights of the Catholic youth festival. Citing local organizers, the Vatican said an estimated 1.5 million people were on hand.
Francis was presiding over the evening vigil after spending the morning at the Catholic shrine in Fatima.
There, he ditched his prepared speech and a prayer for peace, the third time he has opted to speak casually to the crowds in his native Spanish. The prayer had been expected to be a highlight of Francis’ visit to Fatima, given the shrine’s century-old affiliation with exhortations of peace and conversion in Russia and the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Francis instead “prayed silently for peace, with pain,” while meditating for a long period before a statue of the Virgin Mary, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said. And the Vatican later posted the prayer on the platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
An estimated 200,000 turned out for Francis’ visit to Fatima, packing the central esplanade long before the red-tinted moon set and the sun rose. Nearby wildfires turned the sky smoky black and sent ash snowing down on the crowd.
“We are here with great joy,” said Maria Florido, a 24-year-old Spaniard who also saw Francis in Lisbon. “We woke up very early to come here and see the pope … and we’re here with great enthusiasm.”
The Fatima story dates back to 1917, when according to tradition, Portuguese siblings Francisco and Jacinta Marto and their cousin Lucia said the Virgin Mary appeared to them six times and confided to them three secrets. The first two described an apocalyptic image of hell, foretold the end of World War I and the start of World War II, and portended the rise and fall of Soviet communism.
In 2000, the Vatican disclosed the long-awaited third secret, describing it as foretelling the May 13, 1981, assassination attempt against St. John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square, which fell on the anniversary of the original vision.
According to later writings by Lucia, who became a nun and died in 2005, Russia would be converted and peace would reign if the pope and all the bishops of the world consecrated Russia to the “Immaculate Heart of Mary.” Lucia later claimed that John Paul fulfilled that prophecy during a 1984 Mass, even though he never specified Russia in the prayer.
Fatima has long captivated Catholics, because of its blending of mystical, Marian apparitions, apocalyptic prophesies about the rise and fall of Soviet communism and the death of a pope. While Saturday’s wildfires and related ashfall were easily explained, they also harked back to another element of the Fatima phenomenon, an unusual weather phenomenon known as the “Miracle of the Sun.”
According to legend, on Oct. 13, 1917, the Fatima “seers” predicted that the Virgin would perform a miracle that day, and tens of thousands of people flocked to Fatima. They saw what witnesses reported was a vision of the sun “spinning” in the sky and zigzagging toward Earth.
Vatican Media had said before the trip that Francis would pray for peace in Ukraine and the world while in Fatima. It seemed logical, given Francis had already consecrated both Russia and Ukraine to Mary in a prayer for peace following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, essentially fulfilling Sr. Lucia’s exhortation.
In the prayer posted on the platform X by the @Pontifex account but not read aloud, Francis didn’t name either country but consecrated the church and world, “especially those countries at war,” to Mary. “Open paths where it seems that none exist,” he wrote. “Loosen the tangles of self-centeredness and the snares of power.”
Fatima Bishop Jose Ornelas made a prayer for Ukraine explicit in his remarks. “We associate ourselves to Your Holiness’ prayer for peace, for which this sanctuary is profoundly identified, thinking in particular of the war in Ukraine and so many other conflicts in the world,” he said.
In explaining the changes, Vatican spokesman Bruni said Francis “always addresses firstly the people he meets, as a shepherd, and speaks accordingly.” The 86-year-old Francis often deviates from his prepared remarks, even more when speaking in his native Spanish. Bruni denied the changes had any other serious reason, including with his eyesight.
Francis has been hospitalized twice this year, including in June when he spent nine days in the hospital recovering from abdominal surgery to repair a hernia and remove scar tissue on his intestine. Saturday was perhaps the most grueling day of his five-day visit to Portugal, given the round-trip helicopter ride to Fatima and a planned prayer vigil that wasn’t expected to begin until his usual bedtime in Rome.