The events of Fatima in 1917 revolved around three children: brother and sister Francisco and Jacinta Marto and their older cousin Lucia Santos. They lived in Aljustrel near Fatima, a village that bears the name of Muhammad’s daughter, an echo of an earlier Islamic occupation of Portugal.
In 1917 the First World War was raging. Portugal was neutral, not that the children would have known much about world events, such as the October Revolution which would soon erupt in Russia and launch global Communism. But what happened to them had great bearing on events in our times.
The children said that on 13 May they were tending sheep in the area called the Cova d’Iria near Fatima, when they were visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary in the first of a series of apparitions. Her words to them included revelations, messages and warnings of events to come, yet were accompanied by much hope for a broken world longing for peace.
Across the ages there have been many reported or alleged visions of Our Lady, who appears mainly to poor people, children, the sick and suffering, the little ones of this world. But how can we determine whether an apparition of the Blessed Virgin is genuine?
Authentic or not?
These phenomena are classified under the broad heading ‘private revelations’. They are not part of the public Revelation in Jesus Christ, passed on in the Church through Scripture and Tradition, as the Second Vatican Council teaches (cf Dei Verbum 7–10). So no one is bound to believe in private revelations, which is why they do not feature in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Apparitions are investigated, tested and evaluated by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The basic test used by the Congregation is whether an apparition contradicts or adds to the Revelation in Christ. What happened at Fatima meets that test, because the appearances of Our Lady and her words to the children did not contradict or add to Divine Revelation.
The central message of Fatima is a call to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ through ‘prayer and penance’, a life of faith including reparation for sin and sinners. The wider message is for us to be alert to the signs of the times in world events, as Christ taught. Moreover, Jesus Christ is the central focus of Fatima. Mary comes to point to him, to lead us back to him.
Other tests involve the credibility and integrity of the witnesses, usually known as visionaries or ‘seers’. With conviction maintained until each of them died, the children never denied what happened to them, even under threats and pressure. Unlike devious ‘visionaries’ in some other cases, they did not profit financially from their encounter with Our Lady. More importantly, what they experienced deepened their lives of faith and prayer. Francisco and Jacinta Marto died in 1919 and 1920. Lucia Santos entered a convent and lived the contemplative life of a nun until her death in 2005.
A further test is whether there were any corroborating events, such as other witnesses or paranormal phenomena. On 13 October 1917 thousands of people gathered with the children on the Cova d’Iria and saw the ‘miracle of the sun’, a solar phenomenon, timed to coincide with the final appearance of Mary to the children. A friend of mine knows a Portuguese family whose aged aunt witnessed the dancing sun as a young adult and her faith never wavered. Anti-Catholic journalists who came to mock the people on that day, saw the sun dance and scurried back to Lisbon looking for priests to hear their confessions! This is another reason why Fatima holds an honoured place in the first category of apparitions, those strongly endorsed by the Church.
The liturgy and Marian apparitions
The liturgy is a handy guide to the status of a Marian apparition. If a vision is commemorated in the Universal Calendar of the Church, it has received papal approval and support. Only three Marian events are honoured in this way: Guadalupe (Mexico, 1531), Lourdes (France, 1858) and Fatima (Portugal, 1917). In the 2002 edition of the Roman Missal we find memorials of Our Lady of Lourdes, 11 February, Our Lady of Fatima, 13 May, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, 12 December.
In the case of Guadalupe, the visionary, the humble Aztec St Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, has been canonised and is recognised with a memorial on 9 December in the Universal Calendar. St Bernadette of Lourdes has a memorial on 16 April in the national calendar for France. Pope Francis will canonise Francisco and Jacinta, and the cause of Lucia is under consideration.
The second category of apparitions includes those mainly of local significance, recognised by bishops as of supernatural origin and worthy of belief. These events may be commemorated in local calendars for a country or diocese or in a calendar for a religious order or congregation. They may be limited to celebration at the shrine which marks the site of the apparition. In all these cases, approval from Rome is required for any liturgical commemoration.
A third category of apparitions covers those currently under investigation but so far not approved; for example, Medjugorje (Bosnia) and Garabandal (Spain). No liturgical commemoration may be observed for these apparitions unless they gain approval, which seems highly unlikely in both cases.
A final category of Marian apparitions covers false visions, those that are not worthy of belief. These are either delusional experiences or fraudulent schemes, or even of diabolical origin. These phenomena all have their own little circles of misguided followers and relentless blog sites.
Pope Francis in Fatima
On 13 May this year, Pope Francis goes to Fatima as a pilgrim. He is an intensely Marian Pope. He eagerly walks in the footsteps of St John Paul II, who on 13 May 1982 took the bullet that nearly killed him in Rome the year before to be enclosed in the crown on the statue, an act of gratitude to Mary to whom he prayed as he lay bleeding in the pope-mobile. He was the victim of a command to kill issued in Moscow. Before him, in May 1967, Blessed Paul VI led the golden jubilee pilgrimage to Fatima, presented a golden rose to the Madonna and issued a beautiful letter, The great sign, linking Fatima to the scriptural vision of Our Lady as Queen of the Universe in Revelation 12.
St John XXIII ascribed the inspiration to convene the Second Vatican Council to Our Lady of Fatima. In1946 in the wake of the Second World War, Pope Pius XII authorised the coronation of the image. It should be noted that there is an authorised liturgical rite for the coronation of an image of the Blessed Virgin. By word and action, the popes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, so aware of the turbulent course of world events, have clearly responded to the urgent call of Mary for Christian commitment, especially prayer and penance, and above all the great popular meditation and powerful prayer, the Rosary. Prayer for the conversion of Russia in the wake of Communism is part of the urgent messages. To that, in our times, we may add China.
The silence of Fatima
When Francis comes to Fatima he will find what all pilgrims encounter, a strange silence. On the Cova d’Iria, a vast windswept piazza has been constructed that can hold many thousands, especially for the Eucharistic concelebrations at major pilgrimages. But at other times it is silent. This is what struck me on my one visit to Fatima, a marked contrast to the noise and bustle I experienced at Lourdes and the endless stream of pilgrims I joined at Guadalupe. I interpreted the silence as a sense of judgement on our world and a call to be silent, to reflect, pray and be converted.
In this sacred space a small chapel marks the site of the tree where the Blessed Mother appeared to the shepherd children a century ago. It is here that we find the heart of Fatima, as a place, not the unremarkable classical basilica that rises above the piazza.
The chapel and the Marian image have a simplicity about them, as befits the Madonna and the village children to whom she revealed her Immaculate Heart. She showed herself to them as a sorrowing Mother, echoing Simeon’s prophecy, ‘and a sword will pierce through your own soul’ (Luke 2:35). She spoke at a time when so many mothers were mourning their sons and daughters, victims of war. And that way of sorrow has continued into our times, into a new century and millennium: wars, revolutions, genocide, mass migrations, terrorism ... and is our God involved? Or does divine silence speak loudly?
Fatima speaks to us about time. We can easily appreciate this because we are people of faith whose lives are shaped by sacred time—such an important dimension of the annual and weekly cycles of liturgical worship. In the Judaeo-Christian heritage, all time is sacred because it is God’s time, God working out the great mystery and plan of salvation.
The expression ‘salvation history’ holds the meaning Divine Revelation has given to time. It is always the great story of our salvation, of your salvation and mine. The faith journey of the whole Church is made up of millions of personal journeys, yours and mine.
Salvation history is the ordered reality of time; it is the reign of God always coming through, always breaking through, as Christians pray again and again: ‘Thy kingdom come!’ History shows how God is always bringing shape and destiny out of chaos and disorder. Purpose and meaning in history and in each of our lives are not our inventions. We can find meaning in God’s saving plan and loving Providence as he brings in his reign, his kingdom of justice, truth and peace.
Time and judgment
However, Christians do not believe that the history of the universe or the lives of individuals are endless cycles repeating themselves, as is taught in some Eastern religions. We believe that time is linear, going forward steadily towards its completion, its purposeful end, or telos
, which is why theologians use the word teleological
when discussing what lies ahead of us: death, judgement, heaven, hell. In all this, justice finally triumphs in divine judgement.
These ultimate options mark the serious side of the Fatima revelations, a call to repentance and warnings of what happens if we fail to respond to Christ’s love. Briefly, the children were shown a vision of hell. Some people find that disturbing, but Fatima is disturbing. It is not a nice story about little children and Mary. Then again, Catholic Christianity is not nice. The truth is not always nice. Yet in the challenging message of Fatima there is hope for our world.
Fatima speaks of hope
The promised ‘triumph and reign of Mary’s Immaculate Heart’ paves the way for the coming of the kingdom of heaven, Christ’s reign. She reigns because she is indeed a queen, but she is only a queen because her son is the Messiah, king and Lord of all creation. It is as simple as that.
Mary always points to her son, to Jesus Christ our king. She leads us to him for he is always the answer, the only answer, as Saint John Paul constantly proclaimed, as Pope Benedict and Pope Francis proclaim. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, crucified and risen again, is the word we speak. He is the way we live. He is our personal Lord and Saviour. He is the One to whom we turn, whose face we long to see, our Light, our Way to the Father.
We bear witness to Jesus Christ not only by timely words and deeds. We bear witness by bringing his Mother Mary into our homes as John did after Jesus had entrusted her to him from the cross. Like John, may we testify to Christ’s amazing grace with hearts full of gratitude for his gift of Mary, so clearly revealed on the windswept Cova d’Iria in Fatima one hundred years ago.
Most Rev. Peter J Elliott MA (Melb) MA (Oxon), STD (JPII Rome) is Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne.
Image (Wikimedia Commons): Lúcia Santos (left) with her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto, 1917