One of the oddities around today is the network of conspiracy theorists who are absolutely convinced that both St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI are unrepentant liars.
The theory involves some six decades and five popes…plus a variety of characters, including an ex-Jesuit who became a best-selling novelist and some self-proclaimed handwriting experts, as well as a Vatican cupboard, two envelopes, and optional figures including a lookalike who was substituted for a Fatima visionary.
Yes, it’s the Fatimist conspiracy. It’s fading, but rises up again from time to time, always drifting around the fraying edges of the odder Catholic byways of the Internet.
Let’s recap. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul announced the publication, in full, of what had become known as the “Third Secret”: the final part of an extraordinary revelation to three children who, at Fatima in Portugal in 1917, had experienced a series of visions which after deep investigations the Church declared to be of supernatural origin. Two of the children died in the influenza epidemic that followed the First World War; the third, Lucia, became a nun and lived faithfully in religious life until a very old age. It was she who wrote out the “Secret,” on an old-fashioned four-folded sheet of notepaper, at the request of her bishop, in 1944. It was read in turn by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI but each decided not to publish it. Pope John Paul read it in 1981, after he survived an assassination attempt which took place on the anniversary of the Fatima apparitions.
Unsurprisingly, the final publication in 2000 caused headlines. The “Secret” turned out to be an impressive vision in which, among much else, a bishop dressed in white was seen struggling through a ruined city, shot at with arrows and falling to the ground. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was given the task of analyzing the vision and giving a detailed theological commentary. There was much to ponder: clearly this was all connected with the horrors that the Church and the world had experienced in the 20th century—not least with the shooting of John Paul in 1981—and the essence of the whole vision was that sorrow and danger and martyrdom reinforce the call to prayer and repentance, and a trust in God. As Cardinal Ratzinger put it:
The fiat of Mary, the word of her heart, has changed the history of the world, because it brought the Savior into the world—because, thanks to her Yes, God could become man in our world and remains so for all time. The Evil One has power in this world, as we see and experience continually; he has power because our freedom continually lets itself be led away from God. But since God himself took a human heart and has thus steered human freedom towards what is good, the freedom to choose evil no longer has the last word. From that time forth, the word that prevails is this: “In the world you will have tribulation, but take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). The message of Fatima invites us to trust in this promise.
But for some, there was great disappointment. There had been a passionate conviction among some enthusiasts that the Third Secret should have fulfilled their personal expectations: these variously included atomic war, a false pope (sometimes two or three of them), the destruction of the Church and its replacement with a Satanic cult based in St. Peter’s, widespread slaughter, food shortages and the need to stock up on water and possibly private generators for home electricity. The catch-phrase was “great chastisement” and it was generally held to involve scorched earth, Freemasons, famine, floods—and the survival of a virtuous few who would eventually take charge and run things in the future. I remember a friend telephoning me to say that her family had held a special meeting to discuss it all: they had for some years been anticipating that the Secret would concern revelations about an imminent world emergency for which it would be important to store tinned food and other necessities, and it somehow seemed all wrong that these preparations were not required.
The disappointment was so bitter that a whole angry new development emerged. Over the months and years people teamed up to provide a network of booklets, websites, conferences, and newsletters that united in affirming an absolute conviction that Pope—now Saint—John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) had lied. There was surely still an exciting Secret to be revealed. It couldn’t just be a visionary warning and call to prayer: there had to be something more thrilling.
The importance of the campaign needs to be stressed: if these campaigners are right, the Church has canonized a serial liar—a pope who lied in a most public way, before millions of people, and repeated the lie again and again through the Church’s official channels over the following years. And these lobbyists assert that his successor lied too, both at Fatima in 2000 and via various statements and spokesmen since.
Just the other day Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated, yet again, that the Third Secret of Fatima had been published in full. Immediately the campaigners got to work. They hinted that the statement could not be trusted; their message is that all the formal structures of the Catholic Church have all been involved in this lie—senior cardinals and bishops, Vatican press and media spokesmen, all sorts of well-known Catholic lay men and women, and more. Conspiracy on a massive scale.
The lobby groups have tried every sort of way to prop up their campaign. One school of thought devoted a lot of time to announcing that Sister Lucia’s letter would have been on only one sheet of paper, whereas the Vatican website shows four (they seemed unable to grasp the concept of folded European writing-paper). Another, overlapping group seemed obsessed with the notion of bows and arrows and wondered if, after a nuclear war or similar event, these would be the only weapons available for shooting a pope—so perhaps the Secret really contained a lot of information about such a war? And then there was an extra group which linked all this to a flood at Lourdes—I am not quite sure where this comes in to the story but I think it was decided that it was Our Lady’s way of announcing displeasure with St. John Paul. Or something. Variously, Padre Pio, ex-Jesuits, Freemasons, Soviet infiltrators, and soft-voiced cardinals overheard in corridors came into the picture.
A campaigner assured me: “Oh, we don’t actually say they are liars. No…it’s all more complicated—a conspiracy in which many are involved.” The lobbying continues. The tinned goods are re-stocked and stored, the leaflets printed, the blogs and websites rage. There are tales of secret archives and letters written in invisible ink, of muttered conversations overheard and envelopes hidden in Roman cupboards. Some affirm that John Paul II’s whole papacy may have been fraudulent, with the assassination attempt merely staged. Then there was the group that “discovered” that Sister Lucia had been hidden away and a lookalike produced who had formed part of the conspiracy. Some years back there was a similar story about Paul VI—I remember the detail that the lookalike had been discovered to have subtly different ears. Others are more interested in the idea that the “real secret” is that three days of darkness will descend on the world and people should stock up on candles—but only ones that have been blessed will work properly.
Next year will see the 100th anniversary of the Fatima visions. Sister Lucia affirmed that all had been revealed. Repeated attempts to get her to say that this was not the case failed. The saint who revealed the full secret has been canonized. Pope Emeritus Benedict has affirmed—again—that the full secret has been revealed, that there is nothing more. The message of Fatima is about truth and salvation—about repentance and mercy, God’s plan for the human race and the glory of the Church. The tragedy is that the people who think that it all ought to be more exciting are missing out on the greatest and most exciting truth of all.
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