One of the sites Melbourne pilgrims will be visiting in Portugal during World Youth Day 2023 is the Shrine of Fatima. The apparitions at Fatima, when Mary appeared to three young children, are perhaps some of the most dramatic spiritual events in modern history. They are a reminder that God is not distant from history but still actively involved, trying to draw us back to him.

In the lead-up to World Youth Day, we take a look at what happened at Fatima, and share 10 interesting facts associated with the apparitions.

What happened at Fatima?

In 1916, three children—Lucia dos Santos, aged nine, Francisco Marto, aged eight, and Jacinta Marto, aged six—were visited by an angel, who told them that the Blessed Virgin Mary would appear to them the following year. The angel visited them three times.

From 13 May to 13 October 1917, Mary appeared to them multiple times, revealing what came to be known as a ‘secret’ (or vision) in three parts. The first part was a vision of hell; the second part prophesied the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second, and included a request for Russia to be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart; the third part (which was not publicly revealed until the year 2000) was a vision of a ‘bishop in white’ who would fall beneath a storm of bullets and arrows.

Of course, the three children were quite isolated from global events, and so much of this would have sounded strange to them—particularly the request to consecrate Russia, since the Communist revolution was yet to happen (though it would that very year).

Throughout her apparitions, Mary’s message was consistent: she asked people to pray and entrust their lives to God, because only in God would their hearts, and the world, find peace. The prayer she asked people to take up especially was the Rosary.

Children of Fatima
The children of Fatima: Lucia dos Santos, Francisco Marto, and Jacinta Marto.

The miracle of the sun

The apparitions came to a head on 13 October 1917, when more than 70,000 people gathered and witnessed what became known as ‘the miracle of the sun’.

This is what made the apparitions so convincing for so many people, persuading them that this was more than just the fantasies of imaginative children. By October, people knew about the children and their reports of Mary’s appearances. According to the children, Mary had even promised people a ‘sign’, something to prove that the apparitions were real. Huge crowds assembled, expecting to see a miracle—and they did.

According to Avelino de Almeida, a reporter whose newspaper was famously anti-Catholic and who had dismissed the apparitions as nonsense, the sun began to ‘dance’: for some it wheeled and lowered to the earth; for others it trembled and whirled and emitted a dazzling array of colours.

It was an extraordinary event, convincing many people of the children’s testimonies.

A great overview of the events and references can be found in Fatima for Today (2010) by Fr Andrew Apostoli CFR.

The bishop in white

But what about the ‘bishop in white’ Mary had shown them in a vision? Who was that?

This element would remain a mystery until 1981, when Pope John Paul II was shot four times by the Turkish assassin Mehmet Alì Agca in St Peter’s Square. Miraculously, the Polish pope survived, despite the assassination attempt being planned meticulously.

Pope John Paul II attributed his survival to the protection of Mary. Why? Because the assassination attempt took place on 13 May, the anniversary of her first apparition to the children. And when he later read about the third part of the vision, which included a ‘bishop in white’ falling seemingly to his death, he knew in that moment that Our Lady of Fatima had saved him, and that he was the bishop in white.

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Statue of Our Lady of Fatima

Interesting facts about Fatima

  1. There is a legend associated with the naming of Fatima. According to the story, Fatima was a young Moorish princess in the 12th century who, during the conquests of the Crusaders, was taken captive by a knight named Gonçalo Hermigues. The young princess went on to marry the knight and convert to Christianity, assuming another name, ‘Oureana’. A city was named after her, and over time it grew to be known as Ourém—and it is still known as that today. But the princess also lived for some time in a mountainous area of Ourém, and that was named in honour of her original name, Fatima. It was in this area that Our Lady would appear to the three seers, sharing her message.
  2. Every year, it is estimated that upwards of six million pilgrims visit Fatima.
  3. The Chapel of Apparitions, described as the ‘heart’ of the Shrine of Fatima, was built on the exact spot that Mary appeared to the children.
  4. On 13 May 2017, over a million people attended the 100th anniversary of the apparitions.
  5. Two of the children, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, are some of the youngest non-martyrs to ever be declared saints. They both fell dangerously ill with the Spanish flu, and in 1919, Francisco died at the age of 11. Nearly a year later, in 1920, Jacinta died at the age of 10. They were canonised on 13 May 2017 by Pope Francis for the 100th anniversary of the apparitions.
  6. In 1935, when Jacinta Marto’s body was exhumed, she was found to be incorrupt: her body had, miraculously, not decayed or decomposed the way it should have after 15 years. Some saints throughout history have been blessed with incorruptible bodies after death as a sign of their holiness and to inspire faith in others.
  7. The statue of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal wears a crown; encased in that crown is one of the bullets Pope John Paul II was shot with. He had it placed there in thanksgiving for Our Lady saving his life.
  8. Pope John Paul II met with the Turkish assassin in prison and forgave him. In fact, in his book Memory and Identity (2005), the pope reported that the assassination had been planned in such detail that when it failed to succeed, Agca started to question everything and even became open to the Catholic faith. Sure enough, in 2007, Mehmet Alì Agca converted to Catholicism.
  9. The third child, Lucia dos Santos, reported more apparitions and messages from Mary in the years following the dramatic events at Fatima. She went on to become a Carmelite nun and a friend of Pope John Paul II. She died in 2005 at the age of 97.
  10. Only very recently, on 22 June 2023, Pope Francis declared that Sr Lucia was ‘Venerable’, the first step on the path to sainthood.