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 Lucia is still alive, a cloistered nun, age ninety-three, who has written several unpublished memoirs.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 prophecies later fulfilled. The first vision on that day was simply of souls roasting in hell. The second vision was of the Virgin delivering two messages. The first said that the war in progress in 1917 would end, but that, if people did not repent, a worse one would begin. It took no herald from above to say that in wartime. The only note of prophecy came when the Virgin said the next war would begin in the reign of Pius XI. Since Benedict XV was pope in 1917, the Virgin was predicting that
there would be a future Pius XI—but of course Lucia was writing in 1941, after the war had broken out during Pius XI’s last days.
The second part of the second vi-sion was the Virgin’s demand that the Pope consecrate Russia to her Immaculate Heart6 : “If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted.” Though Pius XII consecrated the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1942, Lucia said that was not specific enough, and therefore Russia continued godless. 7 When John Paul II repeated the consecration of the world to her Immaculate Heart in 1984 (again without specifying Russia), Lucia said that was enough, and the cold war ended.8 But Russia is still not converted to a Virgin-centered religion Lucia would accept as the true one. Cultists insist the Pope still has some consecrating to do.
Those who thought that the first two “prophecies” were fulfilled came to believe that the afterthought “third secret” of 1944 must be some staggering revelation of the future, too terrifying to be revealed. Instead, when it was released this year, John Paul II said that it was a prediction of the attempt on his life in 1981—a prediction that had no effect and is revealed subsequently just to prove the Virgin knew something we did not know. Here was no call to prepare for a spiritual mission. It seems more like a parlor trick, with the Virgin looking into her crystal ball. Even Cardinal Ratzinger says, “No great mystery is revealed; nor is the future unveiled.”
And does the vision really refer to the attempt on John Paul’s life? Ratzinger, with the Pope’s approval, says yes. But consider the relevant part of Lucia’s 1944 document, in the Vatican translation of her manuscript (retaining her punctuation):
And we saw in an immense light that is God: “something similar to how people appear in a mirror when they pass in front of it” a Bishop dressed in White “we had the impression that it was the Holy Father”. Other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious going up a steep mountain, at the top of which there was a big Cross of rough-hewn trunks as of a cork-tree with the bark; before reaching there the Holy Father passed through a big city half in ruins and half trembling with halting step, afflicted with pain and sorrow, he prayed for the souls of the corpses he met on his way; having reached the top of the mountain, on his knees at the foot of the big Cross he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him, and in the same way there died one after another the other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious, and various lay people of different ranks and positions. Beneath the two arms of the Cross there were two Angels each with a crystal aspersorium in his hand, in which they gathered up the blood of the martyrs and with it sprinkled the souls that were making their way to God.
Cardinal Ratzinger writes: “When, after the attempted assassination on 13 May 1981, the Holy Father had the text of the third part of the ‘secret’ brought to him, was it not inevitable that he should see in it his own fate?” Why inevitable? The Turkish assassin Agca was not a group, not a soldier, not shooting arrows, and he did not kill his man in white. Nor had the Pope been stepping over corpses when he was shot, nor going up a hill, nor “half trembling with halting step.” He was being acclaimed as he rode in his “Popemobile,” a white Jeep. Either the Virgin’s crystal ball was clouded in 1917 or Lucia’s imagination was over-stimulated in 1944.
The Pope’s conviction that he was miraculously saved could be accepted as a bit of harmless superstition were it not for the uses he makes of this vision. Of course, it is very flattering to him. It makes him the most important figure in twentieth-century history, the one the Virgin had to save for him to complete his mission. He bears others’ sins up a hill, like Jesus mounting Calvary. But, more than that, his official explicators place great emphasis on the “martyrs” all around him. Archbishop Bertone notes that Lucia wrote the Pope in 1982 that the vision means “the good will be martyred.” Speaking to Bertone in April 2000, Lucia said the vision “describes the terrible sufferings of the victims of the faith in the twentieth century” (emphasis added). Angelo Cardinal Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, gave a public address at the beatifications in Fatima, proclaiming: “The vision of Fatima concerns above all the war waged by atheistic systems against the Church and Christians, and it describes the immense suffering endured by the witnesses of the faith in the last century” (emphasis added). Ratzinger picks up the same theme in his “Theological Commentary”: “In the vision we can recognize the last century as a century of martyrs, a century of suf-fering and persecution for the Church, a century of World Wars…. We see passing before us the witnesses of the faith decade by decade” (emphasis added). A whole century is summed up as one vast slaughter—of Catholics.
The last century witnessed many efforts at genocide and ethnic cleansing—mainly of Jews, but also of Armenians, Croats (killed first by Catholics, then by Serbs), Serbs killed by Croats, Herreros and Hutus in Africa, Ache Indians in Latin America, gypsies in Central Europe.9 None of that is included in the Vatican interpretation of Fatima. There only Catholics count and they do not die because of nationality, ethnicity, or locality. They are martyrs for their religion. They are killed by atheistic systems of Catholic-haters (“systems” in the plural, the focus is no longer just on communism). The vision is very hierarchical. Bishops get pride of place, though there are few of them in the century’s roll of martyrs.
All of this fits perfectly into John Paul’s campaign to promote Catholics as the victims (and not among the perpetrators) of the Holocaust. He has broken the Church’s own rules in order to beatify or canonize as martyrs Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe and Titus Brandsma, all killed by Nazis but not specifically as Catholics.10 He has claimed that the Nazis were atheists who killed Catholics out of hatred for their faith. The Virgin, whose “third secret” has for years nursed the fevered expectations of barmy cultists, is now put to more serious use by the Pope. She is helping him create Catholic martyrs to the Holocaust.
August 10, 2000
See www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/. ↩
William Thomas Walsh, Our Lady of Fatima (Macmillan, 1947), p. 53. ↩
Walsh, Our Lady of Fatima, p. 69. ↩
Michael W. Cuneo, The Smoke of Satan (Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 139. ↩
Cuneo, The Smoke of Satan, pp. 121-123. ↩
Mary’s “Immaculate Heart” is modeled on two other titles used in private apparitions. In the seventeenth century, Jesus revealed his suffering Sacred Heart to Margaret Mary Alocoque and told her to spread devotion to it. In the nineteenth century, Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes and said, “I am the Immaculate Conception” (i.e., born without original sin). The Immaculate Heart is thus paired with the Sacred Heart in devotional literature that approximates Mary to Jesus. ↩
Cuneo, The Smoke of Satan, pp. 15-36. ↩
Tarcisio Archbishop Bertone, “The Message of Fatima,” a document released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith along with Cardinal Ratzinger’s “Commentary.”Bertone refers to Lucia’s approval of the 1984 consecration, but omits her displeasure with the 1942 one. ↩
See the disheartening chapter “Genocide,” in Clive Ponting’s The Twentieth Century (Holt, 1998), pp. 502-527. ↩
I discuss the details of the cases in Papal Sin (Doubleday, 2000), pp. 47-64. ↩