Sister Lucia said it herself, in a mischievous moment. As Cardinal Bertone reports in The Last Secret of Fatima, “Once, when I told her that I had spoken about Our Lady of Fatima in Lourdes, she remarked that it’s a bad idea to confuse Our Ladies. Our Lady of Lourdes, she said, would surely take it amiss that I had spoken of Our Lady of Fatima on her turf.” While the Cardinal prefaces this anecdote with the remark that “she was ninety-five, and she had a verve, a good humor, that kept the entire community of nuns cheerful…she wouldn’t miss an opportunity for a joke,”—truly a saint after my own heart—still, one wouldn’t want to confuse Our Ladies…
Nonetheless, my story begins on February 11, 2013, at a midday Mass, when I sat down after the Gospel in hopes of hearing about Our Lady of Lourdes. Instead I heard the disconcerting words, “As you all know by now, Our Holy Father Benedict XVI has announced he will be resigning from the papacy.”
As it happens, I am notoriously out of the loop, getting most of my information about world events from homilies such as this. It was neither the first nor the last time I would hear, “As you all know by now,” from the pulpit when, in fact, I certainly did not know by now…although, to be fair, I did usually know by the time the priest had completed his sentence—whatever the Big News was, and on this day it was Very Big News indeed.
Pope Benedict was leaving us.
In a crisis (and often, too, when there is no crisis), a helpful rule of thumb is to buy a good book or two. So on the vigil of the last day of February, 2013, the vigil of Pope Benedict’s official resignation, I went to Barnes and Noble and looked for books by or about him, and I found (among other things) The Last Secret of Fatima, which boasted on the cover “Foreword by Pope Benedict XVI.”
At this juncture in the love story (or romantic comedy, you might say), I must mention that for decades I had been quite stand-offish with Our Lady of Fatima. Lucia may have been joking, but I carefully distinguished between Our Ladies. Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and especially Our Lady of Guadalupe with her gentle words to us through Juan Diego (“Hear, little one, and let it penetrate your heart. Let nothing discourage or depress you…”) were dear to my heart. Our Lady of Fatima, on the other hand, seemed to make a lot of demands which were hard to keep straight, and, though I regret to say it now that I know her better, she seemed kind of scary and angry.
Consequently, when this particular Our Lady re-entered my world in February 2013, nearly three decades after I’d made her acquaintance in college and about twenty-five years after I’d decided she wasn’t my cup of tea, you might anticipate that I was reluctant to fall under her spell. But when there is book buying involved, my hyper-vigilance recedes like the tide, and so when I sat in Barnes and Noble and began reading The Last Secret of Fatima, without resistance I fell instantly, head-over-heels in love with Lucia. And, not surprisingly, as I read in the introduction about four more books—Fatima in Lucia’s Own Words: Sister Lucia’s Memoirs; Calls from the Message of Fatima (also by Sister Lucia); The Message of Fatima (Sister Lucia’s last literary work); and Our Memories of Sister Lucia by the prioress of her Carmel in Coimbra, Portugal—I decided that these books were necessary to further my acquaintance with my new best friend. In the words of my confirmation saint, Thomas Aquinas, “The lover is not content with a superficial apprehension of the beloved, but strives to investigate from the inside all particular things that belong to the beloved, so as to penetrate to his inmost being.” Or again, in the words of St. John of the Cross, “This is the property of love: to seek out all the good things of the Beloved.”
In short I began to seek out all the good things of Lucia, and from that day to this, a span of about two and a half years, she has been exceedingly generous in revealing those good things to me. I have recently written about how “no one can receive anything unless it is given to him from heaven,” and thanks to Pope Benedict’s resignation, I was given Fatima from heaven.
So, then, what of these good things can I (and Lucia and heaven) give to you today, dear reader? On this 98th anniversary of this miracle of the sun, here are seven Fatima take-aways:
1. Fatima is not as complicated as it sometimes appears to be, though it is always far richer than it seems.
2. Our Lady is never scary, and Our Lady of Fatima in particular is not scary, or mean, or angry at all.
3. God loves us first; this is the real secret of Fatima. What happened to Lucia and her little cousins Francisco and Jacinta (and the grace of Fatima I pray will happen to everyone) was an intimate experience of the love of God that filled the children with joy and a desire to live in Him and for Him. As Lucia wrote in her fourth memoir, “These words [spoken by the Angel during his second visit] were like a light which made us understand who God is, how He loves us and desires to be loved…” And for the rest of their earthly lives—short lives for Francisco and Jacinta and a very long life for Lucia—the experience of God’s love never left them, and especially never left them as they had been. It set their hearts on fire and filled their minds and souls with light, and that fire and that light were the catalysts for their prayer and penance. Do not be ashamed or afraid if you are not yet similarly fired with a desire for prayer and penance—ask God to reveal His love for you and then the rest will come easily.
4. The events of Fatima happened thus: An angel came to three poor and illiterate shepherd children in a tiny village of Portugal in 1916 during a period of intense religious persecution. The angel taught the children two prayers and encouraged them to offer up sacrifices for God; as if that weren’t enough, after teaching them how to venerate the Blessed Sacrament, he gave them Holy Communion. These apparitions prepared the children for another heavenly visitor: starting in May, 1917, Our Lady herself appeared to the three children for six months in a row on the 13th of each month (with the exception of the month of August, when she appeared to them on a later date due to their having been kidnapped on the 13th and threatened with martyrdom by a local anti-Catholic government official). During the first five apparitions, Our Lady asked the children to say the Rosary every day and to “sacrifice yourselves for sinners, and say many times, especially whenever you make some sacrifice: O Jesus, it is for love of You, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.” (Jacinta later added, “and for the Holy Father.”) Our Lady asked that “when you pray the Rosary, say after each mystery: O my Jesus, forgive us, save us from the fire of hell. Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are most in need.” Finally, Our Lady told the children secrets they were not to reveal, and promised to tell them her identity in October, when she would also, in response to their request, “perform a miracle for all to see and believe.”
5. On October 13, 1917, there was a huge rain in the Cova de Iria where Our Lady appeared to the children. This did not prevent 70,000 people, including journalists and photographers from all the major Portuguese newspapers and both believers and atheists, from gathering in the muddy fields, as close as they could get to the three wet children and the little holmoak tree over which they claimed that The Lady appeared to them.
6. On this day, then, 98 years ago, there was a miracle observed by the 70,000 people there gathered—though not observed by the three children, who were at the time seeing a succession of tableau representing Our Lady, Our Lord, and St. Joseph. The 70,000 saw the sun “dance” and spin in the sky, coloring everything—land, people, clouds—with gorgeous hues. Suddenly it seemed to leave its place and come hurtling toward them, and this caused many (including “unbelievers”) to fall onto their knees and yell out their sins, begging for mercy. The sun did not hit or hurt them, but returned to its place in the sky; the miracle had lasted about ten minutes. When it was over, the ground, which had been muddy and covered with puddles, and the clothes of the witnesses, which had been drenched, were completely dry. The journalists and photographers, in a praiseworthy moment of truth, reported the miracle in all the major newspapers (secular, anti-Catholic, and openly atheistic newspapers as well as religious papers). It was scientifically inexplicable and witnessed by tens of thousands, including some who were miles away and unaware that anything interesting had been predicted to happen. The contemporary documents—from newspaper articles to photographs to interviews with witnesses—were many and complete and after nearly 100 years are still available in the public record.
7. The effect of these events on the three children—apparitions of the angel and then of Our Lady, revelations of God’s infinite love, intimate knowledge of Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart, secrets, prophecies, and promises from this same heavenly Lady—was to make them long to console the Heart of Jesus, offer reparation to Our Lady for the pain man’s sins have caused her maternal Immaculate Heart, pray and do penance for the conversion of sinners, and pray for the Holy Father. Oh, and get everyone to pray the Rosary daily, as Our Lady had asked, for peace in the world.
So there are your 7 take-aways. But what, the savvy reader may ask, about the famous third secret and the endlessly debated question of the consecration of Russia?
Thankfully, Sister Lucia herself, the ultimate Fatima expert, has provided definitive answers to these otherwise perplexing questions. More importantly, her conclusions are blessed with the seal of the ultimate authority: that of the Church.
Regarding the third secret, Lucia’s mother superior, Sister Maria Celina de Jesus Crucificado, quotes her in Our Memories of Sister Lucia, the “circular letter” sent out from their monastery after Lucia’s death. In this document, written in accord with the Constitutions of the Carmelites, Sister Maria Celina tells us about Lucia:
“It upset her that there was so much speculation about the Secret. Before it was revealed, she used to say rather sadly, ‘If they would only live the most important part, which has already been revealed! They are only interested in what has yet to be said, instead of fulfilling what has already been asked for, prayer and penance!’ After the Secret had been revealed, people began to express doubts as to the authenticity of the text. One day I said to her: ‘Sister Lucia, people are saying that there is yet another secret!’ She replied: ‘If they know that there is another secret, let them reveal it! I know of no other! Some people are never satisfied. Take no notice.’”
As to the question of the consecration of Russia, and bearing in mind that “no one can receive anything unless it is given to him from heaven,” we find the unequivocal and final decision of the Church in the commentary by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith on the “Secret” of Fatima published on June 26, 2000. (The whole of the text is available in English in Fatima in Lucia’s Own Words, Appendix III.) The pertinent section reads:
“Sister Lucia personally confirmed that this solemn and universal act of consecration [made by Pope John Paul II on March 25, 1984, in spiritual union with the Bishops of the world] corresponded to what Our Lady wished (‘Sim, está feita, tal como Nossa Senhora a perdiu, desde o dai 25 de Marco de 1984’; ‘Yes, it has been done just as Our Lady asked, on 25 March 1984’: Letter of 8 November 1989). Hence any further discussion or request is without basis.”
It so happened that I fell in love with Fatima just as my grown son Joseph was setting forth on a great adventure; he was traveling alone to Russia to tour and travel for what turned out to be eleven weeks. In those eleven weeks he saw many signs of the conversion of Russia that Our Lady had promised. Churches, both Orthodox and Catholic, had been and were being rebuilt, and in them was religious art of indescribable beauty—some of it old and, I imagine, newly brought out from the hidden places Communism forced it into, but much of it new, and some even being painted (giant frescos) before Joseph’s very eyes. Most importantly, there were worshipers in these churches, and not just faithful old grandmothers. Joseph saw men and women, old and young, venerating icons and praying with great devotion from Moscow to Kazan to Irkutsk.
Although Our Lady provided a miracle for 70,000 people on October 13, 1917, it was to three small shepherd children that she entrusted her secrets, and these children, through Lucia, entrusted her secrets to the Church. Let us gratefully receive the reassurance of Lucia and the Church as coming to us from heaven. We are too late to witness the miracle of the sun, but we can witness the miracle of Fatima to this day, and even participate in it by saying our Rosary, as Our Lady has asked us to do.