Kevin J. Symonds (kevinsymonds.com) is the author of the recently published On the Third Part of the Secret of Fatima (En Route Books and Media, 2017), which offers a scholarly challenge to those who claim the existence of a yet-unrevealed text of the third part of the secret of Fatima, given to Sr. Lucia de Jesus dos Santos by the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1917. In response to the publication of his book, Symonds was invited by Angelus Press to debate Fatima controversialist Christopher Ferrara at the traditionalist publisher’s annual conference in October.
In the following interview with CWR’s Matthew Cullinan Hoffman, Symonds discusses his research on key issues of controversy in the debate over the text of the Third Secret, and his recent debate with Ferrara. He also reveals the existence of a heretofore unknown letter from Sr. Lucia to Pope Paul VI regarding a “diabolical revolt” against the Church that seems to refer to themes from both the second and third parts of the secret.
Matthew Cullinan Hoffman, for CWR: The appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Fatima in 1917 are probably the most written-about apparitions in the modern history of the Catholic Church. They are also the subject of much controversy in some circles. In your view, what is the state of Fatima scholarship today and what led you to make your own contribution to the subject?
Kevin J. Symonds: I have the distinct impression that the bulk of the scholarship on Fatima is performed in Europe. Not all of it is available in English, which is most unfortunate for the Anglophone world, as we are bereft of some excellent scholarship. That said, there is the critical documentation published by the Sanctuary of Fatima, which is available in Portuguese up to 1930 and extends to 15 or so volumes. There is hope of adding to this collection the post-1930 documents. Additionally, Dr. Cristina Sobral has presented the official critical edition of Sr. Lucia’s Memoirs. The Sanctuary of Fatima is also taking some steps to make solid scholarship available in English.
My own contribution on Fatima came out of a desire to engage an influential body of literature that has largely emanated from France and North America. In the latter, there is the work of Father Nicholas Gruner and his Fatima Center, while in France there is the work of the Abbé Georges de Nantes and his Contre-Reforme Catholique. These two groups do not always agree with each other, but there was some collaboration between them in the 1980s into the 1990s. Later, in 2006, the Italian journalist Antonio Socci joined the discussions. There has not been much (if any) critical work addressing the body of literature published by Gruner and the Abbé, though there has been some response to Antonio Socci. My book is an attempt at providing a critical assessment of some contentious points that are generally common to all three.
CWR: Your book contains various quotes and even full-length translations of some vital primary source material. How did you go about investigating this subject and how were you able to obtain access to these primary sources?
Symonds: The literature from Father Gruner and the Abbé de Nantes struck me as being an enclosed circle that was given credibility by the journalistic clout of Antonio Socci. Prior to Socci’s involvement, the main audience for Gruner and the Abbé were various “traditionalist” Catholics with some conspiratorial understandings of the third part of the secret. Socci expanded that audience to include a much larger swath of people. I decided to examine matters for myself. I travelled to various academic libraries to do research on the topic during the summer of 2016 and chronicled my travels on my website. I have a modest background with Romance languages which helped me in my research of the primary sources. Later, as a member of the Mariological Society of America, I requested permission (which was granted) to research in the archives of the Sanctuary of Fatima. The information I obtained from these sources, as well as from Fatima scholars and officials, formed a picture that offered an alternative view to that of Gruner and the Abbé.
CWR: Fatima controversialists have long denied that the Third Secret was truly revealed to the public by the Holy See in 2000. Although some among them have simply dismissed the text presented to the public at that time as inauthentic, others have claimed it is incomplete and that some other explanatory text must exist. You argue that primary source material does not support their claims. How has your investigation of primary sources on Fatima led you to this conclusion?
Symonds: These groups strike me as having a deep concern for the Church. Unfortunately, their concern led them to develop what I call in my book the “hermeneutic of suspicion and conspiracy,” meaning that they view ecclesiastical authority with suspicion and mistrust in matters pertaining to Fatima. Using that suspicion and mistrust, they have organized a like-minded narrative from mostly circumstantial evidence. What is circumstantial, however, might have an alternative explanation. To find out, I checked their sources, approaching matters using the older documentation as well as the latest information in the widening reservoir of resources on Fátima. My research showed that some arguments proposed by Gruner and others had merit while others are not viable.
For example, shortly after the publication of the integral text of the third part of the secret in June 2000, there was a general impression among some Catholics that there was more to the third part. This hunch then led to claims from Gruner and his associates that there was a second text with explanatory words of Our Lady that the Holy See was withholding. Here, one must separate truth from fiction, and we were recently given important information that addresses this matter.
In 2013, the Carmelites of the convent of St. Teresa in Coimbra, Portugal, where Sr. Lucia lived for 57 years, published a biography on her entitled Um caminho sob o olhar de Maria (A Pathway Under the Gaze of Mary). They revealed a previously unknown command of Our Lady to Sr. Lucia from January 3, 1944—that she was to “write what [her superiors] command you, but not that which is given to you to understand of its meaning.” Apparently, there was some prophetic insight into the third part that had been given to Sr. Lucia by 1944 but which she was not allowed to communicate to others. This fact could account for why the text seemed “incomplete” to some people.
We must accept the logical consequences of this command, the most obvious one being the impossibility of Sr. Lucia giving an accompanying explanation to the third part of the secret when she wrote it down in 1944—a notion that had been proposed by Gruner and his Fatima Center. Other primary source documents available in 2000 told us how reluctant Sr. Lúcia was to speak of her mystical experiences. There was also the simple fact that prior to 2013, we possessed no document from her describing the apparition from January 1944. We knew the fact of the apparition, but not its details, thus caution was necessary before presuming anything. Again, what is circumstantial might have an alternative explanation.
Instead of engaging critically with these facts, Father Gruner and his associates (not the Abbé de Nantes) argued that the Holy See was covering up a second text of the third part of the secret. Such arguments made for sensational propaganda of scandal and Vatican intrigue, real cloak-and-dagger stuff, that played upon the sympathies of Catholics concerned for the state of the Church. My book challenges this narrative.
CWR: You recently debated one of the principal Fatima controversialists, Christopher Ferrara, at Angelus Press’ annual conference. Was that the first time you spoke with him?
Symonds: No, it is not. Chris and I publicly disputed during the summer of 2015 over a mistranslation in the Carmelites’ biography [of Sr. Lucia]. I have elsewhere written about this matter in more detail. Having now met Chris in person, I know that he cares much for the Church, though we do not see eye-to-eye on Fatima. I keep open the doors of communication and respect his pro-life work in the legal system.
CWR: What are his principal criticisms of your position and how do you respond to them?
Symonds: Our principal disagreement concerns our hermeneutical approaches to Fatima. Chris prefers the hermeneutic of suspicion and conspiracy with the rhetoric of a lawyer. A theological lens would serve him better. He might think me too credulous when it comes to Vatican officials, whereas I would say he has been in an adversarial posture with the Holy See on Fatima for so long that he has lost objectivity. The contrast in our respective positions was apparent during the debate. For example, Chris stated that I was “running away” from a phrase in Sr. Lucia’s fourth Memoir: “In Portugal, the dogma of the faith shall always be preserved, etc.” This phrase is used by some as proof of a second text. The word “etc.” is thought to indicate words that we never received.
Chris neglected, however, to state that Chapter 9 of my book contains a critical examination of this phrase and whether it is the ending of the second part of the secret or the beginning of the third. My book might be the only one in English with such an examination. After presenting the evidence for both sides, I left the matter open-ended for readers to decide for themselves. I personally do not believe it is the beginning of the third part and I promote the view that the secret in all its parts is an organic whole and needs to be read in that context. Central to Chris’ argument is the belief that the phrase is the beginning of the third part. I was reluctant to engage Chris’ polemics during the debate. I opted for a simple “just the facts” approach. Several people came up to me afterwards to express their gratitude for my approach!
Another matter that arose during the debate concerned a letter Sr. Lucia wrote to Pope John Paul II in May 1982. A part of this letter was published with the third part of the secret in June, 2000. The 1982 letter offered some general guidelines for the Holy Father to interpret the third part, and it disproves the notion of a second text. Sr. Lucia expressly stated in her letter that the Holy Father was “anxious to know” the third part of the secret. Well, if there was a second, explanatory text of Our Lady that the Pope already read between 1978 and 1981, why would he be “anxious to know” the third part of the secret?
When I posed this question during the debate, Chris questioned the letter’s authenticity. I responded that the Carmelites of Coimbra have authenticated the letter and provided some details about it in their biography. Chris simply reasserted his position, yet, in doing so, there was an indirect implication made against the integrity of the Carmelite nuns of Coimbra. I have been to the Carmel of Coimbra and do not find its integrity to be questionable.
CWR: In 2010, Pope Benedict delivered a discourse during his airplane trip to Fatima, in which he spoke of “new things we can find” in the third secret regarding attacks on the Church, noting that “attacks on the Pope and the Church come not only from without, but the sufferings of the Church come precisely from within the Church, from the sin existing within the Church. This too is something that we have always known, but today we are seeing it in a really terrifying way: that the greatest persecution of the Church comes not from her enemies without, but arises from sin within the Church.” Have you found anything relevant to this in your own research on Sr. Lucia and Fatima?
Symonds: I examined Pope Benedict XVI’s discourse, and my findings are in Chapter 11 of my book. The Holy Father’s remarks were interpreted by the Fatima Center as him saying that the third part of the secret is still playing out before us, contradicting what he said in the year 2000. Pope Benedict did no such thing. He maintained that the events prophesied in the third part were fulfilled in the 20th century. His position in 2010 was built upon a theological distinction he made between 2000 and 2010 that had been overlooked at the time of his apostolic voyage. There are always going to be attacks upon the Church, Pope Benedict argued, and we can look to the third part of the secret for inspiration and hope in the triumph of God over such things.
CWR: What paths of scholarly research remain open at this point regarding Fatima? What, if anything, can new scholarship contribute to the Catholic Church’s understanding of the Fatima apparitions?
Symonds: I am convinced that we are entering into a new phase of Fatima’s history, one marked by a deeper study of the life and person of Sr. Lucia. Given that she was the primary interlocutor with Our Lady at Fatima, what Sr. Lucia says about the message is important. The Church’s norms for discerning private revelation include examining the “personal qualities” of the seer(s), thus we need to understand her better. Take, for example, Sr. Lucia’s reluctance to speak about her supernatural experiences. How much did this fact affect her writings about the message of Fatima? Scholars need to discuss this question.
Sr. Lucia was commanded in 1944 by Our Lady not to reveal the meaning of the 1917 vision. Compelling evidence suggests, however, that in various writings, Sr. Lucia used words that were from her supernatural experiences without expressly stating these things were from Our Lady. The Italian journalist Marco Tosatti attributed a quote to Pope John Paul II’s personal secretary, Cardinal Dziwisz, that helps us to understand better this point. Dziwisz said that we have “to understand what Our Lady had said and what was said by Sr. Lucy.” We must also be clear on what is our own interpretation of the facts. Making these distinctions is quite difficult and requires a lot of responsibility. I suspect that is the reason why the Holy See chose to publish the excerpt from Sr. Lucia’s May 1982 letter to Pope John Paul II. It was probably the most direct statement from her in the Holy See’s possession!
CWR: Have you discovered any examples of such indirect referencing in your own research?
Symonds: Yes, there is at least one that is already public knowledge, namely Sr. Lucia’s January 9, 1944 letter to Bishop José da Silva. I would like to submit that there might be another one. In June, I visited the Sr. Lucia museum in Coimbra, which is overseen by the Carmelites of Coimbra, Sr. Lucia’s convent. On display was the first page of an unpublished and undated letter of Sr. Lucia to Pope Paul VI. She wrote him a beautiful, encouraging letter that was similar to one that St. Pio [of Pietrelcina] wrote to the Holy Father in September 1968.
In her letter, Sr. Lucia spoke about a “diabolical revolt” that was being “promoted by the powers of darkness” with “errors” being made against God, his Church, her doctrines and dogmas. She said the Church was going through an “agony in Gethsemane” and that there was a “worldwide disorientation that is martyring the Church.” She wrote to encourage Paul VI as the Vicar of Christ on earth and to tell him of her and others’ steadfastness to him, to Christ and his Church, in the midst of the revolt. Perhaps I am biased, having studied the third part of the secret, but I was struck by how similar Sr. Lucia’s discourse appeared to the second and third parts.
CWR: What similarities do you see between this letter and the texts of the second and third secrets of Fatima?
Symonds: Sr. Lucia’s discussion on the Church’s “agony in Gethsemane” and its martyrdom by a “worldwide disorientation” seemed similar to the third part of the secret, which portrays a global martyrdom of the Church while making its way to a cross. What causes this martyrdom? In the second part of the secret, Our Lady warned about the spread of Russia’s “errors.” Those errors caused exactly what Our Lady predicted: wars, persecutions of the Church, and suffering for the Holy Father that were brought on by Communism and its enforcing atheism through revolution. In June 1958, Sr. Lucia wrote to Pope Pius XII and told him that Communism would reach its zenith in the 1960s. The errors of Communism did infect the world, leading people to revolt against God and all that is holy. Therefore, those who are faithful to Jesus Christ in the midst of the revolt undergo a martyrdom.
CWR: Do you have a complete copy of this letter and will you reveal the whole text to the public?
Symonds: No, I do not possess a complete copy. The museum only had the first page on display and does not allow photography. I did, however, take notes. I could read Sr. Lucia’s handwriting as I’ve seen it in some reproductions published by Father António María Martins in 1973. Out of about 350 words there were a very few that were illegible to me. I took the information back to Fatima and processed it with a Portuguese-speaking friend. Later, the Sisters gave me permission to discuss what I saw in the museum.
To be clear, let me add that it would be irresponsible for me or anyone else to state with certitude to the public that Sr. Lucia made use of the third part in this letter. In fact, one of the points I criticize in my book is people positing their own ideas as Sr. Lucia’s. We have to be clear, as I said earlier, on what is from Our Lady, what is from Sr. Lucia, and what is our own interpretation. Moreover, the Holy See has observed that the events in the third part of the secret condense many events into a single description. Thus, to say that Sr. Lucia’s letter is the only interpretation would be unwise, and I plan on publishing an essay that discusses this fact in more detail. In the end, theologians and scholars, not polemicists and sensationalists, must take Our Lady’s call at Fatima and interpret it in the light of our great tradition. This requires humility and openness to God’s grace, whereas sensationalism stokes the very distrust of the Church that runs absolutely contrary to the message of Fatima.
CWR: When do you think scholars will have the opportunity to study Sr. Lucia more in depth?
Symonds: Her cause for canonization is now in Rome. The process requires an environment free from polemics. Once this occurs, and experts have a better sense of matters, more information will become available, but it will take time. There are about 11,000 documents just in Sr. Lucia’s letters alone. I have met the vice-postulator for her cause, Sr. Angela Coelho. She is a good woman. We must practice, as Sr. Lucia used to say, “Patience!”