Stuart Forster reports on the experience of photographing a solar halo in Portugal on 13 May 2011, an experience that led pilgrims to ask if they’d seen a miracle of the sun in Fatima.
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I witnessed a remarkable event in Fatima, Portugal, on 13 May 2011. People standing close to me described what they saw as a miracle.
“A new miracle of Fatima,” uttered a woman behind me.
“Another Miracle of the Sun,” said another in an awestruck tone.
Scientifically minded folk will be inclined to explain the events of that day as a meteorological phenomenon. Sunlight reflecting on ice crystals suspended high in the sky is a cause of 22° halos. The halo-like circles of light, also known as sun halos, occur most frequently in winter.
13 May 2011 was a warm spring day. Many of the pilgrims gathered in Fatima were carrying umbrellas or wearing hats to shield themselves from the sun’s rays during the outdoor Mass.
The timing of the appearance of a halo around the sun was certainly uncanny. It affirmed the faith of some who saw it. The sanctity of Fatima too.
13 May in Fatima, Portugal
The reason I was in Fatima was to photograph the Feast Day of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament. Between 250,000 and 300,000 Roman Catholic pilgrims were expected to gather that day to celebrate an outdoor Mass. It’s one of the most significant days of the year in Fatima.
I adore photographing major events and cultural heritage. There’s a thrillingly unpredictable element to documenting large gatherings of people.
In 1917 three local children reported a series of visions of a lady. Beginning on 13 May of that year, the monthly apparitions continued into October. They concluded with an event now known as the Miracle of the Sun.
Fatima has subsequently evolved into one of the world’s great pilgrimage sites. The city lies approximately 125 kilometres (78 miles) north of Lisbon.
Photographing at the Sanctuary of Fatima
I was moving slowly through the crowd gathered at the prayer area, photographing as I went and observing the proceedings of the service.
A video of Pope John Paul II had just been introduced. The footage was beginning to play on a big screen.
It was then that I noticed a subtle change in the light and glanced up. Remarkably, a halo ringed the sun.
Never having seen such a phenomenon, I pointed my camera into the sky and photographed it.
Then I thought about the significance of the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima. My photograph of the sun surrounded by a halo could have been taken anywhere. I needed to show the halo-ringed sun in the context of Fatima.
To do that I sank one knee to the ground and tilted my camera to the sky. My aim was to depict pilgrims praying and using their umbrellas to provide shade.
People around me thought I was genuflecting. I heard gasps and cries of joy. A couple of women thanked me for bringing the miraculous event to their attention. They offered rosary beads and asked if I could send them prints of my photos.
A Fatima miracle or natural phenomenon?
The halo faded just a couple of minutes after my initial shot. Was it my imagination or did it last only for the duration of the video?
As the Mass ended the halo reappeared around the sun. This allowed me to photograph it above the High Cross and Pope John Paul II sculptures.
The timing of the halo’s appearance seemed remarkable.
Are you a meteorologist and able to provide an explanation in layman’s terms? If so, please leave a comment below.
Did you witness the solar halo of 13 May 2011? What’s your take on what happened that day?
The visions of Fatima
On 13 May 1917 Lucia dos Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marta reputedly saw a vision of a lady while tending sheep at Cova da Iria. The resplendent lady asked the youngsters to pray and return on the 13th of the following month.
The three children duly returned. So too did the lady. She reappeared in subsequent months, until October.
After reporting the vision, officials prevented the youngsters from being present on 13 August 1917. Nonetheless, the lady appeared six days later and promised a miracle on 13 October.
Miracle of the Sun in Fatima
The Ilustração Portuguesa newspaper reported that a crowd of thousands gathered on the autumn day in 1917. Eyewitnesses testified to witnessing a phenomenon that became known as the Miracle of the Sun. Some of the onlookers reported that the sun appeared to fall towards the earth. Others said it danced in the sky for around 10 minutes, changing colours as it did so.
Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco reported seeing another vision of the lady on 13 October 1917. The female is reputed to have revealed her identity as the Lady of the Rosary, the Virgin Mary, and requested a chapel to be built in Fatima. Three secrets were also revealed to the children, who shared them with representatives of the church.
Legacy of the Miracle of Fatima
Investigations into what happened took place in the years that followed. On 13 October 1930, the Bishop of Leiria authorised veneration of Our Lady of Fatima.
Of the three children, only Lucia grew into adulthood. She became a nun and lived until 2005. Jacinta and Francisco died during the influenza pandemic, known as the Spanish Flu, that swept the world after World War One.
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary was consecrated in 1953. The place of worship stands at the place where the three children claim to have had the visions. Also known as the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima, it has become one of the world’s most significant Marian shrines. It draws around four million pilgrims every year.
A large outdoor prayer area stands between the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary and the circular Basilica of the Most Holy Trinity. Pilgrims gather on the square for Masses on 13 May and 13 October.
Outdoor Mass in Fatima
On 13 May 1967, the fiftieth anniversary of the children’s first vision, around one million pilgrims gathered in Fatima. Pope Paul VI said Mass and led prayers for peace. He was accompanied to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima by Lucia.
A century on from the first of the visions, Pope Francis canonised Jacinta and Francisco. Approximately half-a-million pilgrims were present in Fatima for the ceremony on 13 May 2017.
Map of Fatima, Portugal
The map below shows central Fatima. Zoom out of the map to view Fatima’s location in central Portugal.
Accommodation in Fatima, Portugal
Seeking a hotel in Fatima, Portugal? Search for accommodation in Fatima via Booking.com:
Travel to Fatima
British Airways and TAP Air Portugal operate flights between London and Lisbon Portela Airport.
See the UK Government website for official Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) advice about travel to Portugal.
Enjoy rail travel? It’s worth noting that Fatima Station is approximately 19 kilometres (12 miles) east of Fatima. Buying a train ticket to Estação Ferroviária de Chão de Maçãs-Fátima will mean you need to take a bus or taxi to reach the pilgrimage site. Buses stopping outside of the railway station run to Fatima.
An intercity bus service operates between the Sete Rios Bus Station in Lisbon and Fatima Bus Station (known in Portuguese as the Terminal Rodoviário de Fátima). The journey takes around 80 minutes.
Hiring a car and driving to Fatima gives you the freedom to explore points of interest along the route.
Books about Fatima and Portugal
Planning a trip to Fatima? You may enjoy reading the following books about the pilgrimage site and travel books on Amazon:
Jean Heimann’s book Fatima: The Apparition That Changed the World:
Deidre Manifold’s Fatima: The and the Great Conspiracy:
Marianna Bartold’s Fatima: The Signs and Secrets:
Lonely Planet’s guidebook to Portugal:
The Rough Guide to Portugal, a travel guide with a free e-book:
Find out more about the famous Portuguese pilgrimage site on the Shrine of Fatima website.
Discover things to see and do in Fatima and elsewhere in the country on the Visit Portugal website.
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, is an award-winning travel writer who spent two years living in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city. Stuart has written about Portugal for publications including National Geographic Traveller, The Huff Post and Traveller. He is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers.
Illustrating photographs are by Why Eye Photography.
Thanks for visiting Go Eat Do and reading this post about the Miracle of the Sun in Fatima, Portugal. If you’re planning a trip to Portugal you may find useful travel ideas in my post about 48 hours in Lisbon.
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