The astonishing prayer of Fatima

A pilgrim walks on her knees at the Marian shrine of Fatima in central Portugal (CNS photo/Rafael Marchante, Reuters)

On Sunday the Bullivant family went to Barnes, to visit the touring relics of Blessed Jacinta and Francisco, the little shepherd seers of Fátima fame. Fátima means a lot to me: I visited in 2005, when still an unbaptised atheist.

So I’ll no doubt be writing more about it as we move through the imminent Year of Mercy and then into the apparitions’ centenary in 2017. (Incidentally, this is a happy coincidence of dates that can scarcely have escaped our Holy Father’s notice.)

One thing that has always struck me about Fátima – amongst a great deal that is nothing if not striking – is the sheer profundity of the most famous prayer that bears its name: O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, and save us from the fires of hell, especially those with most need of thy mercy.

The theological depth of these brief lines alone would likely convince me of their revealed nature, even without the testimony of the sun dancing in the sky.

Consider just the first three words. ‘O my Jesus’ is not a mode of address that comes naturally to us. For how could it? Who dares to speak to the ‘Lord of glory’ (1 Corinthians 2.8) in so familiar, so intimate a fashion? Who would presume to be on first-name terms with the ‘saviour of the universe’ (St Athanasius)?

In the gospels, not a single one of our Lord’s closest followers addresses him directly by name. Most often, they call him Kyrios: ‘sir’ or ‘Lord’. Peter, for example, thinks it suitable for all occasions, from expressing mortal panic (Matthew 14.30), to pledging his enduring love (John 21.17). Even when actually arguing with Jesus – ‘God forbid it, Lord!’ (Matthew 16.22) – he is nevertheless careful to signal his deference with a sufficiently respectful title.

Other such honorifics, used by the disciples and others, play a similar role: rabbi, rabbouni, didaskolos.

Jesus is addressed by name several times, however. Most of these occasions fall into two main types: demons, revealing their supernatural insight to who precisely he is and why he has come (e.g., Mark 1.24); and strangers, humbly begging Jesus to have mercy on them.

Luke has his lepers implore ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ (17.13; see also 18.38; Mark 10.47-8). Note that in each of these cases, even though Jesus is indeed named, some other, more formal mode of address is swiftly added.

But there is nothing like that in the Fátima prayer: just ‘O my Jesus’. Peter and the disciples, Mary Magdalene, the desperately hoping for a personal cure, even the demons… not one is so bold as to speak so informally with ‘my Lord and my God’ (John 20.28). So how then can we?

At the end of Luke’s gospel, God himself, scourged and humiliated, hangs dying on two rough planks of word. Perversely, in this degradation he is surrounded by titles and terms of respect. His claims to be the Saviour, indeed ‘the Christ, the chosen one of God’ (23.35), are turned against him in mockery. Above his head, a sign sarcastically proclaims him ‘the king of the Jews’.

It is only now, alone within the entire gospel witness, that the Messiah is addressed by just his first name: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (23.42).

These words, of course, come from the repentant thief. They are spoken out of true humility. He acknowledges his own guilt, and regards himself as justly condemned. He is beyond hope of reprieve. Offered the opportunity to ask the Christ for anything at all, he asks not for rescue or redemption, but merely to be remembered.

And yet the one that miserable thief speaks to, the one whom he believes will soon ‘come into his kingdom’, is likewise a condemned criminal. Jesus is indeed the ‘Christ, the chosen one of God’, he is ‘the king of the Jews’. But he is these things precisely because he can be addressed as a social equal by an abject, and justly condemned, sinner. The two men – one executed, the other murdered – hang side-by-side as social equals.

This is, of course, precisely the point of the incarnation: God himself comes to hang beside us, as a ‘man among men’ (St Irenaeus); the only one who can offer us the mercy we need, beside us as one whom we might actually dare to ask mercy of.

And this is, more or less, the over-riding message of Fátima: that while we – all of us – are in dire need of mercy, we’re on first-name terms with him on whom we have to call. Now that’s a rather deep bit of theology for three illiterate shepherd-children to have come up with all by themselves.

O my, Jesus!