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Betsy Kneepkens: Fatima pilgrimage was a blessing to my faith

I know that I have had more opportunities than most Catholics. My parents sacrificed to send my 12 siblings and me to Catholic schools, both grade school and high school, and nearly all of us attended Catholic colleges. My parents instilled the value of weekly Mass attendance, and while growing up our social life and faith community were essentially the same group of people. I worked at a Catholic college for almost 28 years, and now I have been blessed to work for the Diocese of Duluth in the Office of Marriage and Family Life.

God has graced me with a husband who is a practicing Catholic, and as a young, newly married couple, we serendipitously selected a neighborhood that includes other Catholic families, our church, and the parish school our children attended. And on any given weekend my family has at least a dozen different Mass times to choose from at nearby parishes when our schedule is complicated.

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

Although I interact with the secular world in daily duties, my foundation is rooted in faith, and I am grateful. These conditions create an idyllic lifestyle so we can more readily focus our lives toward the good, the beautiful, and the holy. I know not everyone gets to experience that same abundance.

Moreover, I have been blessed with additional opportunities which I surmise are even more extraordinary than what the vast majority of Catholics experience in this country. For example, four years ago I attended my first Catholic pilgrimage. I agreed to go not even knowing what a pilgrimage is or what a religious “vacation” is all about. I was intrigued by the trip advertisement, so I signed up.

I quickly learned I was not on a trip or a vacation, I was experiencing something entirely different. I was on a spiritual pilgrimage. I have learned that a Catholic pilgrimage is a journey with a purpose, and that purpose is always the same: to honor God. The travels often take you to a sacred place, but more importantly, this journey is the time of prayer and reflection that calls you to stir your heart toward God.

This retreat, by yourself or with others, allows you to encounter Christ in ways you may never have before. Typically pilgrimages do not provide you the best accommodations or the best food. You might not see a beautiful landscape, and you might be downright uncomfortable during parts or even all of the trip. Nevertheless, I would rather go on pilgrimage anytime rather than a leisure trip. I would go as far as to say I have found vacations less satisfying ever since.

One of my favorite pilgrimages was to Portugal, where I was able to stay a few days at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. This sacred destination is at the site of one of the Catholic Church’s few approved Marian apparitions. Fatima is the site where Mary appeared to three young shepherd children, Francisco, Jacinto, and Lucia, for five months, on the 13th of each month, culminating on Oct. 13, 1917. This October, we celebrate the centennial of the apparition.

I have been to three of the Vatican’s officially approved apparition sites and found great attraction to Fatima. Part of the allure of the Shrine of our Lady of Fatima for me is that this Marian apparition happened while my grandparents were alive. Because this is sort of a contemporary event, technology was such that you can now find videos and pictures on YouTube and read secular archived newspapers which wrote headlines that covered the story. I was even able to look up how this situation was perceived in the U.S. by reading articles from the archived student newspaper at St. Scholastica.

Most impressive to me are the estimates that 70,000 people, believers and skeptics alike, gathered at Fatima 100 years ago this month. Some came to be affirmed and some to proclaim foul. Consequently, this large gathering indeed was able to view the “Miracle of the Sun,” which silenced most critics. This miracle was given as a promise by Mary to the shepherd children, who had to endure hostility, as proof of their vision and to encourage the masses to listen to the messages Mary gave to the shepherd children. This shrine built on the site of the apparitions has since been given to the world, so we remember these important events, most significantly to draw us closer to Christ.

When I went to Fatima, I was among the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who travel there each year. Although outside the shrine there was a bit of commercialization, within the shrine area, which seemed to cover well over a square mile, there was no hint of consumerism. You were not required to pay for anything. Masses were being said in various locations and languages, displaying a diverse harmony was exquisitely Catholic and which I had never seen before. I had the immense privilege of praying the rosary among tens of thousands of other Catholics in every imaginable language while we all processed in a candlelit vigil. Just imagine days of prayer, with others and yet still alone with Christ, all at the same time. Hours were like minutes, and days were like hours. A renewal occurs in your heart that seems to sustain you over time, and that happened to me at Fatima.

I do understand that I have been blessed in ways most of my Catholic brothers and sisters have not. My family and I have been exposed to what the church has to offer us and have tried to remain grateful and humbled by its availability. I also know that the pilgrimages I have taken each year since my first call out an obligation to share what I learn and experience with other faithful. The Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima is truly a treasure in this church; the centennial draws us closer to Mary’s message at Fatima and her desire to bring us closer to Christ.

For those of us who have had the exceptional experience of going to Fatima and similar sacred destinations, we do have an obligation to share with others. If I meet you someday, don’t hesitate to ask, and if we do, you can learn more about Fatima at fatima-shrine-of-our-lady-of-fatima. I know Oct. 13 this year will be a special day of prayer for me, and I hope it can be for you as well.

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.