virgin mary

A few days ago when I started planning this article I expected to write a short, fairly straightforward description of the events surrounding Our Lady of Fátima, a fascinating episode that occurred in Portugal nearly a century ago this week and has proven important in the modern history of Catholicism. The deeper I got into Fátima, however, the more I realized that I simply can’t do it. The Fátima events are so complex and multifaceted that it’s difficult even to get my head around them, and I don’t think it’s simply because I’m not Catholic. Clearly, as a matter of history, there’s an awful lot going on here, regardless of one’s interpretation of the literal events that occurred.

Here is what occurred, or what is said to have occurred. Ninety-seven years ago today, on May 13, 1917, three children were herding sheep near the small impoverished village of Fátima in western Portugal when they claim to have seen a vision that was religious in nature. Lúcia Santos, age 9, and her cousins Francisco Marto (also 9) and Jacinta Marto, say they saw the Virgin Mary appear to them and urge them to do acts of penance and devotion. (Some version of the story claim it was an angel, but the Virgin Mary is the usual description). Lúcia confided this vision to her mother, who told her to keep quiet lest the villagers mock them, but the mother herself let the secret slip and soon word spread throughout the countryside and eventually much of the Catholic world. The children said the Virgin Mary returned again a month later, on June 13, and a month after that, on July 13. She (the Virgin Mary) also told the children three prophetic secrets, which have come to be known as the Three Secrets of Fátima.

fatima children

The children of Fátima as they appeared in 1917: left to right, Jacinta Marto, Lúcia Santos and Francisco Marto. Lúcia was the only one to survive to adulthood.

The children also said that the Virgin Mary would return on October 13, 1917 and perform a miracle visible to everyone, so that the world would know the truth of their words. Tens of thousands of people turned out in a field near Fátima to see the miracle. Some claimed the sun “danced in the sky,” thus validating the children’s words. Others said they saw nothing.

What was originally the story of Lúcia Santos and her cousins eventually became Lúcia’s alone; by 1920 both of the other children were dead of influenza. The long controversy over the Three Secrets, their disclosure and their religious (and secular) meaning, however, was just beginning. At first the secrets remained exactly that. Not surprisingly given her religious devotion, Lúcia took her vows and became a nun in 1928. Ten years later, an extraordinary aurora borealis appeared over Europe, which was taken by many religious people as a harbinger of doom. War, in fact, was not far off. Partly in response to this event Lúcia and a Catholic bishop wrote and published the first two secrets. The first one pertained to Hell, but the second supposedly predicted another world war. By 1941, when the first two secrets were published, World War II was already an accomplished fact. Thus there was controversy about whether the secrets really were bona fide prophecies.

The Third Secret, which Lúcia refused to disclose, remained a point of contention for long after that. She wrote it down in 1944 not long after she came down with an illness that she was certain at the time would kill her. Lúcia sealed the secret in an envelope and got church officials to promise it wouldn’t be opened until 1960. The Vatican, which had in 1930 certified the solar apparition of October 1917 as a miracle, did better than that; they kept the envelope sealed for another 40 years. Theories and whispers abounded in the Catholic world about what momentous things the Third Secret of Fátima might contain. Would there be another war? Armageddon? The Second Coming of Christ? Only Lúcia and the bishop she confided to knew for sure.

john paul ii

Pope John Paul II believed in the Fátima miracles, and in fact credited the religious power associated with them with saving his life in 1981.

That was not for lack of trying. On May 2, 1981, an Australian man named Laurence James Downey, a former Trappist monk, boarded an Aer Lingus 737 in Dublin, doused himself in gasoline and threatened to click the cigarette lighter he was carrying unless the pilots did what he said. The hijacked plane eventually flew to Le Touquet Airport where Downey demanded that Pope John Paul II release the Third Secret of Fátima. French special forces eventually stormed the plane and nabbed Downey without loss of life, but the Pope was not out of the woods yet. Just eleven days later, in St. Peter’s Square, Mehmet Ali Ağca, a Turkish mercenary, pulled out a 9mm Browning pistol and started blasting away at His Holiness, who fortunately survived the attempt. The assassination attempt occurred on May 13, the 64th anniversary of the original Fátima apparition. John Paul II, a firm believer in Fátima, thought the date was significant and that holy forces had saved his life that day.

Nearly 20 years later, in June 2000, that same Pope finally released the Third Secret of Fátima. As prophecies tend to be, it was pretty vague, though many took it to predict the 1981 assassination attempt. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger issued a commentary on the Secret which predicted–rightly so, it turned out–that people would find it “disappointing.” Many people believed the Vatican was holding out on them and that the true text of the Third Secret was being covered up for some nefarious reason. Ratzinger, incidentally, succeeded John Paul as Pope; in 2005 he became Pope Benedict XVI, who served until last year. Lúcia Santos almost lived to see him become Pope. She died in February 2005 at age 97.

What do we make of the Fátima events? Whether the Virgin Mary really appeared on that hillside in Portugal in May 1917 seems to be largely a matter of faith, not history, but the strange chain of events occasioned by the Three Secrets certainly did have a major effect on the history of the Catholic Church in the 20th century. Not being Catholic myself there are doubtless spiritual and cultural implications of the Fátima events that I’m missing, and the full story is far vaster here than I can tell in a few words. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty interesting story, and one worth remembering on its anniversary.