Fatima at 100
5/1/2017by Columbia staff
The message of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children in 1917 points to God as the source of peace in the world
Between May and October 1917, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared six times to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal. Francisco and Jacinta Marto and their cousin, Lucia dos Santos, received Mary’s words with simple trust and faithfully put them into practice.
Our Lady’s message was one of prayer, penance and conversion at a time of international crisis, as World War I intensified in Europe and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia loomed on the horizon.
During the deadly flu pandemic that began months later, young Francisco and Jacinta suffered immensely, and they showed great spiritual maturity and holiness despite their young age. Francisco died in 1919 at age 10, and Jacinta died a year later at age 9.
Lucia, who became a Sister of St. Dorothy and eventually received permission to join the Carmelites, wrote of the Fatima events in a series of memoirs and obediently shared what came to be called the “secret of Fatima.”
Pope John Paul II beatified Francisco and Jacinta on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, May 13, 2000. Sister Lucia died in 2005 at age 97, and three years later, Pope Benedict XVI waived the five-year waiting period for her cause for canonization.
In March 2017, Pope Francis formally recognized a second miracle attributed to the intercession of Blesseds Francisco and Jacinta, and to celebrate the centennial of the apparitions he will visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal May 12-13.
As summarized in the pages that follow, the story of Fatima, which unfolded over many decades, is a call to deeper prayer and conversion, and it is intertwined with the Church’s experience throughout the tumultuous 20th century.
APPARITIONS AND MIRACLES
On May 13, 1917, 10-year-old Lucia was herding sheep in the Cova da Iria, near Fatima, with her cousins Francisco, 9, and Jacinta, 7, when the children shared a supernatural vision: A woman “clothed in white and brighter than the sun” spoke to them and asked them to meet her in the same place on the 13th day for the next five months.
Though cautioned by Lucia to remain silent about the event, Jacinta could not contain her joy and told her mother, who gave the claim little credence. Lucia’s mother accused her own daughter of lying, even blaspheming. As word spread through the community, the children faced increasing questions and threats from the local authorities while ever larger crowds gathered each month.
On Aug. 13, authorities went so far as to kidnap, imprison and threaten the children in an attempt to make them repudiate the apparitions. That month, the Blessed Mother appeared to the children on the 19th, after their release, promising to “perform a miracle so that all may believe” in October.
On Oct. 13, an estimated 70,000 people gathered. While only the children saw Mary, as well as St. Joseph and the Child Jesus, the crowd witnessed what came to be called the “miracle of the sun” — the sun appeared to spin, move toward the earth and cast colored light in an extraordinary manner before resuming its normal appearance.
Sister Lucia later revealed in her memoirs that the remarkable events of Fatima actually began a year before Mary’s first appearance. The children had previously been visited three times in the spring of 1916 by the Angel of Portugal, who taught them prayers and called them to deeper love of the Eucharist.
MESSAGE AND PRACTICE
Mary’s message to the children at Fatima was essentially a summons to conversion, faith, prayer, penance and hope. Repeatedly, Our Lady instructed them to “pray the rosary every day” to bring peace to the world and an end to war. She also said to “make sacrifices for sinners” and “in reparation” for offenses against God and her Immaculate Heart. On the last day, she said, “People must amend their lives and ask pardon for their sins.”
The Fatima message inspired spiritual practices that have become part of popular Catholic devotion in many parts of the world. This includes devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and First Saturday Communions of reparation, much like the First Friday devotion to the Sacred Heart inspired by visions of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in the 17th century.
A number of specific prayers also stemmed from these events, including the Fatima Prayer said at the end of the rosary: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins and save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are most in need of your mercy.”
Pope John Paul II affirmed the universality of the Fatima message in 1991 when he said, “Mary’s message at Fatima can be synthesized in these clear, initial words of Christ: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel’ (Mk 1:15).”
CHURCH APPROVAL OF THE FATIMA ‘REVELATION’ On Oct. 13, 1930, after a seven-year investigation, the bishop of Leiria-Fátima declared the apparitions at Fatima worthy of belief and authorized public devotion to Our Lady of Fatima.
In reflecting on the Fatima message in 2000, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, explained that Church-approved “private revelation” has three elements: The message contains nothing contrary to faith or morals; it is lawful to make it public; and the faithful are authorized but not obliged to accept the help it offers. This is distinct from “public revelation,” which came to completion in Christ, as enunciated in the New Testament, and demands faith.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “Throughout the ages, there have been so-called ‘private revelations,’ some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history” (67).
As with the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe (1531) and Our Lady of Lourdes (1858), recent popes have expressed personal devotion to the Blessed Mother under her title Our Lady of Fatima. When Pope Francis visits the Fatima Shrine in May, he will be the fourth pope to do so, following Paul VI (1967), John Paul II (1982, 1991 and 2000) and Benedict XVI (2010).
THE ‘SECRET’ OF FATIMA
During the apparition of July 13, 1917, the Virgin Mary revealed to the shepherd children the so-called secret of Fatima, comprised of three parts.
At the request of her bishop in 1941, Sister Lucia recorded the first two parts of the secret in writing. The first part was a harrowing vision of hell, depicting demons and souls in human form plunged in fire. Mary said to the children, “You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart.”
In a reference to World War II, Sister Lucia further said that Mary spoke of a terrible war that would break out during the pontificate of Pius XI “if people do not cease offending God.” Mary also referred to “persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father” and to the great harm Russia would inflict upon humanity by abandoning the Christian faith and embracing atheistic communism. “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph,” Our Lady concluded. “The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted the world.”
In communion with all Catholic bishops, Pope John Paul II consecrated Russia and the whole world on March 25, 1984. Sister Lucia later confirmed that this act of consecration corresponded to what Mary had requested, writing, “Yes, it has been done just as Our Lady asked.” The following years saw the weakening of communist Russia and its satellite states; the Soviet Union finally collapsed Dec. 26, 1991, opening the door to a new evangelization.
THE ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT ON ST. JOHN PAUL II On May 13, 1981, a jeep carrying Pope John Paul II made its way through St. Peter’s Square shortly after 5 p.m. Suddenly, two shots rang out as Mehmet Ali Aǧca, a Turkish assassin, fired at the pope from point-blank range. One shot entered the Holy Father’s abdomen, while the other grazed his elbow.
Then-Supreme Knight Virgil C. Dechant was among those gathered in the square for the Wednesday audience, and in the hours that followed, he joined others in prayers for the pope.
John Paul II was rushed in an ambulance to the Gemelli University Hospital, where surgeons discovered the bullet had missed his abdominal artery by the narrowest of margins. The pope later attributed his survival to the intervention of Mary and said, “It was a mother’s hand that guided the bullet’s path.” He visited Fatima for the first time on the one-year anniversary of the assassination attempt, and the bullet that nearly killed him now rests in the crown of the Marian statue in the shrine’s apparition chapel.
On the day of the assassination attempt, the Holy Father had intended to announce the establishment of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. The institute’s constitution was instead presented the following October, and the institute was entrusted to the care of Our Lady of Fatima. In a 2008 interview, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, the institute’s first president, reported receiving a letter from Sister Lucia, in which she wrote, “The final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family.”
THE ‘THIRD SECRET’
In 1944, Sister Lucia’s bishop had instructed her to put the third part of the secret of Fatima in writing. A sealed envelope containing the text remained with the bishop until 1957, at which time it was delivered to Rome.
It was first read by Pope John XXIII in 1959 and later by Paul VI in 1965. John Paul II read it in July 1981, three months after the attempt on his life, and later authorized its publication. The full text was presented June 26, 2000, accompanied by a commentary by Cardinal Ratzinger.
The third secret described a vision of “a bishop dressed in white” going up a steep mountain toward a cross while praying amid the bodies of martyrs along the way. Upon reaching the summit, he fell to the ground, shot to death by soldiers.
Cardinal Ratzinger explained that “the figurative language of visions is symbolic” and therefore “not every element of the vision has to have a specific historical sense.” Taken as a whole, the vision presents the 20th century as “a century of martyrs, a century of suffering and persecution for the Church, a century of World Wars.”
He added: “When, after the attempted assassination on May 13, 1981, the Holy Father had the text of the third part of the ‘secret’ brought to him, was it not inevitable that he should see in it his own fate?”
With regard to individual events described in the vision, the cardinal affirmed that “they belong to the past,” and “those who expected exciting apocalyptic revelations about the end of the world or the future course of history are bound to be disappointed.”
OUR LADY OF FATIMA AND THE KNIGHTS In 1947, during the first North American journey of the international pilgrim virgin statue of Our Lady of Fatima, Knights across the continent took part in the devotion and served as escorts. The journey reached more than 250 cities in Canada and the United States in honor of the 30th anniversary of the apparitions, promoting prayer for peace. The pilgrim statue of Our Lady of Fatima also inspired then- Supreme Knight Virgil C. Dechant to initiate in 1979 the Order’s first Marian Hour of Prayer, featuring traveling images blessed by the pope.
A year earlier, the Knights of Columbus began the practice of giving each new member a rosary blessed by the supreme chaplain. Through its support of Holy Cross Family Ministries and through its own distributions, the Order has placed hundreds of thousands of rosaries into the hands of the faithful. In addition, through personal devotion and by organizing prayer services, Knights have promoted the daily recitation of the rosary, as recommended at Fatima.
On Oct. 13, 2013, a Fourth Degree honor guard participated in the Year of Faith “Marian Day” at the Vatican by carrying the original pilgrim virgin statue of Our Lady of Fatima through St. Peter’s Square. And in February 2015, Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore and Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson traveled to Fatima on pilgrimage for the first time with Knights and their families.