Lisbon (AFP) - Around 80,000 pilgrims gathered at the Roman Catholic shrine of Fatima in central Portugal on Thursday to mark the anniversary of what is said to be the final apparition of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children in 1917.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, presided over the open air mass held on the shrine's vast esplanade, which comes ahead of a visit by Pope Francis in May 2017 for the 100th anniversary of the first apparition of the Virgin.
The pope will come to Fatima "on a Marian pilgrimage on the centenary of the apparitions", he told a news conference, without giving further details about the papal visit which was first announced last year.
"Everything still needs to be organised," he added.
Hotels in the region for the 100th anniversary of first apparition on May 13, 2017 are already almost fully booked with some charging up 1,500 euros ($1,650) per night, daily newspaper Diario de Noticias reported on its front page on Thursday.
Pope Francis will be the fourth pontiff to visit Fatima, where the Church believes the Madonna appeared to three poor shepherd children each month from May to October 1917.
The late John Paul II attributed his narrow escape from death following a 1981 assassination attempt to the intervention of the Virgin Mary, and donated the bullet extracted from his abdomen to the Fatima shrine.
The shrine, located about 130 kilometres (80 miles) north of Lisbon, draws millions of visitors each year, with many making the journey by foot over several days as a sign of devotion, and the pilgrim trade is the engine of the area's economy.