Fatima's New Church of the Holy Trinity

A long hard reflection by Richard P. Salbato


There has been much to do about the new Church now under construction in Fatima.  Many of it's opponents complained of its huge cost, the location, the modern design, and even if it is needed at all.    Called the Church of the Holy Trinity it will be located to the south -west of the existing Basilica in the area that once was a tunnel going under the back road.  Traditionalists, like myself, are having a hard time with the design of the new church because it is very modern.  In reading all the slanders against the project on many web sites, I was inclined to agree with them but held off from doing the same simply because I know the Shrine Rector, Monsignor Guerra to be a good priest, who loves the Liturgy and the true presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist.  He is also very reverent and preaches reverence. 




Some people do not even know the meaning of modern architecture or the difference between it and traditional architecture in reference to a church.  A simplistic meaning would be that modern emphasizes functional and traditional emphasizes beauty. As I have written before, the reason for the traditional style of architecture in the churches of old was to give the  impression of Heaven and the grandeur of God since where God is present all of Heaven is also present.  We know that in the Tabernacle is the same God that is in Heaven and around this Tabernacle is the entire heavenly host including the saints and Mary.  This is why we surround the Tabernacle and the altar with statues of angels and saints.  This is why we have stained glass windows up high above to bring in colored lights from on high to symbolize the glory of heaven.  This is why we had lofts in the high back of the church for the singers and organ, which symbolized the singing of the angels at Mass as we know they do but do not hear them. The altar was placed high up on steps so that we looked up at God and a altar rail or wall was placed around the altar to show that this was sacred and holy ground.


All this beauty, however, did sacrifice comfort as these churches were impossible to heat or cool and it was extremely expensive. Some of these churches took hundreds of years to build and they were built to last to the end of the world, with walls from one to four feet thick.


Strictly modern churches put emphasis on the function and not the beauty, although the architects would deny this.  Often handicapped by financial restraints, time schedules, modern building methods, material availability, and the very talent of the modern tradesmen, an architect become very limited to what he can and cannot do.  Consider just where one would find the talent today to lay huge stones in an arched ceiling or the sculptures to do large massive statues or the masons to do intricate carvings. One would love to see more of these beautiful churches built but can we wait the 20 to 200 years for them or should we do some compromise.   A blend of beauty and function is the best solution today.  Did the authorities of Fatima choose the right solution?




Some have argued that Fatima does not even need a new church, but those people do not live here.  There have been many times when I have had to go to Mass twice simply because I could not get through the crowds to go to communion and I am not talking about feast days, but on regular Sundays.  The Basilica of Fatima holds 900 people seated but at almost every Sunday Mass there are more than 1,500 people, some outside hearing the Mass from speakers.  The Church is beautiful but in the winter you are freezing to death inside.  Because of the high ceiling there is no way to heat it and unless you stand next to the heaters you are going to be very cold.  This is not a problem on the feast days of Fatima from May 13 through October 13 because these are the warm months and these Masses are always outside in the large square.  As someone who lives here and who goes to Mass everyday at the Shrine, I know we need a new church.  Almost everyday of the week there are at least 10 Masses in 5 locations at the Shrine and these are getting harder and harder to attend because of the crowds.  On some days there are as many as 20 Masses.  




When the decision was made to build a new church and pick the architect, the first thing that was needed was a list of things wanted, a plan of action, a budget and the overall results.  This became the design criteria given to the architects picked to compete for the preliminary design.  Some of the things in this criteria would surprise you. 


First and foremost Fatima is an icon (meaning it has an image that must be protected).  When we think of Fatima we think of images of the children, Our Lady of Fatima, or the Basilica complex.  And this is what you find on most Fatima web sites, books or pictures.  The Rector and Bishop did not want this image destroyed by any new construction.


Second of all the actual construction could not interfere with the pilgrims, the feasts or even the daily Masses.  This means it could not block roads, be an eye sore, or make such noise that prayer was interrupted.


At the same time it must have 9000 new seats, many new bathrooms, a new and larger confession area, conference rooms, a vault, dressing rooms for hundreds of priests, garages for deliveries and maintenance, an alter that can handle many priests at one time for large concelebrating Masses, and fit into the overall complex with some uniformity.


The architect selected was from Greece and a Greek Orthodox by faith.  He was selected because his design fit all the design criteria without disrupting the shine during construction and without changing the image of Fatima in the way it is now.  His design required a 40 foot deep hole in the ground larger than a football field (which is already dug), but the top of the building structure will be lower than the floor of the Existing Basilica.  The old walk paths to the shine will end up the same.  There will be more parking in the end than there is now.  The removed cross, and statues that were in this space will be replaced when completed.  Because 60% of the structure is underground the finished project will not change the Shrine in any significant way.


Although round (matching the roundness of the Shrine square) all the seats face the altar and there are no seats behind the altar or to the sides of it.  And although the ceiling is low for a Church (and I have explained why) the architect has made the entire roof into slanted windows that direct light from the rising sun to the altar giving it a look of heavenly importance.  These same slanted windows direct light to two large pools of water in the confession area giving reflected light to this area.  The altar is high and up 8 to 10 steps giving it importance as it should have.  Unlike the Basilica the new church has large walkways around the church and many doors in and out with restrooms located on all sides. 





Although expensive the new church is not just a church but a large project including many hectors of land all the way to the far west road.  It includes taking the south road underground in three lanes, new roads and parking, new building, new parks, and new subdivisions for houses. The actual interior church space is just a small part of the total project.  Designed for the future needs of Fatima far in to the future I am sure in the end most people will welcome the changes and see the need.  At the same time private land owners are building new hotels, apartments, stores and houses all over Fatima.  Although business is down this year, expectations are high.  I, for my part, will do what I can to show the world that Fatima, more than anything else, has changed the world and will continue to do so until a period of peace in the world.  If for nothing else, people should be coming to Fatima to thank Our Lady for saving the world from the conflict that would have been between communism and the west, a conflict that would have taken millions of lives.





Although those who write against the new church continue to call it, Fatima's new Basilica, it is not.  The original Basilica will remain the Fatima Basilica and will continue to be the center of attraction to the eye when coming to Fatima.  The tombs of Jacinta and Francisco will remain in the old Basilica and someday also the body of Lucia.  The hundreds of pilgrims to the tombs per day will, I hope, have less Masses in the Basilica to wait for as they cannot pass the tombs during any Masses.  Pilgrim groups will have more opportunities to have private Masses in the Basilica with the new addition of 9000 seats.  It could be that the bishop could name the new church a Cathedral or the Vatican could name it a Basilica but I do not think this will happen.  Even in the Vatican there is a new and very modern building used for private Masses of large gatherings and special talks, but it will never replace St. Peter's Basilica.




One of the things I most look forward to is the new corner stone of the new church since it will be a stone from St. Peter's tomb under the main altar of St. Peter's Basilica.  I have been to this tomb both from the inside of the Basilica and from the underground catacombs.  The tomb is very small so to have a peace of it is a great honor.  Everyone knows Pope John Paul II's special devotion to Fatima, and for this reason he gave to the Shrine Rector, Monsignor Guerra a stone from the tomb to be the corner stone of the new church.






Although I have noting to go by except an interior rendering by the architect it seems that the new church will not have any altar rails on the massive new high altar.  This may must be an omission on his part but considering that he is Greek Orthodox it would seem to be part of the design criteria.  It could be that the bishop is going to declare this church as his Cathedral but that also seems unlikely since his seat is in another city.  According to canon law a Cathedral has no altar rails because it is used for the ordination of priests and bishops or the coronation of kings.  However, seldom is Mass said on the main altar except for special occasion as these churches have many side altars with altar rails.  This is the case of St. Peter's Basilica which is also a Cathedral.


The altar rail is what the shadow of things to come (1 Cor. 10-11), the great curtain of the Holy of Holies in the Great Temple of Solomon was to signify for us.  The curtain showed that the space behind it was the holy ground of God, His home in the tabernacle, His altar of sacrifice, His special space where we could worship Him.  The great story of St. Ambrose and the Emperor shows how important the Church took these outward signs of holiness, as St. Ambrose took his life in danger when he refused to let the Emperor onto the altar space reserved to priests and servers alone.  In fact, even the readers were not allowed past the altar rail, and high up reading platforms were built for them.


In the canons of the Council of Trent, we see that the Tridentine Mass cannot be said without an altar rail and since now we have the Indult from the Holy Father, those who would like to say the Indult in the new church cannot.  Also some of the Catholic Eastern rites can not say Mass in the new church as they require a separation wall. 


Of course it can be argued that they can use the old Basilica and there is a Eastern Rite chapel at Domus Pacis near by.  It can also be argued that since the altar space is up high the ten steps create the same affect as a wall, curtain or rail.  It could be that the artwork, decorations and accessories of the altar are reserved for an other artist and contractor.  So, maybe my concerns are not well founded. 


As a whole I think people will find the new additions to Fatima a great help and aid in the service of (hopefully) larger and larger groups of pilgrims to Fatima.


                                                                             Richard P. Salbato



Notes on Altar Rails:


Definition and history -

Altar rails mark the boundaries of a sanctuary (which contains the altar) from the main body of a church. Altar Rails have evolved from the general idea of a barrier around the Altar, separating the lay people from the place of sacrifice in order to show reverence for the altar. The earliest forms of this barrier was in the form of curtains which were drawn around the Altar during the holiest moments of the Mass (this is not done in most rites today, but is preserved in the Armenian rites). In the eastern rites, this evolved into a solid wall with doors, called the Iconostasis.. In western rites, it evolved into the more transperent rood screens of gothic use, and finally into altar rails.

Statement by The Vatican on Altar rails -

In response to queries from critics of the removal of altar rails, the Vatican has indicated that there is no requirement that altar rails be removed and that their removal should only be a last resort necessitated by the need to expand the size of the sanctuary or to allow the movement of the altar to a new location within a reshaped sanctuary.

Statement by Cardinal Ratzinger on Altrar rails -

"The context of these comments was a discussion of the Church's liturgical legislation in the period after the Second Vatican Council. I could not but acknowledge that in this legislation there exists no mandate, in the primary sense of the term as a command or order, to move the tabernacle from the high altar to another position in the church.

"With respect to the placement of the tabernacle, the instruction Inter oecumenici (26.9.1964) par 95, which implemented the decisions of Sacrosanctum concilium, states quite clearly that the Blessed Sacrament be reserved on the high altar, a possibility envisaged also by Eucharisticum mysterium (25.5.67) par 54.

"The fact that the postconciliar legislation of the Church does not impose architectural changes, while at the same time not excluding them, provides the diocesan bishop with the necessary latitude for making decisions in the light of the pastoral needs of his particular Church, taking into account also the situation in neighbouring dioceses.

"It is certainly true that a great number of churches since the Second Vatican Council have been re-arranged; such changes, while inspired by the liturgical reform, cannot however be said to have been required by the legislation of the Church.

I remain sincerely yours in Christ - Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger."