Words on the Word

Our Lady of Fátima

In Catholic circles the name of Fátima gives rise to different associations. Some see it as a symbol of exaggerated devotion. Others embrace it with mystic fervour. Yet others consider Fátima a sort of Rubik’s cube given by providence to enable a crystalball view of the future and of what will take place when the future comes to an end, which it will.

What actually happened in Fátima? During five months in 1917 three local children entertained a series of Marian revelations there, 130 kilometres north of Lisbon. The first took place on 13 May. The last took place on 13 October. By that time the children were no longer on their own. Some 70,000 people had gathered with them on a plain near Fátima to witness a well-documented phenomenon. When the children had had their last vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a vision only the three of them could see, the sun started behaving strangely. For a while it span around its axis, then it seemed to hurtle towards earth. Muddy terrain dried out in an instance. It was evident to all that something unusual was going on.

Two of the children died within the outside of a year in a flu pandemic. The third visionary lived for a long time. Her name was Lúcia. She became a nun, and died in the Carmel of Coimbra in 2005, 97 years old. She seems to have been a woman full of good sense. She bore witness to the revelations, but declined to interpret them. This, she contended, was the Church’s task, not hers.

The message the children received can be roughly divided into two parts.

The first part is timeless. It is a call to conversion and prayer, to constructive action that the world’s individuals might be formed into a people apt to create a worthy society in Jesus’s name.

The second part is more specific, so more complex. Remember: the revelations took place in 1917, while World War One was raging and while Russia’s Revolution was accomplished. Lúcia and her friends, six, eight, and nine years old, came from a simple background, not from homes where global politics were discussed around the dinner table – the families’ priority was to ensure there was something on the table.

It is extraordinary, then, to encounter, in the children’s account, a vision of the end of World War One and of the beginning of World War Two; of the ravages and fall of communism; of Russia’s potential for good and ill worldwide — who knows whether the three of them could even have located Russia on the map?

Then there is the so-called ‘third secret’ of Fátima, so precise that it was for a long time keep confidential. Pope John Paul II had it published in 2000. In this vision the children saw an image of the world with the Mother of God on one side, flanked by an angel with a flaming sword. The sword set the world on fire; but the conflagration ceased wherever the Christbearing glory of the Mother of God gained access. They saw a man dressed in white. He looked like the pope and walked through a landscape full of ruins before being killed by an enemy bullet. They saw many other Christians giving their lives for their faith in communion with Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary.

John Paul II was certain that this vision had a bearing on the attempt on his life made, precisely, on 13 May 1981, when he was shot in St Peter’s Square by Mehmet Ali Ağca. One bullet came as close to his vital organs as it possibly could without killing him on the spot. John Paul, mystically graced but at the same time a very rational man, a professional philosopher, maintained in retrospect that the bullet had been deflected ‘by a maternal hand’. He had the bullet set in the crown worn by the statue of Our Lady of Fátima, a gesture of reverence and thanks.

Not even the devoutest Catholic is obliged to share John Paul II’s perspective on the events of 13 May 1981 or to interpret Fátima politically. The Church leaves us great liberty in such matters. But is it reasonable to dismiss the whole business as nonsense? I would say that is not reasonable. But the message of Fátima must be exegeted carefully, sensibly.

Such an endeavour of interpretation was carried out on our behalf in 2000 by Cardinal Ratzinger, still prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He pointed out that the revelations are not the trailer of a ready-produced film. As Christians we do not believe in determinism. The future is not set in stone. It comes into being, partly through our agency. We are endowed with freedom of faith, thought, and action. We believe, indeed we know, that one truly free human being can have a liberating impact on an entire society, an entire civilisation.

What Fátima reminds us of is the interconnectedness of everything.

If we believe in God, in the plan of salvation accomplished in Christ, it is illogical to imagine one sacred and one profane dimension, one cosmic and one private sphere. Then time is a process, a single whole; then choices made in solitude have global consequence; then there is a great solidarity between heaven and earth, the past and the future, time and eternity; then life is marked by hope and responsibility; then nothing is trivial.

We shall still witness a world in flames and ruin. This is no metaphor, we see it on the news every day. At the same time, though, we shall be conscious of a divine power manifest maternally as a blessing presence in the midst of everything. This power bids us take courage. It bids us act where we can. It assures is that no option for good is vain. It protects us against evil and the power of death.

It is obvious that the pig picture has an impact on the small. But are we sufficiently aware that the opposite is also the case? When one finds oneself in the middle of life, looking at once forward and back, it is good to be reminded of this.

The mystery of Fátima is focused on the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Biblically speaking, the heart is an organ of perception, something with which we see. An immaculate heart is clearsighted, able to grasp things the way they are, as meaningful, free of selfish projection, without illusion.

May God grant us the grace of having such a heart. May he lead us out of a dizzyingly unsharp, grey approximation of vision into polychrome, Spirit-filled clarity. We constantly see, in the Church and in politics, what happens when the blind lead the blind. Where there are truly clear-sighted people about, however, no circumstance is hopeless: no road is a cul-de-sac; there are only thoroughfares.

If we see clearly, in the light of the Word of God who became man in the Virgin Mary, every situation can become a means to a blessed end, an unexpected fountain of life. Amen.


Sr Lúcia and Pope John Paul II on 13 May 2000. Photograph: Wikipedia.