May is a month that Catholics traditionally devote to honoring the Blessed Mother. One of my favorite Marian memorials falls in the middle of the month, May 13, when we honor Mary under her title “Our Lady of Fatima.” I’m not a big devotee of Marian apparitions, but because of my work promoting John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB), I have gained a great interest in Fatima. What’s the connection? I could write a doctoral dissertation on it, but I’ll provide the short version in my two columns for the month of May.
As most Catholics know, between May 13 and Oct. 13, 1917, Mary appeared to three peasant children in Fatima, Portugal delivering a three-part message — the “three secrets” of Fatima, as they’ve come to be known. The first secret presented a horrifying vision of hell. The second involved a prophecy of World War II and the warning that “Russia would spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church.” However, Mary assured the children, “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”
Mary also told the children that “the Holy Father will have much to suffer.” This brings us to the “third secret” of Fatima, which was not publicly revealed until the year 2000. In 1917, the children saw a vision of bullets and arrows fired at “a bishop dressed in white.” Sixty-four years later, while driving through the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, a “bishop dressed in white” was gunned down by Turkish assassin Ali Agca … on the memorial of Our Lady of Fatima: May 13, 1981.
Many years, later John Paul II reflected: “Agca knew how to shoot, and he certainly shot to kill. Yet it was as if someone was guiding and deflecting that bullet.” That “someone,” John Paul believed, was the Woman of Fatima. “Could I forget that the event in St. Peter’s Square took place on the day and at the hour when the first appearance of the Mother of Christ … has been remembered … at Fatima in Portugal? For in everything that happened to me on that very day, I felt that extraordinary motherly protection and care, which turned out to be stronger than the deadly bullet” (“Memory and Identity,” pp. 159, 163).
The fact that John Paul was shot on the memorial of Fatima is well known. What few people know is that the pope was planning to announce the establishment of his Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family on that fateful afternoon. This was to be his main arm for disseminating his teaching on man, woman, marriage and sexual love around the globe. Could it be that there were forces at work that didn’t want John Paul II’s teaching to spread around the world? (In fact, by May 13, 1981, John Paul II was only about half way through delivering the 129 addresses of his TOB. Had he died, obviously, the full teaching never would have been presented.) And could it be that, by saving his life, the Woman of Fatima was pointing to the importance of his teaching reaching the world?
It would be over a year later that John Paul officially established his Institute (of which I’m a proud graduate). On that day, Oct. 7, 1982 — not coincidentally the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary — John Paul II entrusted the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family to the care and protection of Our Lady of Fatima. By doing so, it seems he himself was drawing a connection, at least indirectly, between his miraculous survival and the importance of the Theology of the Body.
Digging deeper, the precise link, I believe, between John Paul II’s TOB and Fatima lies in Mary’s mysterious words about the “errors of Russia” and the promised “triumph” of her Immaculate Heart. John Paul II’s TOB is like weedkiller applied to the deepest roots of the “errors of Russia” that have spread throughout the world. As such, the spread of the TOB throughout the world is a sign, I believe, that Mary is preparing us for her triumph.
But what does it mean to speak of “the triumph of the Immaculate Heart?” What are the “errors of Russia” and how does John Paul II’s TOB combat them? We’ll explore these questions in the next column.