Since this year marks the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima, now is an ideal time to learn or review what happened there, why Fatima is such a big deal, how it affects us, and the critical points to share with others.
And Fatima is a big deal. One reason is that—despite public opinion to the contrary—the Catholic Church actually is not quick to believe in apparitions. Quite the opposite. For instance, of the approximately 400 alleged Marian apparitions in the 20th century alone, the Church has said nothing about most of them, including those under investigation (all statistics in this paragraph are from the website Miracle Hunter and from the University of Dayton International Marian Research Institute). Around 100 of these apparitions have received a negative decision, classified by the Vatican as either “not established as supernatural” or “established as not supernatural” in origin (both Garabandal and Medjugorje are in the “not established as supernatural” category, though the latter is under Vatican investigation, so that could possibly change). Fewer than 20 alleged apparition-sites have received permission for the faithful to pray or attend Mass at the sites. Only 10 apparitions have been sanctioned by local bishops as “worthy of belief.” And of those 10 apparitions, only four have also received Vatican recognition—Fatima; Beauraing, Belgium (1932); Banneux, Belgium (1933); and Kibeho, Rwanda (1981).
Clearly the Church is wary about even weighing in on, let alone approving, apparitions; the Vatican has established stringent criteria for classifying apparitions. These include a thorough investigation to ascertain if the purported events actually occurred; an examination of the messages received during the alleged apparitions, to determine if they are free from theological error; thorough evaluations of the seer or seers, to establish that they are psychologically balanced, are sincerely seeking to live a moral life, are obedient to the Church, and are not seeking attention or profit; and a determination that the spiritual fruits arising from the private revelation are healthy, plentiful, and ongoing.
So what happened? Summary of the events at Fatima in 1917
In 1917, three shepherd children—Lucia (age 10) and her cousins, Francisco (age 9) and his sister Jacinta (7)—reported that a “lady from heaven” appeared to them six times near the town of Fatima, in Portugal. The first visit was on May 13, 1917, nine days after Pope Benedict XV’s called the Catholic faithful to appeal to Mary under a new title, “Queen of Peace,” and to beg her intercession for the end of World War I. The children said the Lady asked them to return on the 13th of the month for the next five months, promising that at the last visit, in October, she would reveal who she was and perform a miracle that all might believe that the apparitions were real.
The Lady’s public messages can be summed up as: pray the Rosary every day, especially for peace in the world; make sacrifices and do penances in reparation for sins and in supplication for the conversion of sinners; amend your lives and “stop offending God.” She also gave prophetic warnings of what would happen if her requests went unheeded.
Later, the Lady asked for the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart by the pope and his fellow bishops, and for the faithful to pray the Five First Saturdays’ devotion.
On October, 13, 1917, the children reported that the lady of the apparitions identified herself as the “Lady of the Rosary”; and countless onlookers reported seeing a stupendous miracle, known as the “Miracle of the Sun.”
The Lord is generous to our skeptical age. There is abundant evidence that these children were speaking the truth: that Mary, the Mother of God, did indeed speak to them. This evidence includes the fulfillment of prophecies she gave them, the spectacular miracle of October 13, the extraordinary lives of the children themselves, and the Church’s approval, along with extensive Vatican attention over the last 100 years.
Fulfillment of the prophecies
Our Lady of Fatima was reported to have made a number of prophecies which have come to pass. She predicted that the war, then in its fourth year, would end soon; it ended in November 1918. She promised a miracle visible to all would occur on October 13, 1917; as we will see shortly, this was fulfilled in spades. She also foretold that the two younger visionaries, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, would be taken to heaven soon; Francisco died in 1919, Jacinta in 1920. Mary also gave a number of dire warnings of what could happen if people did not reform their lives. A number of these have come to pass: Russia spreading “her errors” to other countries, the outbreak of “a worse war.” How could illiterate children in rural Portugal, who had never heard of Russia (“We thought it was a very bad woman,” Lucia later said), invent such things, three months before the Bolshevik Revolution?
Other warnings have not yet occurred or have been abrogated. For instance, the children were given a symbolic vision of a pope being shot and killed. After Pope John Paul II was shot and nearly killed on May 13, 1984, he asked to see Lucia’s account of this vision, and believed himself to be the pope shown, mercifully spared the death foreseen.
The spectacular miracle
As promised by the Lady three months before, there was indeed a miracle on October 13, 1917. Some years later, eyewitness Father Ignacio Lorenco described it this way:
I was only nine years old at the time, and I went to the local village school. … Outside, the people were shouting and weeping and pointing to the sun, ignoring the agitated questions of the schoolmistress. It was a great Miracle, which one could see quite distinctly from the top of the hill where my village was situated….
I feel incapable of describing what I saw and felt. I looked fixedly at the sun, which seemed pale and did not hurt the eyes. Looking like a ball of snow revolving on itself, it suddenly seemed to come down in a zigzag [motion], menacing the earth. Terrified, I ran and hid myself among the people, who were weeping and expecting the end of the world at any moment. Near us was an unbeliever who had spent the morning mocking at the simpletons who had gone off to Fatima “just to see an ordinary girl.” He now seemed to be paralyzed, his eyes fixed on the sun. Afterwards he trembled from head to foot and lifting up his arms fell on his knees in the mud, crying out to Our Lady.
Meanwhile the people continued to cry out and to weep, asking God to pardon their sins. We all ran to the two chapels in the village, which were soon filled to overflowing. During those long moments of the solar prodigy, objects around us turned all the colors of the rainbow. We saw ourselves blue, yellow, red, etc. All the strange phenomena increased the fears of the people. After about 10 minutes the sun, now dull and pallid, returned to its place. When the people realized that the danger was over, there was an explosion of joy, and everyone joined in thanksgiving and praise to Our Lady (quoted in Fatima for Today by Father Andrew Apostoli, CFR, page 119).
Those who were present at the site of the apparitions also noted that their clothes and the ground—all previously sopping wet from hours of rain—were, after the solar miracle, completely dry. All this was witnessed by an estimated 70,000 people.
Skeptics have tried to explain away their testimony by calling it a mass hallucination. Even if it were possible for so many to experience the same hallucination, this could not be the case here, for some 25,000 of the eyewitnesses were not at the site of apparitions, but in nearby villages; Father Lorenco, for instance, was 11 miles away. Moreover, among the thousands of witnesses were those who came to the site not out of faith, but from curiosity or in order to mock the visionaries and those who believed them. The would-be scoffers included journalists who afterward testified to the miraculous event, including a writer for the anti-Catholic newspaper O Secula, which had previously derided the children’s claims (excerpts from O Secula and other accounts can be read online, and the full O Secula article, “Amazing Things: How the Sun Acted at Midday in Fatima,” can be found in English in Documents on Fatima and the Memoirs of Sister Lucia, edited by Father Robert J. Fox.
Witness of the children
Also amazing are the three visionaries.
They were examined by clergy early on and often; their testimony remained consistent, and the seers were found psychologically healthy (see “Psychological Study of the Seers Document” in Fox). The messages were found to be in accord with Church teaching.
It is extremely unlikely that they were lying for they had nothing to gain, but much to lose, from such a fraud. All three were already well-loved by their families and peers; they had no need of attention. In fact, they agreed to tell no one about the Lady’s visits; Jacinta’s joy spilled over, however, and she told her mother. Once word got out, they never spoke about it unless asked by an authority figure, hiding whenever possible from the scores of people who wanted to talk to them.
Their claims brought them no advantages, but plenty of grief, especially for the eldest, Lucia. Many of their peers and fellow villagers disbelieved and mocked them. Even Lucia’s mother could not believe that such a grace would be given to her family; she repeatedly scolded Lucia, castigated her in front of others, calling her a liar, and even used the wooden broom handle on her. Lucia’s siblings likewise mocked and reproached her. The local government detained the children and even threatened to boil them in oil. But the children stood by their story, persevering in the face of all threats and opposition.
Though mere children, they moreover responded to these heavenly visitations with penance and prayer to an astonishing degree. For instance, they gave away their lunches daily, wore rough ropes tied tightly around their waists under their garments, and prayed numerous Rosaries each day. Francisco would spend hours in prayer, lying prostrate before the tabernacle; at Mary’s request, little Jacinta consented not only to the sufferings inherent in her final illness but also to surgery with only a local anesthetic and to dying alone in a hospital far from home—all for the sake for “poor sinners.”
Lucia lived many years beyond her young cousins. She entered the convent and agreed to all her bishop’s conditions in exchange for receiving a minimal education, including hiding her identity and home town; never speaking about the apparitions, even if others spoke of them in her hearing; receiving no visitors except the women he assigned to watch over her; being allowed to write only her mother, with all letters to and from her mother being sent to the bishop; not visiting Fatima even for a holiday without his permission (and they were few and far between).
Lucia submitted to all this, although not seeing her family—especially her mother—her home, and the site of the apparitions was difficult for her.
Lucia went on to live an exemplary life of prayer, humility, and obedience, marked by love, joy, and dedication to God’s will. She died in 2005 at the age of 97; already declared “Servant of God” by the Holy See, her cause for canonization is well underway.
Church approval and attention
Fatima has passed all the Church’s tests of authenticity for apparitions. After a thorough investigation, the bishop of Leiria-Fatima declared the apparitions of Fatima to be “worthy of belief” in 1930.
Church approval of apparitions being in the jurisdiction of the local bishop, the Holy See usually does not get involved; a small percentage of apparitions, however, also receive Vatican attention. Forms of Vatican recognition include an official statement, papal visit, gift of a golden rose, approval for a basilica, establishment of a feast day, or the canonization of the seer(s). Not only has Fatima has received all these forms of recognition, but every pope of the last 50 years has visited Fatima, and three popes have presented golden roses—most recently, Pope Francis on May 13, 2017, when he canonized Francisco and Jacinta in Fatima. The Vatican has also provided multiple forms of written confirmation, especially the Message of Fatima, which presents the Holy See’s documents from Lucia and the commentary of Cardinal Ratzinger, then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The evidence, together with the Church’s approval and continued attention, all highlight the importance of the messages of Our Lady at Fatima, not only for the three children or early-20th-century Portugal, but for the Church at large and down to our own day.
We might be tempted to think that Mary’s warnings and prophecies don’t apply to us. But as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out, “The tragedies foretold in Fatima did not come to an end with the demise of Communism. The crisis has not been resolved. From a certain point of view it is still as serious as it ever was, as it is primarily a crisis of faith, hence a moral and social crisis” (quoted in Fatima Mysteries by Grzegorz Górny and Janusz Rosikón). In Fatima for Today, Fatima expert Father Andrew Apostoli writes, “Our Lady had warned that these wars and persecutions would result if people did not change their sinful ways. Her warning is still relevant for us now because sin continues to cause social upheaval and violence. The struggle against evil in the world is still going on.” Such reflections are not meant to discourage, but to motivate us. Recalling Our Lady of Fatima’s promise that, “In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph,” Father Apostoli continues, “Mary’s promise…is like a beacon of hope in the midst of the spiritual and moral darkness of our age. … We must remember, however, that for the triumph to be realized, we have to do our part.”
Mary’s appearances and messages at Fatima testify to how much the Lord loves us, desires a better relationship with us, and wants us to spend eternity with him. The events at Fatima also remind us that God likes to work through the Church, his people, and—in an age where Mary is doubted, feared, forgotten, or laughed at—especially how he delights to work through her. But we have a critical part to play as well. Like the child visionaries, we too can live for love of God, look for opportunities to do penance, and pray.
What is often unknown or overlooked about Fatima is that the Blessed Mother, as promised in an earlier visit, returned to Lucia in 1925 to request the faithful to pray the Five First Saturdays devotion to bring about peace, conversion of those far from God, and the Triumph of her Immaculate Heart. This devotion consists of going to confession, attending Mass and receiving Communion, praying five decades of the Rosary, and spending 15 minutes pondering the mysteries of the Rosary with Mary, all on the first Saturday of the month (or, with confession, at the first opportunity if confessing only venial sins) for five consecutive months.
If we do these things, our lives will change. We must look for opportunities to collaborate with the Holy Spirit and gently spread the word about Jesus’ merciful love and his plan for peace, witnessed by the amazing things he did at Fatima.