The Magazine

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
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With the collapse of the Soviet bloc after 1989, liberation theology finally lost the fight to capture Catholic theological and intellectual circles. But there were moments in the 1970s when the liberationists looked ready to triumph, and against them stood what? A church hierarchy gradually weakening its official opposition to communism, a handful of Catholic cold warriors in the United States, a young anti-Communist archbishop in Poland who would become Pope John Paul II in 1978--and the embarrassingly dated visions of a little Portuguese nun named Sister Lucia.

WHEN THE 93-YEAR-OLD Sister Lucia met with a messenger from the pope in 2000, she repeated, one last time, her conviction that the visions of Fatima concerned "above all the struggle of atheistic communism against the Church and against Christians." Those visions began in the spring of 1916, according to the children's report, when Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta were visited three times by an angel, who told them he was the guardian angel of Portugal and urged them to pray and prepare themselves.

The next spring, eight months after the angel's final visit, the Virgin Mary herself began to speak to them. Lucia had just had her tenth birthday, Francisco would turn 9 in June, and Jacinta was 7, when, on May 13, 1917, they took their sheep to a small hollow known as a Cova da Iria, the "Cove of Irene." And there, around noon, a beautiful lady appeared near an oak tree, telling them to say the Rosary every day, "to bring peace to the world and an end to the war," and promising to visit them again "on the thirteenth of each month" for the next five months.

The children agreed they wouldn't tell anyone about the lady, but Jacinta couldn't keep the news to herself, and she told her parents what had happened in the cove. By all accounts, her father tended to believe her, while her mother thought she was imagining things. But they told their neighbors about the girl's story, and those neighbors told their neighbors, and those neighbors told theirs, and within a few months all of Portugal was in an uproar.

Perhaps 70 people came to the cove on June 13 to watch the children receive the second visit, in which Lucia was told that Francisco and Jacinta would not live long. Several hundred attended the third visit in July, when the children received what came to be known as the "great vision," in which the beautiful lady predicted another great war, the spread of Russia's errors, and, yes, something else--the third secret the children were ordered not to tell, the prediction sealed in the Vatican's vaults, the great mystery that dominated discussions of Fatima for the next 70 years.

Portugal at the time was a republic led by a strongly anticlerical party, and the government in Lisbon apparently feared a nascent peasant revolt was brewing in the religious revival emerging from Fatima. On the morning of August 13, the local civil administrator arrested the children and hauled them away to the district headquarters in Vila Nova de Ourem--where, by several accounts, he locked them in cells with "criminals" and threatened them with "boiling in oil."

It didn't have the effect for which the government had hoped. The children refused to recant, the crowds grew larger, and, under enormous public pressure, the frightened administrator returned the children, unceremoniously pushing them out of his car in front of the rectory in Fatima two days later, and driving away as fast as he could before the townspeople caught him. The delayed apparition came on Sunday, August 19, when the children were alone.

At the September apparition, Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta were surrounded by 30,000 people, an enormous crowd for rural Portugal in 1917. And when the news spread that Mary had promised a visible sign, the witnesses swelled to 70,000 on October 13 to watch "the miracle of the sun." Amidst all the enthusiasm and mass hysteria, the ecstatic stories of the sun breaking through the clouds and dancing across the sky, there are some surprisingly sober accounts--mostly by reporters from anticlerical newspapers and skeptical academics who had come to watch the crowd. "The sun's disc did not remain immobile. This was not the sparkling of a heavenly body, for it spun round on itself in a mad whirl," wrote a professor from the University of Coimbra. "Then, suddenly, one heard a clamor, a cry of anguish breaking from all the people. The sun, whirling wildly, seemed to loosen itself from the firmament and advance threateningly upon the earth as if to crush us with its huge and fiery weight. The sensation during those moments was terrible."