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Pope beatifies shepherd children in Fatima
FATIMA, Portugal -- Pope John Paul II on Saturday beatified two of three shepherd children who said they saw visions of the Virgin Mary 83 years ago.
The two children died of pneumonia not long after seeing their visions in 1917, but the third, their cousin, is still alive -- and the church does not beatify the living.
In a Mass on a stage set up outside the front doors of Fatima's Chapel of Apparitions, the two visionaries, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, were beatified in a ceremony that put them on a path to sainthood.
Beatification is the next-to-last step before sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.
Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the shrine's huge square to witness the hour-and-a-half beatification. Many of them made the pilgrimage to Fatima on foot.
Giant pictures of Francisco and Jacinta Marto draped the front of the chapel, with a statue of the Virgin Mary between them.
The Pope, making his third visit to the shrine, believes the Virgin saved his life 19 years ago when he was shot and seriously wounded by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca.
Pope arrived Friday
After being greeted by Portugal's President Jorge Sampaio in Lisbon on Friday, the Pope boarded a helicopter for the 40- minute flight to Fatima, 140 kilometers (87 miles) to the north.
Landing on a soccer field outside Fatima, the Pope embraced children and briefly caressed the heads of many in the crowd before riding the popemobile to pray at the Chapel of Apparitions.
May 13 has a double significance. It marks both the day of the first of the "apparitions" in 1917 and of the Pope's brush with death in Rome in 1981.
The Pope, renowned for his devotion to the Virgin, is so convinced that she intervened to save him that he left the bullet that was pulled from his body in the golden crown of the Madonna during his last visit in 1991.
Fatima's visions and mysteries
The Virgin is believed to have appeared to the two shepherds and their cousin, Lucia, on the 13th of each of the succeeding months.
Lucia, now 93 and in ill health, traveled to Fatima from the convent in central Portugal where she has lived since 1948 to meet the Pope.
During the final apparition on October 13, which was attended by some 50,000 people, many said they saw the sun "dance" in the sky after the children had asked the Madonna for a sign of her presence.
Since 1930, when the Church officially declared the visions to be worthy of belief, Fatima's fame has spread. It draws some five million visitors a year, putting it on a par with Lourdes in southern France.
In Fatima, people began arriving days ago with many sleeping in tents because hotels and hostels were sold out.
Officials say as many as one million people may have come into the region for the Pope's visit.
Many come to pray for help from the "little shepherds," as they are known in Portugal, or to fulfill a pledge or promise.
The three secrets
Beyond the visions, Fatima's fame owes much to the three secrets the Madonna was believed to have given to the children.
The first was a vision of hell; the second, the start of World War II. But the third has never been revealed, giving rise to speculation it was apocalyptic.
But in an interview with Portuguese radio in 1996, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and one of the few people to know it, said the third secret was no cause for alarm.
Portuguese police mounted a massive security operation for the visit, with some 1,500 men being deployed in Lisbon and Fatima.
On the first of the Pope's visits in 1982, when he came to give thanks for having survived the attempt to kill him the year before, a fundamentalist Spanish priest tried to stab him with a bayonet but failed.
CNN correspondent Gayle Young and Reuters contributed to this report.
Santuário de Fátima (multi-lingual)
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