Pope cheered in Fatima to canonise children who urged peace
Pope Francis and pilgrims from around the world flocked to a Catholic shrine town in Portugal to honour two poor children whose visions of the Virgin Mary 100 years ago marked one of the most important events of the 20th-century Catholic Church.
Pilgrims three-to-five deep lined his motorcade route and tossed flower petals as he zoomed by.
The huge crowd erupted in cheers and applause as the pontiff's open-topped, white pope mobile arrived at Fatima's vast square.
The rain that had poured down earlier in the day gave way to a brilliant, warm sun by the time Francis arrived.
There was no official crowd estimate, but authorities had previously said they were expecting one million people
Francis is in Fatima to celebrate the centenary of the apparitions and to canonise the children, brother and sister Francisco and Jacinta Marto.
He is hoping the message of peace that they reported 100 years ago, when Europe was in the throes of the First World War, will resonate with the Catholic faithful today.
Over the past several days, church groups, families and individuals have made their way to Fatima, 90 miles north of Lisbon, some completing the final leg of the pilgrimage on their knees in prayer.
Carrying candles, rosaries and roses, they have headed to the statue dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima.
"For me, it's the second time I am here with a pope, first with John Paul II and now with Papa Francisco," pilgrim Elisabete Fradique Conceicao said. "They are simple men and that simplicity makes sense when you think what happened here 100 years ago."
On May 13 1917, while they were grazing their sheep, the children saw the first of a half-dozen visions of the Virgin Mary.
They said she revealed to them three "secrets" - apocalyptic messages foreshadowing the Second World War, hell, the rise and fall of communism and the death of a pope - and urged them to pray for peace and turn away from sin.
At first doubted by the local Catholic Church and even by their parents, the children's story gained believers and was eventually accepted as an authentic apparition by the church in 1930.
The children, who were nine and seven at the time of the apparitions, died of influenza two years later.
Their cousin, Lucia dos Santos, at 10 the ringleader of the group and who became the main raconteur of their tale, is on track for beatification, the first step toward becoming a saint. Her case couldn't begin until after her death in 2005.
Francis' deputy, Cardial Pietro Parolin, said the importance of Fatima lies specifically in the fact that poor, illiterate children were able to convey a powerful message of love, peace and forgiveness at a time of war when "the talk was of hatred, vendetta, hostilities".
In a video message on the eve of his departure, Francis urged all faithful to join him, physically or spiritually, in Fatima.
"With all of us forming one heart and soul, I will then entrust you to Our Lady, asking her to whisper to each one of you: 'My Immaculate Heart will be your refuge and the path that leads you to God.'"
In Fatima the basilica's bells rang out as the pontiff passed in his pope mobile through a sea of people waving flags from dozens of countries.
The crowd fell silent as Francis stood and prayed at the Chapel of the Apparitions, dedicated to the children.
After arriving in Portugal at a military air base, the pope travelled 10 minutes by helicopter to Fatima, before transferring to the pope mobile.
Later during evening prayer, Francis urged Catholics to "tear down all walls" and go to the peripheries to spread peace and justice.
He told the tens of thousands of pilgrims: "We will tear down all walls and cross every frontier, as we go out to every periphery, to make known God's justice and peace."
He spoke after spending several minutes in silent prayer before the statue of the Madonna at the chapel built in Fatima.
Francis attended the traditional Blessing of the Candles at the Fatima shrine.
He lit a candle at a night-time Mass traditionally popular with pilgrims. Behind the pope as he prayed were thousands of points of light as people held up candles in the shrine's vast, dark square.