Friday, May 12, 2017

Our Lady of Fatima

It was 100 years ago tomorrow that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared for the first of six times in Fátima, Portugal, to three shepherd children, Lúcia Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto. Lúcia Santos eventually became a Carmelite nun, lived to be 97, and died on February 13, 2005. Francisco and Jacinta Marto, however, died young (as Our Lady had apparently told them they would) - Francisco on April 4, 1919 (at the age of ten), and Jacinta on February 20, 1920 (at the age of nine). They were both beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II on May 13, 2000. In March, Pope Francis approved a further miracle attributed to Blessed Francisco and Jacinta’s intercession, the final step necessary prior to their canonization as saints.

Blessed Pope Paul VI was the first pope to visit Fatima - in 1967 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the apparition. Pope Saint John Paul II, who credited his survival of an assassination attempt on May 13, 1981, to the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima, visited Fatima three times. Many pilgrims are expected to join Pope Francis (who consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on October 13, 2013) when he visits Fatima today and tomorrow to celebrate the centenary and to canonize Blessed Francisco and Jacinta, making them the Church's youngest non-martyrs among our canonized saints.. 

As a shrine, Fatima may suffer somewhat by comparison to the more visited shrine of Lourdes. I've been to both places several times and freely admit that I have always preferred Lourdes. Up in the Pyrenees, Lourdes excels in terms of natural beauty, with its grotto, and the river, and the fortress up above. Although the exact spot where Mary appeared is identified in each place, at Fatima the original tree she appeared on is obviously long gone. The chapel that marks the exact site (photo) is nice, but lacks the verisimilitude of the Lourdes grotto. Likewise, Lourdes has a virtually universal appeal as a center of healing and a place where the ministry of caring for the sick is very visibly highlighted, whereas Fatima's message about praying the Rosary for peace, with its references to war and Russia and the whole unhappy history of the 20th century, has run the risk at times of being more narrowly politicized.

Still, I have celebrated Mass in both the Lourdes grotto and Fatima's apparition chapel. Both are places of profound spiritual significance for our age, highlighting dimensions of the Christian story that especially needed to be recalled in our time.

Hard-to-control popular apocalyptic obsessions about Fatima's "third secret" also have at times distracted from the apparition's primary message. When I was growing up, there was all sorts of speculation in the run-up to 1960 about the "third secret," which it was widely expected would be revealed in that year. (I can remember being one of several altar boys sitting int he altar boys' sacristy after Mass on January 1, 1960, speculating about how soon the much anticipated "third secret" would be revealed.) But 1960 came and went without any revelation. It was only finally in 2000 that the content of the "third secret" was made public. 

I remember that day well. There had been much speculation in the press that the Pope would reveal the secret during his Jubilee Year visit to Fatima. That Saturday morning, celebrating the Mass of the feast in our parish in Toronto, I tried to dampen such speculations in my  homily by saying the we all knew that the Pope's purpose in going to Fatima was to beatify Francisco and Jacinta - not to reveal any secrets. After Mass, I heard on the news that the content of the "third secret" had just been made public that day! That afternoon while out for a walk in our neighborhood, I bumped into someone who had been at the morning Mass. She jokingly said to me, "Well now we know for sure which of you is not infallible!"

As presented to the public in 2000, the "third secret" is about the persecutions experienced by the Church in the 20th century and includes the assassination attempt on Pope Saint John Paul II on the 1981 anniversary of the  apparition at Fatima. In his commentary at the time, the future Pope Benedict XVI wrote that it "will probably prove disappointing or surprising after all the speculation it has stirred.” On the contrary, he stressed: “The purpose of the vision is not to show a film of an irrevocably fixed future. Its meaning is exactly the opposite: it is meant to mobilize the forces of change in the right direction.” 

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