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Long-awaited ‘third secret’ sparks new round of speculation

NCR Staff

If John Paul II opted to reveal the long-awaited “third secret” of Fátima on May 13 in order to “show that there wasn’t anything mysterious,” as secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano told reporters, so far the plan seems to have backfired.

Instead, Sodano’s announcement, which coincided with the anniversary of the date in 1917 when the Virgin Mary is said to have first appeared to three Portuguese children, has touched off a new round of debate and conjecture.

At the same time, theologians are quick to point out that no interpretation of Fátima or any of its revelations is obligatory for Catholics, who in at least this instance have the right to cheerfully disregard the pope’s conclusions.

“None of this is de fide, or a matter of faith,” said Jesuit Fr. Walter Burghardt, a theologian who has studied the church’s teachings on Mary. A Catholic can believe that Mary has never appeared on earth after her assumption, and has never communicated any revelation, and still be fully orthodox, Burghardt said.

“This is the pope’s own personal spirituality, which has no theological significance at all,” said Notre Dame theologian Fr. Richard McBrien.

The first two “secrets of Fátima” contained a vision of hell and a prediction of the end of the First World War, the beginning of the Second World War and the rise of Soviet communism. Devotees have long speculated about the content of the “third secret,” stored in Vatican archives since 1957.

At the end of a May 13 ceremony in which John Paul beatified two of the three visionaries of Fátima, Sodano, speaking on behalf of the pope, said that the third secret contained a vision of a “bishop clothed in white” who “makes his way with great effort toward the cross amid the corpses of those who were martyred … he, too falls to the ground, apparently dead, under a burst of gunfire.”

“The vision of Fátima concerns above all the war waged by atheistic systems against the church and Christians, and it describes the immense suffering endured by the witnesses to the faith in the last century of the second millennium. It is an interminable way of the cross led by the popes of the 20th century,” Sodano said.

Sodano said “it appeared evident” to the pope after the 1981 assassination attempt that he was the bishop in white. That interpretation, Sodano said, had been confirmed by the last surviving Fátima visionary, Carmelite Sr. Lucia dos Santos.

The pope has previously credited the Lady of Fátima with saving his life in 1981. A bullet removed from his body is now mounted in the crown of a Marian statute at Fátima. This time, John Paul left behind a ring given to him shortly after he became pope by Poland’s Cardinal Stephan Wyszynski.

Among those suggesting there’s more than meets the eye in Sodano’s announcement are long-time devotees of Fátima, many of whom believe the “third secret” must contain more than Sodano revealed, especially details about end-time scenarios or about corruption in the church.

The Web site of the Fátima Network, a group devoted to spreading the message of Fátima, contains articles arguing that the third secret deals with apostasy and the punishment of wayward pastors, and suggesting that the Vatican has suppressed this content since 1960 because it would undercut the spirit of optimism and openness to modernity that came out of Vatican II.

Other Catholics were not persuaded by the pope’s exegesis of the secret. While John Paul concluded that the vision described by Sodano was a prediction of the assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square, the Internet was alive minutes after the announcement with a rival interpretation.

According to this view, usually expressed by Catholic progressives (some of whom find the idea of private revelation difficult to accept), an equally good candidate for the “bishop in white” surrounded by martyrs would be the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was killed while celebrating Mass in San Salvador in 1980.

Still other parties expropriated the secret for their own purposes. Ferdinando Imposimato, the primary Italian investigator into the 1981 shooting of the pope, claimed that the secret verifies his claim that the KGB was behind the attack. Because Sodano said the secret concerned a “war waged by atheist systems against the church and Christians,” Imposimato claimed there can “no longer be any doubts” about Soviet involvement.

A more prosaic reading of events was offered by Richard Owens, the Vatican affairs writer for the Times of London, who quoted “Vatican sources” to the effect that by asking Sodano to reveal the secret, John Paul was in effect anointing a successor. Owens characterized Sodano as “a safe pair of hands acceptable to liberals and conservatives.”

Italian newspapers were largely dismissive. “The organization [of religious events] is making the Roman Catholic church look like a live mega-spectacle, like Nashville,” wrote Il Manifesto, a leftist daily.

The full text of the secret, along with a commentary from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, is expected shortly.

The beatification of Jacinta and Francisco Marto, who died in the influenza epidemic of 1919 and 1920, was itself unusual. They are believed to be the first children ever beatified for reasons other than martyrdom.

Vatican sources said they were accorded the honor, which is the penultimate step before sainthood, not for being visionaries, but for personal holiness in withstanding harsh treatment from skeptics who tried to persuade them either to recant or to reveal their secrets.

McBrien said that the beatification of the Fátima visionaries reflected John Paul’s “providential sense of this pontificate.”

“John Paul believes he is an actor in an apocalyptic drama, which puts a strong stamp of approval on his policies,” McBrien said.

McBrien added his voice to those who believe there’s more to the third secret than Sodano let on. “I don’t believe that’s all there is,” he said. “I think certain people in the Vatican were shrewd enough to offer an interpretation ahead of actually revealing it,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2000