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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As the beautiful lady predicted, two of the children died young--Francisco in 1919, a few months before his eleventh birthday, and Jacinta in 1920, at age 10--both carried away in the influenza epidemic that followed World War I. The Catholic Church waited until 1930 before cautiously approving prayer at Fatima as "not necessarily contrary to the faith." The cult of Our Lady of Fatima survived through the twentieth century, but seemed to be a declining devotion, particularly among educated Americans. Sermons and catechism classes as late as the 1950s were filled with references to the visions of Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta. Yet a child who passed through Catholic education in the second half of the century would emerge with little more than a vague memory of having once or twice heard the word Fatima.

BUT THEN, on May 13, 1991, Pope John Paul II made a visit to Portugal and drew again to the cove the huge crowds he always attracted. And while there, he did something curious and, at the time, inexplicable: He took the bullet with which he had been shot 10 years before and placed it in the crown of the statue of Mary at the site of the original apparitions.

It wasn't till 2000, when Francisco and Jacinta were finally beatified, that the Vatican offered an explanation--and, along the way, revealed Sister Lucia's text of the third secret of Fatima, locked in the Vatican archives since 1957. The hidden part of the vision of July 13 predicted the persecution of the Church and the shooting of a pope. John Paul II had come to the conclusion that the prophecy was fulfilled by the murder attempt of May 13, 1981, when the Turkish assassin Mehmet Ali Agca shot him in St. Peter's Square.

Indeed, for the pope, it all comes together: the repeated thirteens in the dates, the vision of a gun aimed at a pope, even the anticommunism. His latest book, Memory and Identity--a collection of philosophical conversations published last week in Italian and due out in English at the end of April--insists upon the centrality of Fatima. The assassination attempt was "not [Agca's] initiative, someone else masterminded it, and someone else commissioned it," he declares, blaming the Soviet bloc for the shooting. It was a "last convulsion" of communism, trying vainly to hold back the tide that had turned against it. And the cause for that turn against the Soviet system? In part, at least--in large part, perhaps--the prayers and the attitudes inspired by the visions of Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta at Fatima.

In many ways, John Paul II seems simultaneously far behind and far ahead of the rest of the world--as though he had rediscovered the past not by retreating but by advancing, coming out at the far end of modern times, smiling and secure. He was the one who saw nothing antimodern, or even unmodern, in going to pray at the sites of ancient faith--and nothing contradictory in using a jet to do it. He was the one who thought it perfectly possible that the Blessed Virgin Mary might appear in the modern age: in 1917 to a group of children in Portugal, or today, for that matter, to someone else.

And most of all, John Paul II was the one who saw that the anti-Communist visions of Fatima weren't some withdrawal into a reactionary past, but an accurate prediction of the direction modern times should take--a path by which a very old form of Catholic spirituality had taught the common people to resist the Marxism their educated coreligionists had come to assume was the inevitable shape of the future. When the 97-year-old Lucia dos Santos slipped away on February 13--again, that thirteenth day--she received innumerable tributes from around the world. But she was little praised for the thing she may have done best: bringing an end to the Soviet Union.

This is Joseph Bottum's last issue as Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard. On March 1, he becomes editor of the journal First Things in New York.