Sunday, May 13, 1917 would prove to be an auspicious day, both for the Catholic Church and for the whole tumultuous course of the 20th century. In the Sistine Chapel, Pope Benedict XV consecrated Eugenio Pacelli as archbishop, prior to sending him off to be nuncio to Bavaria. Thus one pope, an indefatigable voice for peace throughout a war then engulfing the world, sent off another on his path – as the future Pope Pius XII – to play a pivotal role in the next.
As unlikely as it sounds, 1,100 miles away on a dusty Portuguese hillside, something of perhaps greater import was taking place. Three primary-school age children – siblings Francisco (aged nine) and Jacinta (seven) and their cousin Lucia (ten) – were tending their families’ sheep. Startled by a sudden burst of light, they looked up expecting to see a thunderstorm coming. Instead, before them, as Lucia would later recount in her memoirs, was “a lady, clothed in white, brighter than the sun”.
So began a remarkable series of apparitions at Fatima, an out-of-the-way village 80 or so miles north of Lisbon. Or rather, so they continued: this Lady in White was not the first visitor “from heaven” (as she told them) to have appeared “while shepherds watched”. The year before, for example, a figure calling himself “the Angel of Peace” had spoken to the children several times.
This latest visitation, however, marked a new and significant phase. As the Lady informed them: “I have come to ask you to come here for six months in succession, on the 13th day, at this same hour. Later on, I will tell you who I am and what I want.”
A great deal happened in those six months, very little of which may be recounted here. Each 13th day, however, the Lady returned as promised. Alongside her repeated appeals for penance, prayer and fasting, she entrusted the children with three revelations. Together, these made up the so-called Secret of Fatima. It is here where traditional Catholic piety and the “private revelations” of mystics enter the global stage of geopolitics.
On July 13, “Our Lady of the Rosary” (as she identified herself) entrusted the children with the first two parts of the secret. The first, and most important, we will deal with later. In the second, however, she warned them that unless the world repented, and sharpish, then not only would the current war continue, but it would soon be followed by a second and much worse one. This would be heralded by a “Great Sign” in the sky (in retrospect, often identified as the great Aurora Borealis of January 1938). To prevent this, Our Lady asked that Russia be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart, and the First Saturdays Devotion be begun in reparation.
Significantly, she promised (or threatened): “If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.”
For those who take their Marian apparitions seriously, this is a clear-cut case of a prophecy come true. For Our Lady’s requests were not notably heeded, and Russia did indeed spread its influence throughout the world, causing wars, persecutions and martyrdoms on a vast scale, and the annihilation of nations. And the Holy Father – or rather Holy Fathers, since it happened several times, just to be sure – consecrated Russia to her Immaculate Heart (albeit somewhat subtly, as they were prudently mindful of political and ecumenical sensitivities; Lucia herself confirmed that the deed had indeed been done). Furthermore, a post-communist Russian religious revival – if not one unalloyed by other factors – has taken place. And, fragile though it now seems, one can indeed speak in general terms of a period of (relative) peace.
The third and most famous part of the Secret was given on October 13, the last of the six monthly appearances. This was, of course, the occasion on which the sun was said – and by many thousands of people, a good number of whom had come to mock and “wag their heads” – to dance in the sky. Unlike the others, the Third Part was delivered not in words but visually: the Holy Father moving prayerfully through a corpse-strewn, ruined city; set upon by assassins, he is martyred, along with clergy, religious and lay faithful.
This metaphor-laden “dream sequence” ought not, as Cardinal Ratzinger explained upon the Third Part’s publication in 2000, be taken in a too literal a sense. Rather, like similar apocalyptic visions in Scripture, it is primarily symbolic: “The history of an entire century can be seen represented in this image.” Furthermore, he said, “the image which the children saw is in no way a film preview of a future in which nothing can be changed… Rather, the vision speaks of dangers and how we might be saved from them.”
As is well known, St John Paul II saw in all this a shadowy foretelling of the attempt on his life in St Peter’s Square on (note the date) May 13, 1981. That he was not in fact killed, he ascribed to the tender mercies of Our Lady of Fatima, and as proof that her calls for penance had, if imperfectly and belatedly, been heeded. Famously, the pope visited his would-be killer, Mehmet Ali Ağca, in prison. In 2009, news sources reported Ağca’s claim to have converted to Catholicism two years prior – on, naturally, May 13.
Given the explosive nature of the second and third parts, their connections to major world events, and the temptations they afforded to “Fatima truthers” to imagine conspiracies prior to (and long after!) their being publicly revealed, it is unsurprising that the first has been comparatively overlooked. But to my mind, it is by far the most important.
On July 13, 1917, Our Lady revealed to the little shepherds a vision of hell. I will spare you the details here (they can easily be looked up online), but as Lucia would later remember: “That vision only lasted for a moment… Without that, I think that we would have died of terror and fear.”
Hell is not much spoken of these days, especially not in the graphic ways that Lucia recounts in her memoirs. The very idea, I recently read in a theology book, is one “in the last analysis, unworthy of Jesus”. The trouble is, Jesus himself disagrees. His own descriptions, moreover, are graphically to the point. Thus when Our Lady of Fatima speaks of “the fires of hell”, she is simply repeating an image used often by her Son (Mark 9:43; Matthew 13:42, 50; 25:41).
In the Gospels, Jesus rebukes those requesting “a sign from heaven” (Mark 8:11) with the observation that “only an evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:39) would require such. As we celebrate the Fatima centenary, then, we might reflect – somewhat uncomfortably – on the question: what does it say about the modern world that his Mother felt we might benefit from, not just one such sign, but several? And what might we do, for ourselves and others, to turn things around?
Stephen Bullivant is Professor of Theology and the Sociology of Religion at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. His latest book, co-authored with Luke Arredondo, is out now: O My Jesus: The Meaning of the Fátima Prayer (Paulist Press, 2017)
This article first appeared in the May 12 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here