Last month we continued with our talk about Fatima by describing Our Lady’s first two appearances in May and June of 1917. During her third appearance, Our Lady provided a secret in three parts to the children. The first two parts would not be revealed for 24 years, until Sr. Lucia (at the request of her bishop) documented them in her third memoir. The third secret would not be revealed until the new millennium.
On that day in July 1917, Lucia and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta again went to the Cova de Iria, where our Lady had appeared to them before. This time they found a large group of people praying the rosary upon their arrival. Once again, they saw a flash of light and Our Lady appeared. This time, while Our Lady was speaking to the children they had a terrifying vision of fire, demons and souls in human form. Our Lady explained,
“You have seen hell, where the souls of poor sinners go. It is to save them that God wants to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If you do what I tell you, many souls will be saved, and there will be peace.
This war will end, but if men do not refrain from offending God, another and more terrible war will begin during the pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night that is lit by a strange and unknown light [this occurred on January 28, 1938], you will know it is the sign God gives you that He is about to punish the world with war and with hunger, and by the persecution of the Church and the Holy Father.
To prevent this, I shall come to the world to ask that Russia be consecrated to my Immaculate Heart, and I shall ask that on the First Saturday of every month Communions of reparation be made in atonement for the sins-of the world. If my wishes are fulfilled, Russia will be converted and there will be peace; if not, then Russia will spread her errors throughout the world, bringing new wars and persecution of the Church; the good will be martyred and the Holy Father will have much to suffer; certain nations will be annihilated. But in the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she will be converted, and the world will enjoy a period of peace. In Portugal the faith will always be preserved…”
The third part of the secret, now known as the third Secret of Fatima, was written down by Sr. Lucia in 1944 and given to her bishop, who in turn sent it unread to Pope Pius XII, where it was kept in the Vatican Archives. After the assassination attempt his life on May 13, 1981 – the 64th anniversary of the first apparition – Pope Saint John Paul II asked for and received the envelope containing the third secret. On the first anniversary of that assassination attempt, Pope Saint John Paul II Consecrated the Modern World to our Lady of Fatima.
The third “secret”, which was revealed by the Vatican in 2000, was the description of a vision experienced by Sister Lucia and her cousins. Sister Lucia maintained that while she received the vision, she was not given its interpretation; that was being left to the church.
In the vision, Sister Lucia saw an Angel with a sword alongside Our Lady. “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.”
A theological commentary on the vision was provided by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. In his commentary, Cardinal Ratzinger suggests that the mountain and city symbolize the arena of human history: history as an arduous ascent to the summit, history as the arena of human creativity and social harmony, but at the same time a place of destruction, where man actually destroys the fruits of his own work. The city can be the place of communion and progress, but also of danger and the most extreme menace. On the mountain stands the cross—the goal and guide of history. The cross transforms destruction into salvation; it stands as a sign of history’s misery but also as a promise for history.
At this point human persons appear: the Bishop dressed in white (“we had the impression that it was the Holy Father”), other Bishops, priests, men and women Religious, and men and women of different ranks and social positions. The Pope seems to precede the others, trembling and suffering because of all the horrors around him. Not only do the houses of the city lie half in ruins, but he makes his way among the corpses of the dead. The Church’s path is thus described as a Via Crucis, as a journey through a time of violence, destruction and persecution. The history of an entire century can be seen represented in this image. Just as the places of the earth are synthetically described in the two images of the mountain and the city, and are directed towards the cross, so too time is presented in a compressed way. In the vision we can recognize the last century as a century of martyrs, a century of suffering and persecution for the Church, a century of World Wars and the many local wars which filled the last fifty years and have inflicted unprecedented forms of cruelty. In the “mirror” of this vision we see passing before us the witnesses of the faith decade by decade. Here it would be appropriate to mention a phrase from the letter which Sister Lucia wrote to the Holy Father on 12 May 1982: “The third part of the ‘secret’ refers to Our Lady’s words: ‘If not, [Russia] 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 Via Crucis of an entire century, the figure of the Pope has a special role. In his arduous ascent of the mountain we can undoubtedly see a convergence of different Popes. Beginning from Pius X up to the present Pope, they all shared the sufferings of the century and strove to go forward through all the anguish along the path which leads to the Cross. In the vision, the Pope too is killed along with the martyrs. When, after the attempted assassination on 13 May 1981, the Holy Father had the text of the third part of the “secret” brought to him, was it not inevitable that he should see in it his own fate? He had been very close to death, and he himself explained his survival in the following words: “… it was a mother’s hand that guided the bullet’s path and in his throes the Pope halted at the threshold of death” (13 May 1994). That here “a mother’s hand” had deflected the fateful bullet only shows once more that there is no immutable destiny, that faith and prayer are forces which can influence history and that in the end prayer is more powerful than bullets and faith more powerful than armies.
Let us always keep in mind these words of Pope Benedict as we pray a decade of the rosary of Our Lady before each meeting.