Our Lady of Fátima is a title for the Blessed Virgin Mary due to her reputed apparitions to three shepherd children at Fátima, Portugal on the thirteenth day of six consecutive months in 1917, beginning on May 13. The three children were Lúcia Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto.
The title of Our Lady of the Rosary is also sometimes used to refer to the same apparition (although it was first used in 1208 for the reputed apparition in the church of Prouille), because the children related that the apparition called herself the “Lady of the Rosary”. It is also common to see a combination of these titles, i.e. Our Lady of the Rosary of Fátima (Nossa Senhora do Rosário de Fátima).
The events at Fátima gained particular fame due to their elements of prophecy and eschatology, particularly with regard to possible world war and the conversion of Soviet Russia. The reported apparitions at Fátima were officially declared “worthy of belief” by the Catholic Church.
In the Spring and Summer of 1916, three little shepherd children, Lucia Santos and her two cousins, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, experienced the visitation of an Angel on three separate occasions. The Angel appeared to them as they watched their sheep, teaching them specific prayers to pray, to make sacrifices, and to spend time in adoration of the Lord. These three visits were apparently to prepare the children for the visitations of the Blessed Mother, which were to follow in 1917. <from “Her Own Words to the Nuclear Age: The Memoirs of Sr. Lucia, with comments by John M. Haffert”, c. 1993, also appears in Sr. Lucia’s original Memoirs published prior to this version cited here>
On May 13, 1917, ten year old Lúcia Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto were herding sheep at a location known as the Cova da Iria near their home village of Fátima, Portugal. Lúcia described seeing a woman “brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal ball filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun”. Astonished they ran back to their village and told everyone. Further appearances were reported to have taken place on the thirteenth day of the month in June and July. In these, the woman asked the children to do penance and Acts of Reparation as well as making personal sacrifices to save sinners. The children subsequently wore tight cords around their waists to cause themselves pain, performed self-flagellation using stinging nettles, abstained from drinking water on hot days, and performed other works of penance. According to Lúcia’s account, in the course of her appearances, the woman confided to the children three secrets, now known as the Three Secrets of Fátima.
Thousands of people flocked to Fátima and Aljustrel in the following months, drawn by reports of visions and miracles. On August 13, 1917, the provincial administrator Artur Santos (no relation to Lúcia Santos), believing that the events were politically disruptive, intercepted and jailed the children before they could reach the Cova da Iria that day. Prisoners held with them in the provincial jail later testified that the children, while upset, were first consoled by the inmates, and later led them in praying the rosary. The administrator interrogated the children and tried unsuccessfully to get them to divulge the contents of the secrets. In the process, he threatened the children, saying he would boil them in a pot of oil, one by one unless they confessed. The children refused, but Lúcia told him everything short of the secrets, and offered to ask the Lady for permission to tell the Administrator the secrets. That month, instead of the usual apparition in the Cova da Iria on the 13th, the children reported that they saw the Virgin Mary on 15 August, the Feast of the Assumption, at nearby Valinhos.
Miracle of the Sun
As early as July 1917 it was claimed that the Virgin Mary had promised a miracle for the last of her apparitions on October 13, so that all would believe. What happened then became known as the “Miracle of the Sun”. A crowd believed to number approximately 70,000, including newspaper reporters and photographers, gathered at the Cova da Iria. The incessant rain had finally ceased and a thin layer of clouds cloaked the silver disc of the sun. Lúcia, moved by what she said was an interior impulse, called out to the crowd to look at the sun. Witnesses later spoke of the sun appearing to change colours and rotate like a wheel. Not everyone saw the same things, and witnesses gave widely varying descriptions of the “sun’s dance”. The phenomenon is claimed to have been witnessed by most people in the crowd as well as people many miles away. While the crowd was staring at the sun, Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta said later they were seeing lovely images of the Holy Family, Our Lady of Sorrows with Jesus Christ, and then Our Lady of Mount Carmel. They said they saw Saint Joseph and Jesus bless the people. The children were aged 10, 9, and 7 at the time.
Columnist Avelino de Almeida of O Século (Portugal’s most influential newspaper, which was pro-government in policy and avowedly anti-clerical), reported the following: “Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bare-headed, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws – the sun ‘danced’ according to the typical expression of the people.” Eye specialist Dr. Domingos Pinto Coelho, writing for the newspaper Ordem reported “The sun, at one moment surrounded with scarlet flame, at another aureoled in yellow and deep purple, seemed to be in an exceeding fast and whirling movement, at times appearing to be loosened from the sky and to be approaching the earth, strongly radiating heat”. The special reporter for the October 17, 1917 edition of the Lisbon daily, O Dia, reported the following, “…the silver sun, enveloped in the same gauzy purple light was seen to whirl and turn in the circle of broken clouds…The light turned a beautiful blue, as if it had come through the stained-glass windows of a cathedral, and spread itself over the people who knelt with outstretched hands…people wept and prayed with uncovered heads, in the presence of a miracle they had awaited. The seconds seemed like hours, so vivid were they.”
No movement or other phenomenon of the sun was registered by scientists at the time. According to contemporary reports from poet Afonso Lopes Vieira and schoolteacher Delfina Lopes with her students and other witnesses in the town of Alburita, the solar phenomenon was visible from up to forty kilometres away. Not all witnesses reported seeing the sun “dance”. Some people only saw the radiant colours, and others, including some believers, saw nothing at all.
Since no scientifically verifiable physical cause can be adduced to explain the phenomenon of the sun, various explanations have been advanced to explain the descriptions given by numerous witnesses. A leading conjecture is a mass hallucination possibly stimulated by the religious fervour of the crowds expectantly waiting for a predicted sign. Another conjecture is a possible visual artifact caused by looking at the sun for a prolonged period. As noted by Auguste Meessen, a professor at the Institute of Physics, Catholic University of Leuven, looking directly at the Sun can cause phosphene visual artifacts and temporary partial blindness. He has proposed that the reported observations were optical effects caused by prolonged staring at the sun. Meessen contends that retinal after-images produced after brief periods of sun gazing are a likely cause of the observed dancing effects. Similarly Meessen states that the colour changes witnessed were most likely caused by the bleaching of photosensitive retinal cells. Meessen observes that solar miracles have been witnessed in many places where religiously charged pilgrims have been encouraged to stare at the sun. He cites the apparitions at Heroldsbach in Germany (1949) as an example where exactly the same optical effects as at Fátima were witnessed by more than 10,000 people.
There is no evidence that people who came to Fátima, even those expecting a miracle, were staring at the sun before Lúcia spoke. Most would have been focused on the tree where the children said the apparition appeared. Some onlookers reported other phenomena, including luminous mist and the showers of flower petals seen around and above the tree during previous visitations.
In addition to the Miracle of the Sun, the seers at Fátima indicated that the apparition prophesied a great sign in the night sky which would precede a second great war. On January 25, 1938, bright lights, an aurora borealis appeared all over the northern hemisphere, including in places as far south as North Africa, Bermuda and California. It was the widest occurrence of the aurora since 1709 and people in Paris and elsewhere believed a great fire was burning and fire departments were called. Lúcia, the sole surviving seer at the time, indicated that it was the sign foretold and so apprised her superior and the bishop in letters the following day. Just over a month later, Hitler seized Austria and eight months later invaded Czechoslovakia.
Three Secrets of Fátima
First two secrets
The first secret was a vision of hell, which Lúcia describes in her Third Memoir, as follows:
“Our Lady showed us a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium, and amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. The demons could be distinguished by their terrifying and repulsive likeness to frightful and unknown animals, all black and transparent. This vision lasted but an instant. How can we ever be grateful enough to our kind heavenly Mother, who had already prepared us by promising, in the first Apparition, to take us to heaven. Otherwise, I think we would have died of fear and terror.”
The second secret included Mary’s instructions on how to save souls from hell and convert the world to the Christian faith, also revealed by Lúcia in her Third Memoir:
“I have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night illuminated by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father. To prevent this, I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the First Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.”
The third secret, a vision of the death of the Pope and other religious figures, was transcribed by the Bishop of Leiria and reads:
“After the two parts which I have already explained, at the left of Our Lady and a little above, 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, Religious men and women 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, Religious men and women, 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.”
Controversy around the Third Secret
The Vatican withheld the Third Secret until 26 June 2000, despite Lúcia’s declaration that it could be released to the public after 1960. Some sources, including Canon Barthas and Cardinal Ottaviani, said that Lúcia insisted to them it must be released by 1960, saying that, “by that time, it will be more clearly understood”, and, “because the Blessed Virgin wishes it so.” When 1960 arrived, rather than releasing the Third Secret, the Vatican published an official press release stating that it was “most probable the Secret would remain, forever, under absolute seal.”
After this announcement, immense speculation over the content of the secret materialized. According to the New York Times, speculation over the content of the secret ranged from “worldwide nuclear annihilation to deep rifts in the Roman Catholic Church that lead to rival papacies.”
Some sources claim that the four-page, handwritten text of the Third Secret released by the Vatican in the year 2000 is not the real secret, or at least not the full secret. In particular, it is alleged that Cardinals Bertone, Ratzinger and Sodano engaged in a systematic deception to cover-up the existence of a one-page document containing the so-called words of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which some believe contains information about the Apocalypse and a great apostasy. These sources contend that the Third Secret actually comprises two texts, where one of these texts is the published four-page vision, and the other is a single-page letter allegedly containing the words of the Virgin Mary which has been concealed.
The Vatican has maintained its position that the full text of the Third Secret was published in June 2000. According to a December 2001 Vatican press release (subsequently published in L’Osservatore Romano), Lúcia told then Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone in an interview that the secret had been completely revealed and published – that no secrets remained. Bertone, along with Cardinal Ratzinger, co-authored The Message of Fátima, the document published in June 2000 by the Vatican that allegedly contains a scanned copy of the original text of the Third Secret.
During his apostolic visit to Portugal between May 11 and 14, 2010 on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the beatification of Jacinta and Francisco Marto, Pope Benedict XVI explained in a rare conversation with reporters that the interpretation of the third secret did not stop with the interpretation of a prediction of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in Saint Peter’s Square in 1981. The Third Secret of Fátima, said Benedict XVI, “has a permanent and ongoing significance” and that “its significance could even be extended to include the suffering the Church is going through today as a result of the recent reports of sexual abuse involving the clergy”.
Fate of the three children
Beginning in the 1920s, Sister Lúcia became a nun of the Sisters of Saint Dorothy. Sister Lúcia’s cousins, the siblings Francisco (1908–1919) and Jacinta Marto (1910–1920), were both victims of the Great Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918-20. Francisco and Jacinta were declared venerable by Pope John Paul II in a public ceremony at Fátima on May 13, 1989. He returned there on May 13, 2000 to declare them ‘blessed’ (a title of veneration below that of sainthood; see Canonization). Jacinta is the youngest non-martyred child ever to be beatified.
Sister Lúcia reported seeing the Virgin Mary again in 1925 at the Dorothean convent at Pontevedra, Galicia (Spain). This time she said she was asked to convey the message of the First Saturday Devotions. By her account a subsequent vision of Christ as a child reiterated this request.
Sister Lúcia became a postulant at the Dorothean convent in Tui or Tuy, Galicia in 1928. In 1929, Sister Lúcia reported that Mary returned and repeated her request for the Consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart.
Sister Lúcia reportedly saw Mary in private visions periodically throughout her life. Most significant was the apparition in Rianxo, Galicia, in 1931, in which she said that Jesus visited her, taught her two prayers and delivered a message to give to the church’s hierarchy.
In 1947, Sister Lúcia left the Dorothean order and joined the Discalced Carmelite order in a monastery in Coimbra, Portugal. Lúcia died on February 13, 2005, at the age of 97. After her death, the Vatican, specifically Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (and later to become Pope Benedict XVI), ordered her cell sealed off. It is believed this was because Sister Lúcia had continued to receive more revelations and the evidence needed to be examined in the course of proceedings for her possible canonization.
In 1936 and again in 1941, Sister Lúcia claimed that the Virgin Mary had predicted the deaths of two of the children during the second apparition on June 13, 1917. Besides Lúcia’s account, the testimony of Olímpia Marto (mother of the two younger children) and several others state that her children did not keep this information secret and ecstatically predicted their own deaths many times to her and to curious pilgrims. In fact, it was the first thing Jacinta told her mother when she spoke to her after the initial apparition. According to the 1941 account, on 13 June, Lúcia asked the Virgin if the three children would go to heaven when they died. She said that she heard Mary reply, “Yes, I shall take Francisco and Jacinta soon, but you will remain a little longer, since Jesus wishes you to make me known and loved on Earth. He wishes also for you to establish devotion in the world to my Immaculate Heart.”
Exhumed in 1935 and again in 1951, Jacinta’s face was found incorrupt or immune to decay. Francisco’s body, however, had decomposed.