The Cathedral of Our Lady of Fatima in Karaganda, Kazakhstan (Picasa)
news that is really significant isn’t recognized as such. Something of very
considerable importance has been happening in Kazakhstan. Yes, that’s right.
Kazakhstan. Most people in Europe or the Americas would be hard-pressed to
place it on a map. But it’s an area of grim and massive historical
significance: here were some of the most terrible concentration camps of the
Gulag Archipelago, that ghastly prison network described in such unforgettable
detail by the writer Alexander Solzenhitsyn, who suffered there, in the days of
The Union of Soviet
Socialist Republicshow dated and weird the name sounds! Based on the doctrine
of Marxist-Leninism, it survived for some six decades through a vicious system
of police spies, arbitrary arrests, prisons, torture, and the crushing of
religious or political opposition. It fell at the start of the 1990s in that
dramatic series of events which began with the election of a Polish pope in
1978of whom more in a moment.
Today, Kazakhstan is
a struggling nation state, freed from the Soviet grip and writing new chapters
of its history. It has a tiny Catholic populationperhaps 1 percent of its
peoplea substantial Muslim majority, and a good number of Orthodox Christians.
And a great cathedral
dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima has just been built and opened there, in
Karaganda, the capital of the Karagandy Province in Kazakhstan
Fatima: a small
village in Portugal that is famous for the apparitions of Our Lady which took
place there in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution that brought Communism and
the Gulag. Fatima: the name of the favorite daughter of Mohammed and a central
figure in Islam. The village in Portugal has a direct connection with the
Islam’s Fatima. Portugal was for a long time occupied by Islamic armies (the
Moors) and a local princessnamed Fatima after Mohammed’s daughterlived at
Ouyrem Castle, near the village. She converted and became a Christian, but the
village retained her original name.
Most Catholics are
familiar with the essence of the story of the Fatima apparitions. Three country
childrenuneducated, not attending school, busy most days looking after the
family’s livestock in this small rural communitysaw a vision of a beautiful
woman, in a tree, when they were out in the fields. It was May 13, 1917. She
told them many things, among which was a strange message about Russia: “Russia
will be converted.” They did not know what she was talking about: never having
studied geography or been taught about the various different nations of the
world, they assumed that “Russia” was a woman, perhaps a wicked one for whose
soul they should pray. The message that “Russia will be converted” seemed
puzzling to them but, as instructed, they reported it faithfully. The Virgin
Mary had told them that, unless people prayed and did penance, the war then
ragingthis was all during World War I, which the children did of course know
aboutwould be followed by another and worse war. The Holy Father must
“consecrate Russia to me,” Mary said.
The rest of the
Fatima story has become very well known: a great shrine was built at the site
of the visions, and pilgrims go there in great numbers. Two of the children,
Jacinta and Francisco, died in the terrible influenza epidemic that swept
Europe in the wake of the First World War, the third, Lucia, became a nun and
lived in seclusion in a contemplative convent until her death in 2005. After
World War II, with the spread of Russia’s empire across Eastern Europe, the
“message of Fatima” was central to Catholic life. These were the days of the
Cold War: Mary had said that Russia would “spread her errors across the world,
causing wars...” and this indeed was happening as the Communist doctrine
insisted on world domination. Countries that tried to break free from Russia’s
grip were invaded: Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968.
People prayed, and
went to Fatima on pilgrimagethey also speculated a lot. There was discussion
about what came to be called the “Third Secret” of Fatimaa message which
Sister Lucia had written down and which was to be read by the Pope, in 1960 or
some date after that he felt was suitable. The Pope did not reveal the message
in 1960 and speculation continued, although as world events crowded the 1970s
(Vietnam, hippies, the sexual revolution) somehow Fatima, along with the Cold
War generally, seemed a tired saga that had already run a long time.
Fast-forward to May
13, 1981. The Polish pope, John Paul II, whose election had ended the
centuries-long Italian domination of the papacy, given the world its first Slav
pope, and shattered the geo-political status
quo of Europe, was shot in St. Peter’s Square. The assassin was a trained
hit man, and his aim was sure. The Pope should have died. The bullet went
straight into his stomach. He fell, and his aides rushed to hold him: as they sped
him to hospitalthe whole square now in an uproar, the assassin hurled to the
ground by the crowds and arrested by policethey heard him praying “Mary, my
He did not die. As he
later put it: “One hand fired the bullet, another guided it.” By a fraction of
a centimeter, the bullet had missed his vital organs. Thanks to his strong
constitution, and despite being attacked by a virussome of the blood he was
given in transfusion turned out to have been infectedhe was able to broadcast
to the world from his hospital bed and to return to work within weeks. During
his time of convalescence, he pondered the significance of what had happened.
The date of the assassination attempt was May 13, the Fatima feast-day. He sent
for the letter written by Sister Lucia, the famous “secret.” He read it. The
following year, on May 13, he led a great pilgrimage to Fatima and presented to
the shrine the bullet which had so nearly killed him. Astonishingly, it fitted
perfectly into the round gap at the base of the crown on Mary’s statue: it is
there to this day.
In 1984 Pope John
Paul consecrated the world to Mary, informing the world’s bishops that they
must unite with him in this act. In 1989 Communism in Eastern Europe crumbled,
in 1990 the Berlin Wall came down, and soon the USSR was no more.
In the year 2000perhaps
to prevent millennial speculation over the “Third Secret,” about which there
had been so much talk over the yearsPope John Paul ordered its publication.
Sister Lucia had written it down in the form of a letter, on an old-fashioned
sheet of notepaper folded into four. It described an extraordinary visionwhich,
as a child growing up without ever having seen a TV or movie, she described as
being like seeing something in a mirror when you walk in front of it. A ruined
city, people suffering, many corpses, a figure in white, whom the children took
to be the Holy Father, shot and killed amid the crowd.
obviously linked to the 20th century’s martyrs, more than in all previous
centuries combined, and to the shooting of the Popebrought headlines. It all
fitted with the request for prayer and penance, with the description of Russia
spreading her errors, with the destruction of nations. It was a sort of summary
of the miseries endured by so many in the 20th century.
The interior of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Fatima in Karaganda, Kazakhstan (Picasa)
And so to Kazakhstan.
Bishop Athanasius Shneider, auxiliary in that country, has become well-known
for his criticisms of modern liturgical practices, notably Communion in the
hand, the absence of kneeling for Communion, and Mass where the priest faces
the people rather than ad orientem.
But perhaps more significant has been his energetic commitment to the cathedral
of Our Lady of Fatima.
Kazakhstan is mission
territory: ex-Soviet, heavily Muslim, with a big Orthodox presence, it combines
the need for massive evangelization with ecumenical and inter-faith challenges.
Under Soviet rule, three generations were taught an official atheist creed.
There has been massive scope for religious illiteracy, for superstition, for
confusion, for bigotry.
This cathedral has
been built for the Church of tomorrow. It will be a Church that is strong in
the East and weak in the West. It will not be the Church that we have known: of
polite ecumenical dialogue and Western affluence and decadence and falling
church attendance. It will have nasty aspects: there is a rich heritage of
martyrdom but also tangled national, racial, and political issues which
festered during the 20th century, when the Soviet system blocked open
discussion and healthy debate. Anti-Semitism is not unknown among the peoples
of the former USSR, and millions there will not have listened to Popes John
Paul and Benedict denouncing this evil. It will have to battle with these and
other issues, and in a new era with the Church having to adapt from its
centuries-old sense of having a secure base in Western Europe.
And we are going to have
to take a fresh look at Fatima. As Pope Benedict said when leading a pilgrimage
to the shrine two years ago, the message certainly isn’t something that just
belongs to the past. He meant that prayer and penance are still necessary, and
that Mary’s intercession is still central to the mission of the Church in our
day. Fatima is linked to Islam. It is linked to the future of the lands where
Russia “spread her errors.” It is hugely significant that the new cathedral, a
statement of faith in the future, has been dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima in
the land of the Gulag.
And this is
important: Popenow BlessedJohn Paul did not lie when he announced the
publication of the Third Secret. A whole minor industry has grown up around the
fevered speculation that “the Secret hasn’t really been revealed,” with dark tales of Masonic plots, and whispered conversations, and envelopes held up to
the light. There are websites and newsletters, angry rambling booklets and
passionate denunciations. One group insists that Sister Lucia died (or was
locked away for years and unable to communicate) and that the nun photographed
with Pope John Paul and with Cardinal Bertone and others was a lookalike. All
of this is nonsense.
What matters is that
Mary spoke, the Church responded, historywhich has a shape and a destiny, as
Christ will one day return in gloryunrolls, and each one of us has a tiny part
to play in it. Mary’s call was for prayer and penance: the essence of the
Christian life. As Pope Benedict emphasized when he visited Fatima, the message
isn’t something to be consigned to the past.
So: what next? Think
about Fatima as the Church meets Islamfor centuries, the two faiths have
clashed, and now they meet in Europe, in what was once the heartland of
Christianity. If the Church in Western Europe is to survive, it needs prayer
and penance on a massive scale. And think about Russia and the lands that
Russia dominated for so long: we need prayers for unity between Catholic and
Orthodox, for a new and deep spreading of the Faith to generations hungry for
Christian revival in Russia has been astonishing: churches are full, a relic
said to be part of Mary’s girdle drew millionsliterallyto venerate it, and
icons and religious images are ubiquitous. There is ignorance, confusion, and
muddle about basic doctrines, a lack of good religious education, and sometimes
strong and unhealthy associations between religious faith and racial and
national identities. There is scope for things to go wrong. But the undeniable
reality is that Christianity, for decades assumed to be something that would
fade from Russian soil, is going to be the great and dominant fact of Russian
life in the 21st century.
Did you pray for the
conversion of Russia in the days of the Cold War? Did you sense, with Blessed
John Paul, something extraordinary about the events of May 13, 1981? Did you
watch, on TV, the Berlin Wall coming down? Do you think that most people in the
USA or Europe were noticing the events of an obscure rural corner of Portugal
in 1917? Do you think that most people understand the significance of a new
cathedral in an obscure corner of what was once prison territory in a corner of
a vanished empire?
my mother…” said Blessed John Paul. At the place where he fell in St. Peter’s
Square there is now a small marble stone bearing his papal insignia, and if you
look directly up you will see, on the wall of the Apostolic Palace, the mosaic
of Mary, that he asked to have placed there with its dedication “Totus Tuus
.” She answered his plea for
help, and he lived. And we should send our prayers to her, and she will answer