A Catholic Monthly Magazine

13 May 2017 – The Centenary of the First Apparition at Fatima

Tricia O'Donnell

In early 1917, while the whole world was in the grip of the Great War, Russia was preparing for its own revolution. Civil war came in November of that year and eventually led to the murder of their royal family and the establishment of communism. Pope Benedict XV repeatedly appealed for world peace, to no avail. In May he asked Mary for help. A week later she responded in a most dramatic way.

Lucia dos Santos, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, 1917

On the 13th of May, near the small village of Fatima in central Portugal, ten year old Lucia dos Santos, and her cousins Francisco Marto, eight, and his sister Jacinta, seven, were grazing their flocks in Cova da Iria, family farmland, when they saw a bright light flashing in the sky. According to Lucia, a lady appeared, ‘clothed in white, brighter than the sun, radiating a light more clear and intense than a crystal cup filled with sparkling water, lit by burning sunlight.’ The Lady smiled, and when Lucia asked where she came from, she replied ‘I come from heaven.’ She went on to ask them to return there on the 13th of each month, at the same time for the next six months, and later she would reveal who she was. Before leaving she asked them to ‘say the Rosary every day, to bring peace to the world and the end of the war.’ The Lady then rose into the air and eventually disappeared.

On each occasion that followed, Mary repeated her request for prayer, adding devotion to her Immaculate Heart, and Communion of Reparation on the First Saturdays of five consecutive months. She showed the children a horrifying vision of hell and its tortured souls, which was the first of three Fatima ‘secrets’ which would not be made known for some time. If what she asked was carried out, many souls would be saved and there would be peace: ‘the war is going to end, but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night illuminated by an unknown light, know this is the great sign given to you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father.’

Our Lady went on to say that to prevent this she would ask for the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart. If her requests were not heeded, Russia would ‘spread its errors throughout the world, raising up wars and persecutions against the Church. The good will be martyred, the Holy Father will suffer much and various nations would be annihilated.’ Mary concluded that her Immaculate Heart would triumph once Russia was consecrated and converted and ‘a period of peace would be granted to the world.’ This, was the second secret.

Mary had spoken several times of the miracle that would occur on her last visit on the 13th of October. By midday on that day, a crowd of around 70,000 had gathered, some expectantly, some sceptically. When Our Lady appeared to the children, Lucia again asked what she wanted. She replied that she wished for a chapel to be built on that spot in her honour, and that she was the Lady of the Rosary. ‘Continue always to pray the Rosary every day. The war is going to end and the soldiers will return to their homes.’

Finally she said people must change their ways and pray for forgiveness of their sins. ‘Do not offend the Lord our God any more,’ she said sadly, ‘because He is already so much offended.’ With that she rose into the air, growing more radiant as she moved towards the sun, before disappearing completely.

Photo: Catholic News Agency

The crowd watched in amazement as the sun ‘danced’ before them. They were able to gaze without blinking or averting their eyes, and were mesmerised as, according to one writer, ‘the sun whirled on itself like a giant Catherine Wheel. Some said they saw it change colours successively.’ Spinning, enlarging, diminishing, even seemingly to plummet to the earth, only to retreat back to its zenith in the sky. A mass hysteria theory later surfaced, which was discounted, as people 18 kilometres away, who knew nothing about the expected miracle, also witnessed the event. Earlier in the day it had rained heavily but now the muddy ground was totally dry. Many of the stunned crowd remained on their knees, praying and in awe of what they had just experienced.

One of the predictions Our Lady had given the children was that though Lucia would survive to promote Her Immaculate Heart, Francisco and Jacinta would soon be in heaven. Francisco died in April 1919 and Jacinta in February of 1920. Both died of complications of the influenza epidemic that was prevalent throughout Europe towards the end of the Great War. Lucia eventually became a Carmelite sister and in 1925 Mary appeared to her in her cell at the convent in Pontevedra, Spain. This time, she appeared with the Child Jesus and told her that she would provide all the graces necessary for people’s souls at the hour of their death for those who observed the first Saturday of each month. On that day they should go to Confession, receive Holy Communion, pray five decades of the Rosary and meditate for 15 minutes on the Mysteries, with the intention of making reparation to her.

Sister Lucia with Pope
St John Paul II,
Cova da Iria, 1982

Four years later, on the 13th of June 1929, while in the convent chapel in Tuy, where she was now living, Sister Lucia had another vision of Mary together with a representation of the Holy Trinity. The Blessed Virgin then told her that it was time for the Holy Father to consecrate Russia, in union with all the bishops of the world, to her Immaculate Heart.

On January 25th 1938 the skies of Europe were illuminated by a strange light. Scientific consensus was that it was the Aurora Borealis but Sister Lucia knew it was the ‘unknown light’ Mary had spoken about and that the world was about to be punished for its sins. The following year the Second World War began.

Controversy still rages over Russia’s consecration. In 1952, 1982 and 1984, consecrations took place but according to Sister Lucia these did not fulfil Our Lady’s wishes, as either Russia was not specifically mentioned, or all the world’s bishops were not involved. A letter surfaced in 1989 where Lucia confirmed the 1984 consecration had been successful but many were not convinced this was authentic, as two years previously she had stated categorically it still hadn’t happened. So, the debate continues.

Some controversy also exists over the third secret. Although the first two secrets were revealed in Sister Lucia’s memoirs in 1941, she withheld the third one, as she maintained Mary, on giving it to her, had asked her not to speak of it. However, in 1943 when Lucia became seriously ill, her superiors insisted she write it down, fearing she might die without recording it. It was duly written and sealed and held by the Bishop of Leiria until 1957, when it was delivered to the Vatican. Finally, on the 13th of May 2000, Cardinal Angelo Sodano announced the contents of the Third Secret. Although open to interpretation, it was felt the vision related to the current day persecution of Christians and attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. It did little to satisfy the sceptics and conspiracy theorists who thought, after so many years of secrecy, there was more to it, perhaps it was only part of the story, what was being kept back? The Vatican however, insists they have revealed all that Sister Lucia had recorded.

At the same time the Third Secret was announced, Pope John Paul declared Francisco and Jacinta ‘venerable,’ paving the way for eventual sainthood. Sister Lucia died in 2005 at the age of 97. Her cause for beatification was introduced in 2008 by Pope Benedict XVI.

In 1930, after much study and debate, the Catholic Church declared the visions ‘worthy of belief,’ and Our Lady of Fatima became official. Today, Fatima is still a magnet for millions of pilgrims every year. The small chapel built in 1918 in honour of Our Blessed Lady is now part of a huge complex of basilicas, shrines and chapels along with a hotel, medical facility and retreat centres.

Despite the controversies that surround the events of 1917, nothing can diminish the devotion people have for Our Lady of Fatima. This year will be busier than ever as Fatima celebrates its 100th anniversary and prepares for the influx of visitors expected, who will all arrive hoping for their own personal encounter with the Mother of God. That’s what Fatima is really about.

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