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The story of Fátima

NCR Staff

The 20th century’s best-known series of Marian apparitions began on May 13, 1917, when three small Portuguese children claimed to have been visited by a “lady in white” whom they recognized as the Virgin Mary.

The events in Fátima unfolded against a backdrop of religious persecution in Portugal. After the overthrow of the monarchy in 1908, the country was ruled by anti-clerical factions, which, by some counts, killed as many as 1,700 priests, nuns and monks between 1911 and 1916.

On June 13, 1917, the children -- Francisco Marto, then 8, his sister Jacinta, 6, and their cousin Lucia dos Santos, 9 said they were again visited by the lady, who told them to pray the rosary every day. On July 13, they reported receiving a message but said they could not reveal its contents. This became the basis for the “three secrets.”

The appearances continued once a month until Oct. 13, 1917, when a crowd estimated at 70,000 gathered at the spot where the children said they met Mary. Witnesses reported seeing a “miracle of the sun,” claiming that the sun shot off different colored rays and danced on its axis.

Francisco and Jacinta died in 1919 and 1920 in an influenza epidemic.

Dos Santos entered religious life, and in 1925 said that Mary visited her again. She said Mary told her she would assist at the hour of death anyone who, on the first Saturday of five consecutive months, received Communion, recited five decades of the rosary and mediated for 15 minutes on the 15 decades of the rosary. This was the origin of the “first Saturdays” devotion familiar to generations of Catholics.

In 1941, acting on instructions from the local bishop, dos Santos wrote down the contents of the July 13, 1917, revelation. The first part contained a vision of hell, with “demons” and “souls in human form raised up by the flames and then fell back.”

The second contained a series of predictions: that World War I would end; that if people did not stop offending God a worse war would break out; and that if Russia was consecrated to the Heart of Mary, it would be converted, but otherwise it would spread its errors throughout the world. The last point became the basis of Fátima’s reputation as a bulwark of fierce anti-communism.

Because the statements were revealed for the first time in 1941, some critics say they cannot be regarded as true predictions.

Dos Santos said there was a third part of the revelation that she could not write down, which became known as the “third secret.” She committed it to paper in 1943, and turned it over to the local bishop, who deposited it in the diocesan archives, apparently unread. It was given to the Vatican in 1957.

Also contained in dos Santos’ 1941 account was an instruction from Mary to insert two lines in the rosary after each mystery: “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fire of Hell. Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of thy mercy.” This practice spread quickly around the Catholic world.

On March 25, 1984, John Paul II consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart, sparking debate among Fátima devotees as to whether Mary’s requirement had been met. Some even speculated that the pontiff mentioned Russia by name “under his breath.”

In 1989, dos Santos declared John Paul’s act was satisfactory.

Given the anti-communist undertones of the Fátima devotion, it became a rallying point for conservatives. In October 1951, American Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen spoke to a crowd of 100,000 people in Fátima waving white handkerchiefs, making it into what Sheen called a “white square.”

“What will disappear,” Sheen said on that occasion, “will be a dictator reviewing his troops in the Red Square; what will survive will be a lady reviewing her children in the White Square.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2000