Our Lady of Fatima

May 15 2017 | by

ON MAY 12 Pope Francis sets out on his 19 journey outside of Italy, to visit the Marian shrine of Fatima and to take part in its centenary celebrations. The town, situated in central Portugal, about 75 miles north of the capital Lisbon, is famed throughout the Catholic world for the apparitions of Our Lady, which took place there during the summer of 1917.

The Pope himself first announced his intention to visit the shrine during a return flight to Rome from Azerbaijan on October 2nd last year. Two months later the Vatican confirmed he would accept the invitation from Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and from the local bishops to make a two-day pilgrimage to Fatima. In doing so, he follows in the footsteps of his predecessors, Benedict XVI, John Paul II and Paul VI, the first travelling pope, who visited the shrine on May 13, 1967 to mark the 50th anniversary of the apparitions.


The 13th day


The story of the three shepherd children who had visions of the Virgin Mother and the message she gave to them has fascinated Christians around the world for the past century. Jacinta and Francisco Marto, aged seven and nine, and their cousin, ten year old Lúcia dos Santos, were looking after the family sheep in a field known as the Cova da Iria when they first saw an apparition of a beautiful lady dressed in white, "made of light and holding a rosary in her hand," as they later described her. A flash of light preceded the vision and, believing that a storm was on its way, the children ran for shelter, but they stopped in their tracks as they saw the lady rising above a young holm oak tree, smiling at them and telling them not to be afraid.

Lucia asked the lady where she came from and Our Lady of the Rosary of Fátima, as she became known, replied: "I am from Heaven". She told the children she would visit them again, on the same day over the next six months and she urged them to pray the Rosary daily in order to bring peace and an end to the Great War, which was still raging across Europe.

The children returned home, determined not to say anything about the vision, but the youngest, Jacinta, was unable to keep the miraculous apparition to herself and the news soon spread like wildfire around the village. While many people accused the children of lying or imagining it all, others believed their story and the following month, on June 13th- feast of St. Anthony - a small crowd of onlookers gathered at the same spot. At the moment when the children reported seeing the apparition again, others said they saw a cloud hovering over the oak tree and they began bringing flowers to decorate the sacred place.

As the months passed, the size of the crowds grew and by the time of the last apparition, on October 13th, tens of thousands of people from surrounding towns and village flocked to the site - despite efforts by a local official who kidnapped and threatened the children in an effort to stamp out the growing devotion to Our Lady. This time the young shepherds saw a vision of Mary, surrounded by St Joseph and the Child Jesus, as well as Christ the Redeemer blessing the world. At the same moment, the cloudy sky cleared and the crowds saw the sun spinning in the sky like a ball of fire, casting different coloured shadows on the terrified onlookers, many of whom fell to their knees in prayer.


Three secrets


Lucia recounted how Our Lady had asked for a chapel to be built in her honour, but she also explained how she and her cousins had been told three secrets that they could not reveal to anyone. Francisco and Jacinta died shortly afterwards from the great influenza epidemic that swept across Europe the following year, but Lucia, who took religious vows with the Sisters of St Dorothy, kept the secrets to herself until the 1940s, when she revealed the first two and wrote down the third in a sealed envelope that she entrusted to her local bishop.

Fatima, meanwhile, had already become a hugely popular pilgrimage site, particularly after 1930 when Bishop José Alves Correia da Silva of Leiria gave the Church’s official seal of approval to the apparitions. Its popularity only increased as Lucia revealed the first two secrets, in which Our Lady had apparently predicted the end of the first World War and the start of the second, “if people do not cease offending God.” Her prophesy also called for the conversion of Russia and said “The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated. [But] In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”

In 1957 the envelope containing the third secret was sent to the Vatican for safekeeping, as speculation swirled about what message it might contain. As the Cold War progressed and persecution of Christians in Soviet countries increased, Fatima was seized upon as a rallying cry for the anti-communist movement on both sides of the Atlantic. More recently, since the fall of the Berlin wall, traditionalist groups have interpreted the message as a warning against all kinds of ‘heresies,’ sexual promiscuity or ‘compromises’ with the modern world.


Assassinations attempts


The next dramatic chapter in the Fatima story occurred on May 13th 1981, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, when a Turkish gunman fired four shots at Pope John Paul II as he greeted cheering crowds from his popemobile in St Peter’s Square. The pope was rushed to hospital and suffered severe blood loss but survived, he later said, because there was “a mother’s hand that guided the bullet’s path”. The Polish pontiff remained convinced to the end of his life that Our Lady of Fatima saved him that day by deflecting the bullets away from his vital organs. To underline his conviction, he donated one of the bullets to the shrine, where it was placed in a golden crown encrusted with pearls and precious stones, with which the wooden statue of Mary is crowned on her feast day.

Pope John Paul himself visited the shrine three times, beginning on May 13th 1982, exactly a year after the assassination attempt. On that occasion, according to recent revelations by his personal secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz, now serving as the cardinal archbishop of Krakow in Poland, the Holy Father was injured by an ultra-conservative Spanish priest, Juan Maria Fernandez y Krohn, who lunged at him with a bayonet before being arrested by security guards. According to Cardinal Dziwisz, the priest managed to draw blood with the weapon but was overcome by the pope’s security guards. Pope John Paul did not reveal the injury at the time and continued with the trip.

In his homily during Mass at the shrine, John Paul II spoke of the “mysterious coincidence with the anniversary of the first apparition at Fatima” and the attempt on his life. He said he had come to give thanks to Divine Providence “in this place which the Mother of God seems to have chosen in a particular way”. If the Church has accepted the message of Fatima, he added, “it is above all because that message contains a truth and a call” which mirrors the truth and the call of the Gospel itself to repentance and to conversion.


A Bishop dressed in white


Karol Wojtyla returned to Portugal nine years later in May 1991 and again in May 2000, when he presided over the beatification of the two young shepherd children, Francisco and Jacinta Marto. He also met with the surviving member of the seer family, the elderly Lucia, by that time a cloistered Carmelite sister, and announced the forthcoming publication of the third secret of Fatima.

On June 26th 2000 the Vatican finally published what it claimed was the exact text of that third secret, first written down by Lucia nearly six decades earlier. It spoke of an apocalyptic vision of “a Bishop dressed in white” alongside other priests and religious, struggling up a steep mountain towards a Cross at the top. All around him are corpses and “a big city half in ruins”. As he reaches the foot of the Cross, the man in white and his companions are killed by soldiers firing bullets and arrows, while two angels gather up the blood of the martyrs.

Accompanying the text was a theological commentary by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, who warned that many might be surprised or disappointed by the revelations, given all the speculation that they had stirred up. The purpose of the vision, he explained, “is not to show a film of an irrevocably fixed future. Its meaning is exactly the opposite: it is meant to mobilize the forces of change in the right direction.”


Pope Francis’ visit


That surely is the message that Pope Francis will bring with him to Portugal on his two-day trip, which has as its theme ‘With Mary, pilgrim in hope and in peace’. From his experience in Latin America, in particular the Mexican shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Jorge Bergoglio understands the power of popular piety to preserve and nourish the faith in an increasingly secular context. After Lourdes and Guadalupe, Fatima is the world’s third most visited shrine, drawing around six million visitors a year. It’s also one of the largest Marian sanctuaries, incorporating the basilica with its tall white bell tower, a prayer hall, the chapel of the apparitions, the chapel of Holy Perpetual Adoration, the Church of the Holy Trinity, plus a collection of hostels, retreat houses and a medical centre.

The Pope’s visit for this centenary celebration is likely to draw huge crowds of devotees from Portugal and beyond as well. While the main Mass takes place on May 13th, Pope Francis is expected to also lead a candlelit procession on the previous evening and to pray at the tombs of the three shepherd children whose remains now all lie in the basilica, close to the spot where Our Lady first appeared to them. Sr Lucia died just two months before Pope John Paul II in 2005 and her body was moved the following year from the Carmelite convent in Coimbra, where she spent most of her life, to the shrine where she was laid to rest alongside her two young cousins. On March 23, Pope Francis officially recognized a miracle attributed to the intercession of Jacinta and Francisco. The approval of the miracle was the final step needed before the siblings could be made saints. By signing the decree, the Pope has paved the way for their canonisation.


Updated on May 15 2017