What Happened at Fatima
From the March 7, 2005 issue: John Paul II, Lucia dos Santos, and the end of communism.
Mar 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 23 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
HERE'S A CURIOUS THOUGHT. Maybe the single most important person in the 20th century's long struggle against communism wasn't Ronald Reagan. Maybe it wasn't Karol Wojtyla or Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa or Václav Havel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Mikhail Gorbachev. Maybe it wasn't anyone whose name might leap to a cold warrior's mind--for the most important figure in that long, dark struggle might have been a 10-year-old girl named Lucia dos Santos.
You remember her, of course. It was Lucia who went out one day in 1917 with her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Martos to tend the family's sheep--and ended up having a talk about Godless Russia with the Blessed Virgin Mary near a little place in northern Portugal called Fatima.
Or do you remember her? Lucia dos Santos died on Sunday, February 13, at age 97. And for much of her life, cloistered in her Carmelite convent in Portugal, she seemed, well, what? An embarrassment, perhaps: an open invitation for mockery from nonbelievers, a creaky medievalism, a throwback to the kind of peasant superstition modern Catholics hoped would no longer be held against them.
There were certainly waves of enthusiasm about Fatima in Europe and the United States in the years following World War I. But gradually after World War II, and increasingly after the modernizing changes of Vatican II, the cult of Fatima seemed to have lived on too long, like mold in an abandoned crypt--a final catacomb for the bitter and the disaffected: the orphaned throne-and-altar royalists, the bypassed ultramontanists, the rejecters of Vatican II, and all the dark, unhappy people who thought the Catholic church had abandoned them, in one way or another, for a mess of pottage at the modern world's table.
Fatima's continued existence was annoying, more or less, for educated American Catholics, who believed they had made a good-faith effort to reconcile their religion and the twentieth century. This was their grandmothers' Catholicism, which they thought they had escaped. It was an embarrassing spirituality of scapulars and rosaries, miracles and visions--an outdated religion of pilgrimages and prayers for the conversion of Russia, of hushed speculation about the "third secret of Fatima" and angry disputation about whether or not the pope had actually dedicated Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, as Our Lady demanded of those three little children in Portugal.
Worse, there was something not just premodern, but consciously antimodern about all of it. A day in which you can pack up your Polaroid and fly to Europe in a jumbo jet to see a visitation of the Blessed Virgin--surely that's supposed to be a day in which we don't have visitations of the Blessed Virgin anymore.
AND THEN THERE WAS the anticommunism of Fatima. "Russia will spread its errors throughout the world, raising up wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred, the Holy Father will have much to suffer, and various nations will be annihilated," the Blessed Virgin warned in 1917. The world was going to suffer "by means of war, hunger, and persecution," and Russia was the "instrument of chastisement."
The Catholic Church was never in much danger of becoming actively pro-Communist. As early as 1846, Pius IX condemned "that infamous doctrine of so-called communism which is absolutely contrary to the natural law itself, and if once adopted would utterly destroy the rights, property, and possessions of all men, and even society itself." In 1878, the prolific Leo XIII named communism a "fatal plague which insinuates itself into the very marrow of human society only to bring about its ruin." And in 1937, Pius XI issued an entire encyclical, Divini Redemptoris, in an effort to educate Catholics and non-Catholics alike about the dangers of "a world organization as vast as Russian communism."
Still, by the later part of the 20th century, such talk had come to seem a little dated for enlightened people--or even dangerous, for those who believed the world was threatened most of all by the U.S. commitment to nuclear deterrence against the Soviet Union. When the bishops of South America met in Colombia in 1968 and defined a "preferential option for the poor," they did not intend a full embrace of Marxism. Indeed, they imagined they were developing an answer to the conditions that drew people to communism. But Latin American theologians and radicalized Catholic missionaries from the United States quickly seized upon the notion to announce a new "Theology of Liberation," born from the essential unity of Catholicism and Marxism--a declaration that Communists were merely Christians in a hurry and that scientific atheism was a disposable element in Karl Marx's writing.