The revelations of Our Lady of Fatima hold a significant place in the minds and heart of Catholics, and indeed many others across the world.
It was on this spring day in 1917, while the world was destroying itself in the ‘war to end all wars’, that a heavenly woman appeared to three peasant children on a hillside outside the village of Fatima Portugal. The Lady was in their own description, brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal goblet filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun. She appeared to them on the 13th of each month – with the exception of August, when the children were imprisoned by the authorities, and the woman appeared on the 19th – culminating in the final apparition in October, and the famous ‘miracle of the Sun’. The woman gave the children admonitions and ‘secrets’, the third of which still occupies many people’s minds and imaginations. The principal message of Fatima was, Our Lady’s words, as interpreted by the little seers, to pray a lot, a lot for the sinners and sacrifice a lot, as many souls perish in hell because nobody is praying or making sacrifices for them. She especially advocated the Holy Rosary, which has in turn been urged by holy Mother Church, and every Pope of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, as we approach whatever it is God has in store for us.
In 1981, on the memorial of Our Lady of Fatima – forty years ago today – Mehmet Alic Agca fired four bullets from his Browning 9mm at Pope John Paul II in Saint Peter’s Square, soon after his Wednesday address – ironically, this was during his ongoing series on the Theology of the Body. Two of the bullets hit the Pope, in his left hand, and in his abdomen, which narrowly missed his aorta and vital organs; even so, he nearly died. As the Pontiff was later to say, before he left that small piece of lead in the crown of Our Lady, that she had guided that bullet, so that, we may presume, we might have him with us for another quarter of a century – and what would the world be without the teaching and example of Pope John Paul?
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Our Lady of Fatima – through her three saintly seers – predicts many of the apocalyptic events through which we – as a people – have lived: A greater war two decades on, ‘if people did not repent’; the spreading of the errors of Communism – not just Russia, we may now look back, but China’s perhaps even greater evil; the increase in sin, in rebellion against God, and, of course, in the Third Secret, revealed in the millennial year 2000, that mysterious attack upon ‘a man clad in white’, who would fall as though dead, but would rise. Agca at his trial in 1985 claimed that his attack was ‘tied to the Third Secret of the Madonna of Fatima’, fifteen years before the secret was revealed.
God has His mysteries, and prophecies are usually complex, conditional, mysterious. We are not people fated to one course of action, but free beings, made in the very image of God, who must choose our path and our destiny.
As the last century began, Pope Leo XIII purportedly had a vision of Satan, who claimed he would be given a ‘100-year reign’, wherein God would allow the Evil One greater freedom to wreak havoc in the world, something that prompted the Pope to write the prayer to Saint Michael, and have it said after every Mass (a pious custom that Pope Benedict, in his 2011 revision of the Liturgy, asked we revive after every Mass). Of course, in the designs of God’s providence, the Almighty would bring, and has brought, greater good out of this evil, in ways that we will only fully understand at the end of time.
We should get too absorbed in the future, and let the evils of the day be sufficient thereto, and it is in the light of the conditionality of God’s providence, dependent upon our own free decisions and actions, that the ‘secrets’ of Fatima should be seen. Francesco and Jacinta died soon after the visions, as they themselves predicted, in the Spanish influenza in that fateful year 1918 which killed millions across the globe. (Pope Francis canonized them in his own pilgrimage to Fatima in the centennial of 1917). We should not make too much of the so-called ‘third secret’, a mystical vision made public by Cardinal Ratzinger in June of 2000, (this link to the Vatican summary is worth reading in full) has exercised the minds many – some saying that there are bits still to be revealed – with lurid visions of apocalyptic scenarios, disintegration within the Church, and horrors all around. Sister Lucia claimed, before her own death in 2005, that the secretes were no longer secrets, and that the consecration of Russia had been fulfilled. But, then, consecrations only ‘work’ if we live in accord with what is implied in the consecration (Baptism and scapulars are no absolute guarantee of heaven, and one can ‘eat and drink’ the Eucharist to one’s condemnation).
(By one of those coincidences of providence, it was on this day also in 1373, in a west English village, that the anchorite Blessed Julian of Norwich had her own visions and dialogues with Our Lord, published as The Revelations of Divine Love. Her room, now chapel, still stands, and I had the privilege of praying a Rosary there with the parish priest and some parishioners in my pilgrimage in 2018.)
We as Catholics should be cautious of private revelation, for, strictly speaking, they can offer nothing new to the faith, neither adding to nor subtracting from the body of public revelation, given to us by Christ, preserved by the Apostles, and handed on and explicated through their successors in the Magisterium. The whole purpose of private revelation is to help us live out more perfectly – and, I would add, joyfully – what God has already revealed in His Son. As the Catechism states:
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. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church. (par. 67)
The only elements that bind us in the realm of faith are those things already revealed by Christ, as clarified by His Magisterium, such as Our Lady’s call for prayer and penance for the conversion of sinners and for peace in the world. As Cardinal Ratzinger put it, in the aforementioned commentary on Fatima:
Allow me to add here a personal recollection: in a conversation with me Sister Lucia said that it appeared ever more clearly to her that the purpose of all the apparitions was to help people to grow more and more in faith, hope and love – everything else was intended to lead to this.
Of course, the miracles and prophecies of Fatima, along with all the other private revelations throughout history, are very good helps and supports to our faith. Many were converted by witnessing the remarkable miracle of the Sun on the last Fatima vision, on the rain-drenched October 13th morning in 1917, and by the fulfillment of the predictions not only of the end of the ‘war to end all wars’ in the following year, but also the tragic beginning of another war in the late summer of 1939, when, as the children foresaw, a ‘bright light’ throughout the sky would presage an even worse conflict, if men did not amend their ways.
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. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war is going to end; but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father
This revelation is not meant to make us quake in fear of a vengeful God ready to cast us all into the fiery furnace. Rather, its primary intent is that we don’t have to go to hell, nor even go to war, if we but choose the way of truth and life. His ‘yoke’ truly is that easy. The Father, Who loves us more than we could possibly imagine, wills – nay, desires with His paternal heart – to bring us into His kingdom, where there are enough ‘mansions’ for every soul on earth. Any ‘punishment’, we bring upon our own heads.
Tradition has called all these various miracles, prophecies, even the very holiness of the visionaries and saints – which at times seems so unattainable – motiva credibilitatis – motives of credibility – all those things which either lead someone into faith, or increase the faith of those who have it already (cf., CCC, #156).
What we can be assured of is that the three young children in that field in Portugal on those spring and summer days of 1917 really did see Our Lady, the young Virgin chosen by God to be the dwelling for His Incarnation, who now exists body and soul glorified in heaven. The apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima, along with Lourdes and Guadalupe, have been brought into the public liturgy of the Church, which gives them Magisterial credence. Through these innocent visionaries we too have some indirect access to that celestial realm, which seems so far from this fractious vale of tears through which we now journey, but yet in reality so near.
If we have ‘eyes to see’, Our Lady of Fatima helps us keep those eyes, along with our minds and hearts, ever ‘upward’, knowing that whatever is in store for us and the world, however we may live and eventually die, old or young or middle-aged, whether in the apocalypse or in some more mundane manner, all things work together for the good for those who love God, that we too are made for heaven, not for earth, and that by following her Son’s commandments and inspirations, we too will one day join her and all the saints in glory.
What in the end could be more hopeful?
Our Lady and the Seers of Fatima, orate pro nobis!