Even if the imagery is not to be taken literally, we should never ignore the call to repentance

One hundred years ago, on 13 October 1917, crowds gathered outside a dusty little Portuguese village, soon to become famous throughout the world. Word had got round that, on the thirteenth of each of the past five months, Our Lady had been allegedly appearing to three primary-school-age children: siblings Francisco (9) and Jacinta (7), and their cousin Lucia (10). Our Lady, it was rumoured, had promised a kind of grand finale in October.

Accordingly, tens of thousands poured into Fátima. Some, like Fox Mulder, came wanting to believe. As Lucia later recalled with some embarrassment, many humble souls would kneel in the presence of the three children, asking for cures, for conversion, and for many types of favours from Our Lady. But others – perhaps very many of them – came, in that resonant scriptural phrase, to scoff and wag their heads. The cynical and hardbitten hacks covering the jamboree for the anti-clerical newspaper, O Século, were unsurprisingly among the latter.

The full events of the day are difficult to summarize, but O Século’s headline on the 15th (no twenty-hour newscycle then!) day does a pretty good job:

AWESOME THINGS!

HOW THE SUN DANCED AT FÁTIMA IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY

Apparitions of the Virgin – What the sign from heaven consisted of – Many thousands of people say there has been a miracle produced – War and Peace*

All in all, it has been estimated that around 70,000 people were there to see the sun “dance” in the sky. Most afternoons, such celestial acrobatics would be hard to beat in a Buzzfeed-esque “most remarkable things to have happened ” listicle. Not so in this case, however.

Again according to Lucia, Our Lady also revealed to the children what has become known as the ‘Third Secret’ — or perhaps more precisely, ‘Third Part of the Secret’ — of Fátima. In her words:

We saw an Angel with a flaming sword in his left hand; flashing, it gave out flames that looked as though they would set the world on fire; but they died out in contact with the splendour that Our Lady radiated towards him from her right hand: pointing to the earth with his right hand, the Angel cried out in a loud voice: “Penance, Penance, Penance!” And we saw in an immense light that is God: something similar to how people appear in a mirror when they pass in front of it, a Bishop dressed in White, we had the impression that it was the Holy Father.

Other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious going up a steep mountain, at the top of which there was a big Cross of rough-hewn trunks as of a cork-tree with the bark; before reaching there the Holy Father passed through a big city half in ruins and half trembling with halting step, afflicted with pain and sorrow, he prayed for the souls of the corpses he met on his way; having reached the top of the mountain, on his knees at the foot of the big Cross he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him, and in the same way there died one after another the other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious, and various lay people of different ranks and positions. Beneath the two arms of the Cross there were two Angels each with a crystal aspersorium in his hand, in which they gathered up the blood of the Martyrs and with it sprinkled the souls that were making their way to God.

When John Paul II was nearly assassinated on May 13, 1981, he immediately sensed a connection to Fatima. Even while in the hospital, he asked to be brought the text of the third part. Later on, he would famously say that while his assassin did “shoot to kill,” it was “as if someone was guiding and deflecting that bullet.”

But hold on a minute. If the apparition were to have been an exact prediction of the future, then it couldn’t have pointed to John Paul II, could it? For after all, Pope John Paul wasn’t killed. And his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was not a “group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him”.

In fact, this is precisely the question that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed when making the Third Secret public in 2000. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger noted in his accompanying Theological Commentary, the prophetic visions of Fatima, like the apocalyptic passages of Sacred Scripture, “do not describe photographically the details of future events… the image which the children saw is in no way a film preview of a future in which nothing can be changed… Rather, the vision speaks of dangers and how we might be saved from them.”

In essence, this means that the enduring value of Fátima, or any private revelation, is its relevance in increasing the faith of the Church. This means that the primary purpose of the apparitions was not in their ability to predict history, however accurately they may have done so. Instead, they point toward a more fundamental concern. This is, as Cardinal Sodano put it when announcing the Secret’s release, “Our Lady’s call to conversion and penance, [which though] issued at the start of the twentieth century, remains timely and urgent today.” Or, as the Angel put it more pithily – albeit faithfully echoing His Master’s Voice – “Repent! Repent! Repent!”

* Many thanks to my friend and mentor Fr Philip Endean SJ for this translation.

Professor Bullivant’s latest book, O My Jesus: The Meaning of the Fátima Prayer  (Paulist Press, 2017), co-authored with Luke Arredondo is available now.