On May 13, 2017, Catholics around the world will celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the appearances of the Virgin Mary in Fátima, Portugal. Three shepherd children — Lúcia dos Santos, age ten, and her cousins, Francisco (nine) and his sister Jacinta Marto (seven) — said that from May through October 1917, usually on the 13th day of the month, they saw the Virgin Mary in a field called the Cova da Iria. At the Virgin’s appearance in October, the sun, it was reported, “danced” in the sky in defiance of cosmic laws and was observed by thousands who had gathered in the field. The children’s purported heavenly visions would soon shake the Catholic Church and the whole world.
During those six months, the Blessed Virgin communicated to the children information that they called “the secret.” Commanded by her not to reveal it, Francisco and Jacinta went to their graves (in 1919 and 1920, respectively) having divulged nothing of its content. This silence was maintained amid an ever-increasing crowd of curiosity seekers and threats of physical harm from the local administrator — an impressive feat for such young children. Today, the Catholic Church, in a ceremony in Fátima, canonizes Francisco and Jacinta as saints.
Lúcia lived to be almost 98. She died on February 13, 2005, having spent most of her life as a Carmelite nun in Coimbra, Portugal. Over the course of her long life, she gradually disclosed the secret’s contents. She indicated that it had three parts. The first two were revealed by December 1941, in documents known as Lúcia’s Memoirs. The secret pertained to the state of the world as God saw it, and to what would happen if man did not repent.
In 1917, World War I was still raging, and the Russian Revolution broke out in October. The Virgin indicated that Russia would be the instrument through which God chastised the world for its sins. Russia, she said, would spread its “errors.” For the most part, Fátima scholars understand the “errors” to be those of Communism. The Virgin predicted that wars and persecutions would be rampant, various nations would be annihilated, good people would be martyred, and the pope would suffer much.
The heavenly remedy was to institute the Five First Saturdays, a devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. On the first Saturday of five consecutive months, people would make reparation for outrages committed against Mary’s Immaculate Heart. They would thereby inculcate within themselves her own faith and love, attaining the conversion and repentance of sinners, leading them to God.
The Virgin also promised that Russia’s errors would not spread if the pope, together with all the bishops of the world, consecrated the country to her Immaculate Heart. For decades they did not, and the errors spread. World War II was fought as well as countless other wars. In the 20th century, George Weigel has noted, more people died for the faith than in the previous Christian centuries combined. In 1984, Pope Saint John Paul II consecrated the world to Mary’s Immaculate Heart. Lúcia wrote later that a nuclear war had been thereby averted. In 1989, Communism fell without a single shot being fired.
The Virgin’s prophecy that Russia’s errors would spread was conditioned on whether her request for the consecration of the nation was heeded. She had told the children in 1917 that she would ask for the consecration at a later time, and in 1929 she did. The Virgin appeared to Lúcia and made the formal request, telling her that the time had come when God asks the Holy Father in communion with all the bishops to consecrate Russia to her Immaculate Heart.
Seeing Western governments perpetuate Russia’s ‘errors,’ some Catholics question whether the Virgin’s prophecies at Fátima have been fulfilled.
Since the consecration was not done when requested, Russia’s errors spread and many of the democracies in the West were affected. In contemporary liberalism and secularism, the errors manifest themselves on such issues as abortion, religious freedom, and sexual immorality. Communism as a major political force may not be what it once was, but its ideology has not entirely disappeared from world affairs. In 2009, even Vladimir Putin warned the West against accepting its errors.
Seeing Western governments perpetuate them, some Catholics question whether the Virgin’s prophecies at Fátima have been fulfilled. Some believe that the third part of the secret was not been fully disclosed. They alleged that the text warns that Pope Saint John XXIII’s reforms of the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council led to infiltration of the Church by Communism.
One reason people believe that is that the Church withheld the text of the third part of the secret for so long.
Lúcia wrote it down in January 1944. In statements attributed to her, she indicated that it could be published no earlier than 1960, and many assumed that it would be published that year. It wasn’t, and a cottage industry of speculation grew. The Vatican finally published the text on June 26, 2000. It was a narration of a vision showing what would happen if the Virgin’s requests were not heeded. Publishing the text failed to dispel the speculation, however. To this effect, the efforts of Nicholas Gruner (1942–2015) and his Fatima Center have had a noticeable impact.
Father Gruner and his associates were correct to point out that not all is well both in the Church and in the world. They are well-intentioned in their concern and love for the Church, but they take that concern too far. They are quick to accuse others of conspiratorial motives. Prudent and careful examination of the facts calls into question some of their assertions, as I take great pains to demonstrate in my book On the Third Part of the Secret of Fátima.
Casting aside these and other speculations, we can see the clear significance of Fátima in light of the teaching about it by Pope Benedict XVI taught in a homily in 2010: The opening years of the 20th century saw mankind “unleashing a cycle of death and terror.” In seeking himself and forgetting his God, man cut himself off from the source of true and lasting happiness. Man’s pride had swollen, leading not to the utopia promised by the muses of atheism but rather to a hell on earth. The power of the atom was in his grasp. Given the threat that fact still poses, the Miracle of the Sun at Fátima remains a divine reminder that no matter how much man’s pride may swell, God remains the Lord of all.
Benedict reminded us that God sent the Blessed Virgin to call wayward men back to the precepts of her Son, for Christians to be prophets to such a world. Her call in Fátima is an invitation to imitate her virtues as a sure path leading to God and can be understood as a summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ. While the Catholic Church holds that the prophesies of the Virgin at Fátima have been fulfilled, Mary’s call to conversion is timeless. As the threat of wars escalates, we should in this centenary year of Fátima search more deeply Our Lady’s call and rediscover the “sweet joys” of God to which she calls us.