The apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima are some of the most dramatic spiritual events in modern history. What do we know about them? Do they have continuing relevance for us today? How can we listen to Mary’s message of hope more deeply?
On 13 May 1981, Pope John Paul II – now St Pope John Paul the Great – was shot four times by the Turkish assassin Mehmet Alì Agca in St Peter’s Square. Two bullets entered his lower intestine and the remaining two hit either arm. It was arguably the most dramatic moment of modern papal history. Miraculously, the Polish pope survived and would even have one of those bullets encased within the crown of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal, a testament to who he believed had saved him. In fact, as he approached the statue’s crown in which he would later place the bullet, he could be heard saying repeatedly, ‘You saved me . . . You saved me . . .’
In his book Memory and Identity, Pope John Paul II reflected on his meeting with the assassin who was bewildered by his failure:
He had planned it meticulously, attending to every tiny detail . . . this perplexity had led him to the religious question. He wanted to know about the secret of Fatima, and what the secret actually was . . . Alì Agca had probably sensed that over and above his own power, over and above the power of shooting and killing, there was a higher power. He then began to look for it. I hope and pray that he found it.
Indeed, in 2007 Alì Agca, a man with a deeply troubling mercenary past, converted to Roman Catholicism.
Why did the pope believe the failed attempt had anything to do with Our Lady and the famous apparitions at Fatima? While he was recovering in hospital, Pope John Paul II was struck by something: the day of his attempted assassination, 13 May, was the same day on which the Blessed Virgin Mary first appeared to the three children in Fatima, Portugal. In hospital he requested to see what had become known as the third secret – or vision – that was given to the child Lúcia by Mary (the secret referred to in the quote above). In this vision the pope saw himself, “a Bishop dressed in White”, falling beneath a storm of bullets and arrows. According to his then-secretary Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, ‘all his remaining doubts were gone . . . his life had been saved – no, given back to him anew – thanks to Our Lady’s intervention and protection.'
The pope found himself caught up, strangely, in the drama of Our Lady’s visions.
The origin of Our Lady of Fatima dates back to 1917 in Portugal, where Our Lady appeared to three children: Lucia dos Santos, and Francisco and Jacinta Marto. According to Lucia, who later became a Carmelite nun, Mary appeared to the children several times and revealed in three parts what became known as the “secret” or the vision, which was vital for the world to know. The first part was a terrifying vision of hell; the second part prophesied the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II, and included a request for Russia to be consecrated to Mary’s Immaculate Heart; the third included what was discussed above.
The interesting thing about the apparitions at Fatima is that these were not simply the fantasies of imaginative children. During the apparitions Mary promised a miracle so that everybody might believe her message. People began to gather by the thousands in expectation of a miracle, and on 13 October 1917 over 70,000 people witnessed what has become known as the Miracle of the Sun. According to Avelino de Almeida, a reporter whose newspaper was famously anti-clerical and had dismissed the apparitions, the sun began to “dance”: for some it began to wheel and lower to the earth, for others it would tremble and whirl and emit a dazzling array of colours.
It isn’t often that miracles get reported, but even this one, with its vast number of witnesses, deserved an article in The Washington Post.
The visions and prophesies were all concerned, it seems, with the twentieth century: the two world wars, the threat that Russia posed to the Church and the world, and the increase in Christian martyrs around the world. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger posited in his theological commentary on the “secrets” of Fatima: 'Is it of any help to us at the beginning of the new millennium? Or are these only projections of the inner world of children, brought up in a climate of profound piety but shaken at the same time by the tempests which threatened their own time? How should we understand the vision? What are we to make of it?'
He goes on to explain that firstly, one of the central aspects of Mary’s message to the world was that of penance, something that Ratzinger interprets as being in line with Jesus’ call to repentance. The word literally means "to turn around”; to stop going the way you are going and turn back to God. Since repentance is at the heart of the Gospel message, it remains forever relevant. Repentance must be a daily exercise.
Secondly, Ratzinger reflects on Mary’s promise to the children that “my Immaculate Heart will triumph”: 'What does this mean? The Heart open to God, purified by contemplation of God, is stronger than guns and weaponry of any kind . . . since God took a human heart and has thus steered human freedom toward what is good, the freedom to choose evil no longer has the last word.'
The message that comes from Fatima is ultimately one of hope, and it is a call to have the same openness to the Word of God that Mary had when she said, “I am the Lord’s servant . . . May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Fiona Basile10 June 2021
Melbourne Catholic10 June 2021