The cult of Our Lady of Fatima is based on appearances of the Virgin Mary, in 1917, to three illiterate children praying in a field near the Portuguese village of Fatima. There would seem little reason to write about the cult if the current Pope did not take the visions very seriously indeed. He believes that Our Lady of Fatima saved his life by deflecting the bullet aimed at him in 1981 by his would-be assassin, Mahmet Ali Agca. The bullet that entered his body was given to the shrine at Fatima, where it is now part of the crown on the Virgin’s statue. This May, during his third pilgrimage to Fatima, the Pope beatified two of the three children who saw Mary, and released a previously suppressed account of a vision that had been granted them. On June 26, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published the Vatican’s official interpretation of the newly released account, called “Theological Commentary.”1
What happened at Fatima in 1917? A ten-year-old girl, Lucia, one of seven children of the dos Santos family, had, alone, a vision of light. Later, when she had been joined by two younger cousins (Francisco, nine, and his sister, Jacinta, seven), the three had a vision of an angel with a sword. But on May 13, Mary herself appeared, standing on the stump of a tree, and told the children to come five more times to the same spot on the same day of each succeeding month. In subsequent visions she told them that a friend of theirs who died was in heaven, but that another friend would be in purgatory till the end of the world.2 She also told the brother and sister they would die soon (which must have cheered them), and instructed Lucia to learn how to read and write, so she could spread her message.3
Francisco died in 1919, and Jacinta in 1920. Lucia is still alive, a cloistered nun, age ninety-three, who has written several unpublished memoirs. In 1941 she wrote an account of two visions given her on July 13, 1917. In 1944, she added an account of a third vision on the same day, but said it should not be released until 1960. The account was kept by her bishop until 1957, when he turned it over to the Vatican. When Lucia’s release date passed in 1960, during John XXIII’s papacy, those Catholics who think that the Pope sabotaged the church with his Vatican Council believe he was also thwarting the will of Our Lady of Fatima, striking a bargain with the Soviets.4 When Paul VI, too, failed to release the 1944 document, an apocalyptic Catholic priest with a cult following argued that Paul was an imposter sneaked into the Vatican to advance the Communist cause.5
A feverish culture of speculation about “the third secret” was built upon the belief that the second vision of July 13, 1917, contained…
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