Keeping the faith: Thousands pray in Portugal's main Catholic site for end to pandemic

FATIMA, Portugal (Reuters) – Standing in circles marked to keep social distance, thousands of faithful gathered and held candles at one of Catholicism’s most famous sanctuaries in Portugal on Monday evening, with many praying for the end of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Every October, around 100,000 people head to the Fatima Sanctuary – many of them by foot – to mark the third and last reported vision of the Virgin Mary more than 100 years ago. But, this year, only 6,000 people were allowed in the massive outdoor venue because of coronavirus restrictions.

Many of the faithful, all wearing masks, took the opportunity to pray for those affected by the outbreak.

“We need living in community – the pandemic ruined this,” said Francisco Simoes, who walked more than 120 kilometres (74.56 miles) to the Catholic event. “We ask our Virgin Mary to free us from this damn pandemic and to help those who are sick, who have suffered and lost loved ones.”

The Catholic Church teaches the Virgin Mary appeared to three Portuguese children in 1917 in Fatima, which was then an impoverished farming village. It believes the Virgin Mary gave the children three messages, the so-called secrets of Fatima.

Pope Francis made two of the shepherd children saints in 2017.

Among the crowd, 60-year-old Antonio Manuel stood next to a small statue of the Virgin Mary he carried all the way from Valongo, a town in the Portugal’s northern region, around 200 kilometres north of Fatima .

“This year I pray for doctors, nurses, security forces, for journalists, who are also fighting,” Manuel said. “And I ask for all who work against the coronavirus.”

Though Portugal only has 87,913 confirmed coronavirus cases and 2,094 deaths, the pandemic is set to leave long lasting scars on the country’s tourism-dependent economy, including in places like Fatima, where businesses are highly dependent on foreign visitors to survive.

“It is a very difficult period for everyone,” said Jose Fernando as he waited for the mass to kick off.

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