NUMBER 13 was no ordinary number in the life of Sister Lucia dos Santos, one of the most enigmatic women in the 20th century. Her name first made the headlines in 1917 when, at the age of 10, she was one of the three shepherds to receive visions of the Blessed Virgin. From that moment she has become one of the Church's most mysterious figures, and a focus of world-wide interest right up to her death on 13 February 2005, aged 97. This is the same day of month in which she first saw Our Lady and received her messages. These apparitions continued for six months, from May to October. But 13 May is also the day on which Ali Agca attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in Saint Peters' Square in 1981.
On 13 May 1917, Lucia was out, as usual, tending her sheep in a place not far from home called Cova di Iria. She was there with two of her cousins, Francisco, 9, and Jacinta, 7. Around midday a series of events began whose effects are still very much with us today. Lucia received a number of mysterious prophecies from Our Lady whose importance and significance have been a challenge for the Church for the last five pontificates.
An event of such consequence had never occurred before in the history of the Church, not even with the Lourdes apparitions. The Fatima messages have had such a huge impact on our minds because of the uncanny accuracy contained in their predictions.
The first revelation to be fulfilled was delivered during the second apparition on 13 June 1917. Lucia, filled with bliss, asked a favour of the Virgin, I would like to ask you to bring us to heaven To which Our Lady replied, Yes, Francisco and Jacinta will be among the few, but you must stay here for a long time...God wishes you to remain in the world for some time because He wants to use you to establish in the world a devotion to my Immaculate Heart.
Francisco and Jacinta were, in fact, to die soon afterward. The Blessed Virgin , however, had also foretold the imminent end of the first world war, which in fact occurred just one year later; and the advent of a second, much more devastating world war, and that it would break out under the pontificate of Pius XI. This was in 1917, when Benedict XV was pope, with Our Lady saying to those three children the name of a pope that didn't even exist yet.
The events outlined in this second prophecy fulfilled themselves with almost mathematical precision in the course of the 20th century. In July 1917, when the Blessed Virgin revealed the famous 'secret' to the three seers, the October Revolution had yet to take place in Russia, but Our Lady was stating quite categorically that Communism would gain the upper hand in that country, and from there spread to other countries, bringing violence, death, wars and the annihilation of various nations in its wake, as well as persecution of the Church. But she also added that Russia would eventually convert. One of the prophecies even speaks of a wounded and dying pope, which sound very much like our John Paul II on that fateful 13 May 1981 in St. Peter's.
Sister Lucia is no longer with us. Francisco and Jacinta, who died in 1919 and in 1920 respectively, were beatified on May 13th, 2000, the 83rd anniversary of the first apparition, and their bodies lie in the great basilica in Fatima, visited yearly by millions of pilgrims. When, in the autumn of 1999, I went to Fatima to write a book on their beatification, I saw that next to Jacinta's tomb there was an empty place set aside for Lucia. This is, in fact, where Lucia's body shall soon be laid to rest.
Lucia of Fatima was an extraordinary person. Like the great saints of the past, she has had the exclusive privilege of knowing, while still on this earth, the reality of heaven. After her death it was revealed that she had been in almost constant communication with Our Lady throughout her entire life.
For us common mortals it is difficult to gain a correct idea of the lives of these privileged people. We tend to make icons of them, and see them as superhuman beings, but in this way we tend to overlook their normal, simple and humble natures.
As a journalist, I have always been attracted by such people, and have always tried to discern their humble, ordinary humanity through the greatness of their spiritual standing. This is what I set out to do when I went to Fatima in 1999 to collect the biographical material which later went into my book Fatima: The Story Behind the Miracles, published in coincidence with the beatification of Francisco and Jacinta. It was on that occasion that I was able to collect much valuable information on Sister Lucia from the people who knew her well.
Shall we dance?
Joao Marto, brother of Francisco and Jacinta, and therefore Sister Lucia's cousin, was very helpful. He was 93 when I met him, being born 2 years before Lucia. They had often played together as children, and he still had vivid memories of her as a child. From Joao I was able to gain valuable insight on Sister Lucia' life and personality before the beginning of the apparitions. Joao paints the picture of a lively and extroverted girl. She was enthusiastic about everything, yet dutiful at the same time. At 7 she was already helping her family by tending the sheep in the fields. Joao also added that Lucia had an irresistible desire to sing and dance.
It struck me as odd that one of the greatest mystics of the past century should have had a soft spot for such apparently trivial and mundane pursuits. This disclosure, however, was confirmed by Father Josť Valinho dos Santos. My frequent visits to him were especially fruitful, as Father Josť is one of the nephews of Sister Lucia. His mother, Maria dos Anjos, was Lucia's elder sister, and a second mother to her, being 14 years older. Father Josť, who was born and raised in Fatima, had learnt a great deal about Lucia's personality from his mother, aunties, grandmother and extended family. Then, as a Salesian priest, he became a close advisor and confidant of Lucia. He was among the very few to have direct access to her. In his numerous conversations with the nun, Father Josť was able to gain many an insight into the mystic's inner life and experiences.
Father Josť confirmed Joao's description. It's true, the Salesian Father told me, however strange it may appear to us, Lucia, as a young girl, really loved to dance. Dancing is a national trait among us Portuguese: everyone loves dancing here, from children to old people, and my aunt Lucia was no exception. She often told me just how much she loved dancing as a child. Her own memoirs confirm this. She was particularly fond of two types of dances, the fandango and the vira. It is as though Lucia wanted to emphasise that she was, after all, just like any other ordinary person.
The three seers of Fatima were all lively little children. In fact, Sister Lucia once told me that, in obedience to their mothers, they always prayed the rosary, but in an unusual fashion. They recited it just after finishing a frugal lunch brought from home. They liked to pray, but found the rosary a bit too long and, as they couldn't wait to start playing, they decided to give themselves a 'discount' by saying an 'abbreviated' form of the prayer, which consisted of reciting only the first lines of the Hail Mary and of the Our Father. In this way they managed to get the whole prayer out of the way in just a few minutes.
No turning back
The apparitions brought about a deep and decisive change in the personalities of the three shepherds. The event greatly accelerated their maturity, for it made them aware of the enormous problems facing the world. However, Lucia's love for dancing never quite left her.
My aunt Lucia Father Valinho told me, once confided to me that even in 1918 (one year after the apparitions), she gave in to the temptation of dancing. This was during the time of the carnival celebrations, when a party with all sorts of dainty things to eat had been organised at a friend's house. Lucia, who had been invited, declined at first, but later visited the place where it would be held, a hall with a large courtyard nearby. She was tantalised by the idea of accepting, yet she was also feeling remorse. She confided her feelings with Francisco and Jacinta, who reproached her by saying, So you're turning back to the vain enjoyments of this world. Have you forgotten your promise to Our Lady that we would never again fall back to such things? They prevailed upon her to renounce. In her memoirs Lucia comments on this episode by confessing, 'Vanity was my worst fault. The truth was that the world was beginning to smile at me. Its enticements, particularly my passion for dancing, were establishing deep roots within my frail heart. I have to admit that if our good Lord had not shown an especial mercy on me, the devil would have brought me to perdition through that passion.'
The Fatima apparitions ended on 13 October 1917, but the world's curiosity was only just beginning. In the last apparition, the famous 'miracle of the sun' occurred, and this made the headlines all over the world. A daily influx of people was beginning to arrive in Fatima. Lucia welcomed all of these visitors, but sought refuge within her own home whenever she could. As long as her cousins were alive she was always able to count on them for advice and understanding but, after they passed away, she realised she was completely alone.
In 1921 Monsignor Josť Alves Correia de Silva, the then bishop of Leiria, decided to set up an ecclesiastical commission to investigate the authenticity of the apparitions. The commission could only function properly in a quiet setting, and Lucia, through no fault of her own, was an obstacle to this as her presence aroused fanatical zeal among some devotees or bitter criticism among the sceptical. The bishop therefore, with Lucia's consent and that of her parent's, decided to send her to a girls boarding-school, the Dorothean Sisters of Villar, near Oporto in Portugal.
The bishop's admonition was, You must live in the boarding school under false identity. When you leave Fatima, you must not tell anyone about your destination, and when you are in the boarding school, you must never talk to anyone about the apparitions.
These were hard demands for a 14-year-old girl. Lucia, however, had already learned that God's will expressed itself through her religious superiors, and submitted. She left Fatima at 2 o'clock in the morning on 18 June 1921, accompanied by her mother and her uncle Carreira. On the way, she stopped at Cova de Ira, the place of the apparitions, and recited the rosary there.
Life with the nuns gradually instilled in her the desire to embrace the religious life. In 1925 she became a novice; then, in 1928, she made solemn profession and became a Sister of Saint Dorothy.
Did this decision truly reflect her own desires or did she simply give in to external pressures? I turned this question over to Father Valinho, who replied, I feel sure that Lucia, after experiencing the apparitions, became a woman of prayer. However, it seems to me that her desire had been to become a cloistered nun all along. All the clamour and controversy surrounding the apparitions had left a negative mark on her soul. As a reaction, she grew weary of the madding crowd, and sought the stillness and holiness of the inner life to regain intimacy with the supernatural.
She chose the nuns of Saint Dorothy because she had lived under their spiritual wing since the age of 14. However, as she grew older, she realised that her decision had been overhasty. As time went by, the call to embrace a more contemplative life of prayer and silence became stronger. At the end of the war, she decided that the time was ripe, and sought advice from her confessor. She then asked the bishop for permission to leave the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Dorothy to enter the Convent of the Carmelite Sisters of Coimbra, a convent of cloistered nuns. The permission was granted, and Lucia went to Coimbra in 1948. She was to remain there for the rest of her life.
Sister Lucia spent the remaining 57 years of her life subjecting herself to a seclusion stricter than the one prescribed by the rules of that monastery. Furthermore, the Vatican decreed that she was to have no contact with anyone from outside the convent, not even by correspondence. No one, not even priests, were allowed to visit her without obtaining prior written permission from the Vatican.
The daily round was set to the rigid scheme of the monastic life: prayer and work. However, she always kept herself informed on world events. The revelations of 1917 had impressed themselves indelibly in her mind and heart. Her mission as a 'woman of prayer' was meant as a mission for the world. From her monastery there issued an uninterrupted stream of messages to her local bishops and to her popes in Rome, informing them of what the Blessed Virgin was communicating to her.
For Sister Lucia the messages from Our Lady did not end on that 13 October 1917, Father Valinho told me. The divine visitations continued throughout her life, not only from Our Lady, but also from Jesus, as we learn form the two memoirs she left us. It was the Blessed Virgin who instructed her in 1927 to reveal the 'Secret' to Pope Pius XI. From the conversations I had with her it became obvious that her encounters with the Virgin Mary were rather frequent events. This was especially evident from her behaviour, because it was not unusual for her to direct the conversation to a particular subject, and she would then continue with that same subject for a certain number of meetings, as though she were fulfilling a task set from above. I remember there was a period in which she was always talking about unity between the various denominations. She was always emphasising the need to find unity. What unites the various denominations far outweighs the things that divides them, she would repeat. The Lord and the Virgin Mary want unity. I had learnt from experience that sentences of this type came from above.
John Paul II
Sister Lucia had always been especially close to John Paul II, and that spiritual intimacy may be closer than we imagine. On 13 May 1981 John Paul II came very close to the threshold of death when Ali Agca, a Turkish terrorist, shot him in Saint Peter's Square. While the Pope was recovering from the severe wound in Rome's Gemelli hospital, a friend brought to his notice that the assassination attempt had occurred exactly on the same day of the first apparition of the Virgin in Fatima, after exactly 64 years. The Pope knew that Sister Lucia's report on the 'secret' of Fatima was kept in the Vatican, so he sent for the document and read it while still in hospital. He read it many times over. From that moment John Paul placed his pontificate at the service of that message. Exactly a year afterwards, on 13 May 1982, the Pope went to Fatima and declared publicly that the Blessed Virgin herself had intervened to save his life. One hand fired, he said, another deflected the bullet. On that occasion he met Sister Lucia, and from that moment the two have maintained a continuous spiritual connection.
This is evident from John Paul's letter to the Bishop of Coimbra on the death of Sister Lucia. His heartfelt message contains explicit references to the supernatural events surrounding the nun. I have deeply moving memories, writes the Pope, of the various encounters I had with her which, in time, strengthened the spiritual bond between us. I have always felt Sister Lucia's daily gift of prayers helping me, especially in times of trial and suffering. May the Lord amply reward her for the great and hidden service rendered to the Church.
John Paul has underscored four important things: the various meetings he had with her; the spiritual friendship which strengthened in time; the daily gift of her prayers; and the great and hidden service rendered to the Church. These statements are both symbolic and revealing. They testify to the Holy Father's sincere admiration for this humble nun as a person, but above all for the important 'mission' she carried out for the Church while on this earth.