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.
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.
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.
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.
VMCH11 December 2023
Melbourne Catholic08 December 2023