The story is well-known to many, but it never fails to amaze. The Queen of Heaven comes down to earth making an appearance out in a remote pasture to give grand instructions to a threesome of basically uneducated children from simple farm families. The same children are entrusted with great missions and are told that they can help stop a war, as well as to prevent sinners from going to hell.
We might ask why anyone should believe what is said to have happened at Fatima, Portugal in 1916 and 1917. After all, we learned these things from three young peasant children. First of all, it’s important to note that the happenings of Fatima have been scrutinized and examined completely by the Catholic Church and have been found to be authentic and completely true.
Yet, even though they are entirely approved by the Church, they are still considered to be private revelations. What does this mean? Because the messages of Fatima are private revelations, they are distinguished from public revelation which is contained in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. My former spiritual director and Servant of God Fr. John Hardon, S.J. explained the difference between public revelation and authentic private revelation. He said public revelation means “truths revealed [that] are necessary for the salvation and sanctification of the human race. All other authentic revelations, although supernatural, are called private because they contain nothing which is not already contained in the Bible and revealed Tradition.”
Fr. Hardon went on to say that there is a purpose for private revelation even though we are not required by faith to believe it. Revelations revealed by some of the great mystics of the Church and apparitions like that of Fatima have a purpose “to recall what had already been revealed up to apostolic times and to reaffirm what needs to be believed and put into practice in times like ours.”
“Surely,” he added, “ours is a period of trial, and some would say it is the most critical age in the history of Christianity.”
Like the children who received visits from the Angel of Peace in 1916 and from the Blessed Mother in 1917, we are given an opportunity to learn and to believe. The Church guides us through its own scrutiny and acceptance of the revelation of the children, but it is up to us to take the words of Our Lady of Fatima into our hearts.
May 13, 1917: One “ordinary” day
One hundred years ago, Fatima, Portugal was dappled with rolling fields and farmers and shepherds who lived simple ordinary lives. But something extraordinary would happen. The Queen of Heaven woke up the sleepy village of Fatima and the world when she appeared to three young peasant children. Our Lord often uses the simple, the humble and weak—many times children, or those with a childlike heart to carry important messages to the world.
We are told that “Fatima is undoubtedly the most prophetic of modern apparitions” by the Congregation For the Doctrine of the Faith (The Message of Fatima). The miraculous events happened at a time when effects of World War I were causing some of the Portuguese people to feel rather defeated because of the terrible war. Others had lost their faith. Still, there were those who were praying fervently for the war to end. Pope Benedict XV called for a novena to be said to Our Lady, the Queen of Peace. May 13, 1917 was the eighth day of the novena.
It appeared to be an ordinary day. But it would turn out to be a momentous occasion—noted in history, when the Mother of God would depart from her throne in Heaven to come down to earth. Her purpose was to make a visit in the Cova da Iria to three unsuspecting and uneducated shepherd children: Lucia dos Santos and her two younger cousins, brother and sister, Francisco and Jacinta Marto.
Suddenly, what seemed like a bolt of lightening dazzled the clear azure sky. Always careful out in the open fields when storms approached, the startled little shepherds jumped into action to round up their flocks so that they could head for home safely. But, before they could get to their sheep, another brilliant flash summoned their attention.
The three children stopped immediately. Their eyes opened wide at what they saw next. A beautiful Lady dressed in white was positioned above a holmoak tree. Later on, Lucia would describe the scene in her memoirs. She said, “She seemed more brilliant than the sun, and radiated light more clear and intense than a crystal glass filled with sparkling water, when the rays of the burning sun shine through it.”
The innocent visionaries were entrusted with two great heavenly responsibilities from the Blessed Mother on that day. They were to begin offering sufferings and sacrifices for the benefit of sinners. As well, they were to pray the Rosary daily to obtain peace in the world and even to end World War I. Could children really help to end a war? With heaven’s powerful Rosary, peace could be obtained according to Our Lady of Fatima.
The need to atone for sin
The young visionaries would continue to receive instructions with every visit from the Blessed Mother on the 13th of each of the following five months, culminating with the great miracle of the sun on October 13, 1917. After the untimely, yet predicted deaths of Francisco and Jacinta, Lucia would continue to carry out the Blessed Mother’s instructions until her death at the age of 97.
Through her apparitions, the Blessed Mother asserted that the sins of the world continue to grieve our Lord, and that we are to pray for the souls of sinners. After being shown a vision of hell, Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta immediately came to a crystal clear understanding of the reality of hell as the messages of the Blessed Mother penetrated their hearts with an untold passion which carried through their acts of reparation and penance for sinners. The Blessed Mother impressed upon their tender hearts that she was counting on them and on us. She said, “Pray much and make sacrifices for sinners, for many souls go to hell because there is no one to make sacrifices for them.” She also taught the children a sacrifice prayer. She explained, “Sacrifice yourselves for sinners and say often whenever you make a sacrifice: ‘O Jesus, it is for love of You, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for the offenses committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary’ ”
We must do the same and with generous hearts make reparation for sinners, for as Fr. Hardon says. “There is no real understanding of the essential message of Fatima unless we realize how deeply the modern world is steeped in sin.” Our Lady of Fatima calls the faithful to a concerted effort in prayer and penance for sinners.
St. John Paul II underscored the need to offer prayers and penance for the conversion of sinners. He said at Fatima in 1982:
Today, the successor of Peter…presents himself before the Mother of God at Fatima. In what way does he come? He presents himself reading again with trepidation the motherly call to penance, to conversion, to the ardent appeal of the Heart of Mary that resounded at Fatima, sixty-five years ago. Yes, he reads it again with trepidation in his heart because he sees how many people and societies—how many Christians—have gone in the opposite direction to the one indicated in the message of Fatima. Sin has made itself firmly at home in this world, and denial of God has become widespread in the ideologies, ideas and plans of human beings.
The Angel of Peace instructed Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta to use every opportunity to make reparation. Specifically he told them: “Make of everything you can a sacrifice, and offer it to God, as an act of reparation for the sins by which He is offended, and in supplication for the conversion of sinners. You will draw down peace upon your country… Above all, accept and bear with submission, the suffering which the Lord will send you.” Following the Angel’s instructions and the example of the children, we should do the same. Instead of wasting opportunities to offer valuable sufferings, sicknesses, and inconveniences, we can offer it all up to God for the conversion of sinners as the three young visionaries have done.
Our Lady of Fatima has offered a peace plan through the daily recitation of the Rosary, the practice of the five First Saturday devotion, as well as the consecration of the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary which was carried out by St. John Paul II in 1984. But have we done our part? Fatima expert, Fr. Andrew Apostoli, C.F.R. explained in Fatima for Today: The Urgent Marian Message of Hope the need to step up to the plate to do our part when he wrote:
Many people have unfortunately put such stress on the consecration of Russia by the Holy Father as the condition for the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and peace in the world, that they have forgotten or neglected the fact that our Lady also asked for the Five First Saturdays devotion…Pope John Paul II has done his part in making the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart, but are we, as Mary’s children, doing our part by devotion to first Saturdays?
100 years of pilgrims
As the past 100 years have unfolded, we see how Fatima, Portugal has made quite an impression on countless people from all walks of life, many of them making sacrifices in order to travel to Fatima for a myriad of reasons. One reason seems to always be the same—they are seeking something, an answer, a cure, a dose of hope, a time to honor Mary, some direction, an understanding of their path in life, a deeper growth in holiness, peace of heart, and more. The Fatima experience is transformative, whether it was experienced in 1917 or any time throughout the one hundred years since then.
Many arrive with swollen feet from the long arduous journey of hiking to get there. Still others, after arriving, bloody their knees making their way slowly-moving one knee after the other upon the hard ground of the penitential path which begins at the entrance to the Cova. They then travel towards the sacred place where the Queen of Heaven appeared to the shepherd children. The pilgrims are willing to sacrifice their comfort to open their hearts to the Blessed Mother’s message and peace plan for the world.
In an interview for my book Our Lady of Fatima: 100 Years of Stories, Prayers, and Devotions, Fr. Apostoli explained his thoughts about why pilgrims continue to flock to Fatima. He said Fatima is “a place made holy—people feel a sense of her presence—there is a reverence there that was made special by her coming,” he said. “And, of course,” he added, “with a message so important to the world. I think it’s increasingly more evident how important it is.” Fr. Apostoli drove his point home. “As Pope John Paul II said when he made the Consecration in 1984, he said, ‘Fatima is more important now than it was in 1917.” Fr. Apostoli added his own insights, “It’s even more important now,” he said, “than when [John Paul II] said that in 1984.”
The Blessed Mother calls to all of us
The message of Fatima is a call from the Mother of God for a renewed fidelity to penance and prayer and continual conversion of heart. She tells us to live the Gospel—to always, “do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). The Fatima message exemplifies Our Lord’s desire that his Mother be better known, loved, and venerated through the devotion to her Immaculate Heart.
St. John Paul II said “While the message of Our Lady of Fatima is a motherly one, it is also strong and decisive. It sounds severe. It sounds like John the Baptist speaking on the banks of the Jordan. It invites to repentance. It gives a warning. It calls to prayer. It recommends the rosary.”
Three simple shepherd children were open to God working in their lives. They could have run away from Mary’s motherly, yet strong and decisive message, but they chose to listen and believe. They continued to walk in faith. Their great faith can put most adults to shame. Yet, we can learn so much from their courageous decision to persevere and carry out all of the responsibilities placed upon their little shoulders.
Something rather profound strikes me when gazing upon images of the three shepherd children pictured with the Blessed Mother. For example, the colorful cover of my brand new children’s chapter book, Our Lady’s Message to Three Shepherd Children and the World (Sophia Institute Press, 2017). We see something that appears miraculous, and it truly was, but it also seems very idyllic—as if everything was effortless for the children. But, let us not be deceived by appearances. We must not assume that because the children were chosen by heaven, that they had an easy time of it and that is why they could carry out their missions. That could not be further from the truth. They were called to suffer and to offer that suffering for Heaven’s purposes. We are called to do the same in our own walks of life.
I recall distinctly Mother Teresa’s succinct words, “Holiness is not the luxury of a few, but a simple duty for us all.” We are all called to be saints. It’s important to remember that little Francisco and Jacinta Marto are not being raised to the honors of the altar in canonization by Pope Francis because they were blessed with visits from an Angel and the Blessed Mother. No, that is not why. It is because of their lives of heroic virtue, even being willing to go to their deaths in boiling oil as was threatened to happen to them when they wouldn’t divulge the secrets told to them by Our Lady.
Our Lady of Fatima is counting on us to do our part. We don’t have to pilgrimage to Fatima, Portugal to experience Our Lady of Fatima’s graces and messages. We can do so in our own homes, neighborhoods, and parishes, and we can do our best to, as Pope Benedict XVI has instructed: “LEARN the message of Fatima, LIVE the message of Fatima, and SPREAD the message of Fatima!”
Just as the children walked in faith, we are also required to put one foot in front of the other to walk in faith. God will, without doubt grant us every grace that we need to not only get to heaven one day, but to bring countless souls with us because of leading exemplary lives of heroic faith, hope, and love.