FATIMA, Portugal (AP) — Pope Francis urged Catholics on Friday to "tear down all walls" and spread peace as he traveled to this Portuguese shrine town to mark the 100th anniversary of one of the most unique events of the 20th-century Catholic Church: the visions of the Virgin Mary reported by three illiterate shepherd children and the "secrets" she told them.
Thousands of pilgrims lined Francis' motorcade route and tossed flower petals, evidence that Latin America's first pope has a huge following in this largely Catholic country. Cheers of "Viva o papa!" — "Long live the pope" — erupted when Francis pulled into Fatima's main square, which had been doused by heavy rains but was treated to a brilliant warm sun by the time he arrived.
There was no official crowd estimate, but the main square has a capacity of 600,000 and was overflowing. Authorities said they expected 1 million people.
"It is a big emotion because it is the first time he comes here, and we are always hopeful that something can improve," said Laurindo Pereira, a 55-year-old carpenter. "It is faith. In everything, it is about faith and it is a beautiful thing."
Francis is spending fewer than 24 hours in Fatima to celebrate the centenary of the apparitions and canonize two of the three shepherd children. He is hoping the message of peace that they reported 100 years ago, when Europe was in the throes of World War I, will resonate with the Catholic faithful today.
During an evening vigil at the chapel built on the site of the apparitions, Francis bowed his head in silent prayer before the statue of the Virgin and left a gold-leaf rose at its base, following a tradition of popes leaving golden roses at Marian shrines.
In a prayer, he urged the faithful to follow in the footsteps of the young shepherds and spread peace even in times of war.
"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 said.
The Fatima mystery has fascinated Catholics and non-Catholics alike for a century, blending visions of the Virgin, supernatural meteorological events and apocalyptic messages of hell, World War II, communism and the death of a pope.
It all began on May 13, 1917, when three cousins, aged 7-10, Francisco and Jacinta Marto and Lucia dos Santos, reported that they had seen a vision of the Virgin Mary as they grazed their sheep. They returned to the same spot in the coming months and reported similar visions.
Portuguese church officials initially doubted them. Many doubters, though, became believers after the so-called "miracle of the sun" on Oct. 13, 1917. The children had predicted that the Virgin would perform a miracle that day, and tens of thousands of people flocked to Fatima and saw what witnesses reported was a vision of the sun "spinning" in the sky and zigzagging toward Earth.
The Portuguese church declared the visions authentic in 1930.
The children reported that the Madonna revealed to them three "secrets," and urged them to pray for peace and turn away from sin. Francisco and Jacinta Marto died of influenza two years later, and will be declared saints by the pope Saturday, the 100th anniversary of the initial vision.
Lucia, who later became a nun and wrote of the children's experiences, 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, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has said the importance of Fatima lies in the fact that poor, illiterate children — not the wealthy, the learned or intellectuals — were able to convey a powerful message of love and forgiveness at a time of war, when "the talk was of hatred, vendetta, hostilities."
Fatima has long been associated with St. John Paul II, given that the Polish-born pope credited the Virgin Mary with saving his life in 1981 when a would-be assassin shot him on Fatima's feast day — May 13 — in St. Peter's Square. John Paul made the first of three pilgrimages to Fatima the following May, and one of the bullets fired at him now adorns the crown of the Madonna statue at the shrine.
In 2000, the Vatican disclosed the long-awaited third secret of Fatima, describing it as foretelling the 1981 assassination attempt and the persecution of other Christian faithful.
Like John Paul, the Argentine-born Francis is exceedingly devoted to the Madonna, thanks in large part to the strong role that Marian devotions play among Latin American Catholics.
Before every trip he takes, Francis brings a bouquet of flowers to an icon of Mary at the Rome basilica dedicated to her name, St. Mary Major.
On his first foreign trip as pope, to Brazil, he prayed at the shrine to the Madonna at Aparecida. He has done the same at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, at the shrine of Caacupe in Paraguay and the Virgin of the Charity of Cobre in Cuba.
One shrine he has avoided visiting is in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where six youngsters reported repeated visions of the Virgin starting in 1981. A Vatican-appointed doctrinal commission finished its study years ago, but Francis hasn't released the results.
He has cautioned against such tales of near-daily visions, however, and has said devotion must be to "the real Madonna. Not the Madonna who's like the head of a post office who every day sends a different letter saying, 'My children, do this,' and then the next day says, 'Do that.'"
The church says the Fatima case is altogether different.
In his evening prayer, Francis said God's mercy was made real on this spot 100 years ago when a "Lady robed in white" appeared to the young children and confided her secrets of love and peace to them.
"As a bishop robed in white, I call to mind all those who ... desire to live in God and tell the mysteries of Christ in order to obtain peace," Francis said.