By Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira
FATIMA, Portugal (Reuters) - Suffering from an autoimmune disease, 71-year-old Maria Emilia travels - often by foot - to one of Catholicism's most famous sanctuaries in Portugal every year. But the coronavirus pandemic made her trip more important than ever.
Standing in circles marked to maintain social distancing, Emilia joined about 7,500 other faithful at a massive outdoor venue on Wednesday evening at the Fatima Sanctuary to mark the first of three reported visions of the Virgin Mary, also known as Our Lady, more than 100 years ago.
Like many others, Emilia came to Fatima with her sister and daughter with one main purpose: to pray for an end to the pandemic still ravaging the world and a return to normality.
"More than ever we must ask Our Lady to help us, to free us from this great pandemic we are experiencing and from the diseases we have," she told Reuters as she waited patiently for the candlelight procession to start, the highlight of the evening.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches the Virgin Mary appeared to three Portuguese children in 1917 in Fatima, which was then an impoverished farming village. It believes she gave the children three messages, the so-called secrets of Fatima.
Pope Francis made two of the shepherd children saints in 2017.
Pedro Barbosa, a 44-year-old from the Portuguese city of Santarem, was in Fatima when former pope John Paul II visited the shrine, describing it as one of the most important moments of his life.
But for Barbosa, the pandemic situation in Portugal, which in January imposed a lockdown to tackle what was then the world's worst surge of COVID-19, was one of the reasons why he came back to Fatima this year.
"We are fed up with this and it changed our lives a lot," Barbosa said. "I'm tired of the mask. It's horrible. I hope Our Lady will help us get rid of this (pandemic) as soon as possible."
(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira in Fatima; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)