The Mystery of Our Lady of Fatima

The events in Fatima during 1917 have never been fully explained and remain as mysterious today as they did in the beginning.

The visions of the Virgin Mary seen by three Portuguese peasant children and the three secrets entrusted to them.

On 13 July 1917, three children were startled to find a mysterious figure approaching them as they tended their flock of sheep in pastureland near Fatima in Portugal. Lucia dos Santos and her two cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto reported seeing what they described as a ‘pretty lady from Heaven’.

Lucia said the lady was ‘brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal glass filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun’. Just the sort of description you’d expect from an illiterate ten-year-old shepherd girl.

Lucia also claimed the lady had also entrusted her with three important secrets, which she did not reveal until many years later.

Instead of being cuffed around the ear, the three scallywags were firmly believed and the devout soon identified the mysterious visitor as the Blessed Virgin Mary herself. Word of the vision rapidly spread, and thousands began making the pilgrimage to the Cova da Iria (the area of pastureland near Fatima in which the children had grazed their sheep) hoping to see the Mother of Jesus for themselves.

Artur de Oliveira Santos, the mayor of Vila Nova de Ourem and the most powerful man in the region, became increasingly anxious about the political implications of the pilgrimage to Fatima. Reports of new miracles were only swelling the number of pilgrims. His open hostility to the alleged apparitions was well known and he ordered the arrest of the little ones.

On 13 August, the children were captured on their way to the pasture at Cova da Iria and thrown into jail. Other prisoners later testified the youngsters were initially frightened and upset, but were soon chanting their rosaries and leading their cellmates in prayer.

When Santos interrogated the children, they wouldn’t tell him anything. So, as the story goes, he arranged for a large pot of boiling oil to be delivered to the interrogation room. He then took the children one by one to the room, claiming that each of the others had been boiled to death in oil for ‘failing to tell him the truth’.

The ‘remaining’ child was urged to do so or suffer the same fate. Remarkably, despite such persuasive techniques, the psychopath still failed to persuade the youngsters to tell him anything at all.

With that, Santos was forced to release them. Six days later, on 19 August, they reported another visitation at nearby Valinhos. On 13 September, the Blessed Virgin appeared in the field again and this time the children reported she had promised them that at noon on 13 October she would reappear and perform a miracle, so that ‘everybody will believe’.

As dawn broke on 13 October, a thick layer of cloud hung over the entire area and heavy rain fell, soaking the thousands who had gathered to see the expected miracle. Many were present only to witness what they were sure would be a non-event.

The tension mounted as crowds of between 70,000 and 100,000 gathered during the morning. People from every walk of life were there, including doctors, lawyers and scientists (not normally inclined to be credulous), religious leaders and the great and the good, all eagerly awaiting the great event.

Noon passed without incident, but in the middle of the afternoon tens of thousands of people witnessed the cloud gradually part, to reveal a dim, opaque sun spinning on its axis and emitting various bright colours that illuminated everything around. After a short while the sun apparently began to detach itself from the sky and plummet towards the earth.

But instead of crashing to the ground and wiping out the entire human race, it slowed down at the last moment and only came close enough to heat the land and dry out everybody’s soaked clothing before slowly making its way back to its regular place in the sky.

This event, which lasted for between eight and ten minutes and in which the sun appeared to sink and rise again three times, became known as the ‘Miracle of the Sun’.

Previously a strongly Catholic country, Portugal at that time had been a secular state for only seven years – since the monarchy had been abolished during the republican revolution of 1910.

Since then, the new government of Portugal had been severely hostile towards religious groups, explaining Mayor Santos’s unpleasantness to the devout children.

However, even the pro-government O Seculo, Portugal’s most influential newspaper, was unable to repress its excitement on this occasion. Popular columnist Avelino de Almeida noted the following;

… in the astonished eyes of these people, whose attitude takes us back to Biblical times and who were white-faced with shock and with their heads uncovered, facing the blue sky. The sun has trembled, the sun has made sudden movements that were outside all cosmic laws – the sun has ‘danced’, according to the typical expression of the country people. Covered with dust on the running board of the bus from Torres Novas, an old man recites the Creed, from beginning to end. I ask who it is and they tell me it is João Maria Amado de Melo.

I see him later talking to those around him, who still have their hats on, begging them strongly to take them off in the presence of such an extraordinary demonstration of the existence of God. Identical scenes are repeated in other places and a woman shouts, bathed in tears and almost suffocated, ‘What a shame! There are still men who don’t take off their hats in the presence of such a miracle.’

And next they ask each other if they have seen it or not. Most confess that that they have seen the dancing of the sun but others, however, declare they have seen the smiling face of the Virgin herself.

They swear that the sun span about itself like a ring of fireworks and that it came down almost to the point of burning the Earth with its rays. Some say that they saw it change colour. It was about three in the afternoon.

De Almeida claimed to have witnessed the whole event, but the photographer standing next to him, Judah Ruah, nephew of the famous snapper Joshua Benoliel, said he saw nothing at all.

When asked why, he replied, ‘because nothing strange happened to the sun. But when I saw all those people kneeling I understood something to be happening and so I photographed them instead.’

Another journalist, from the Lisbon newspaper O Dia, reported how;

…The silver sun, enveloped in the same gauzy grey 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 the miracle they had awaited. The seconds seemed like hours, so vivid were they.

An eminent eye surgeon, Dr Domingos Pinto Coelho, recorded how ‘the sun, in one moment was surrounded with scarlet flame and at another aureoled in yellow and deep purple. It seemed to be in an exceedingly fast and whirling movement, at times appearing to be loosened from the sky and to be approaching the earth and strongly radiating heat.’

There can be little doubt his eyes were not deceiving him (or they shouldn’t have been at any rate). Another medical man, Dr Almeida Garrett of Coimbra, wrote how ‘the sun, whirling wildly seemed to loosen itself from the firmament and advance threateningly upon the earth as if to crush us with its huge and fiery weight.

The sensation was terrible.’ And another learned individual, Dr Formigao, a professor of Santorem in the Distrito de Leiria, noted that ‘suddenly the rain stopped. The clouds were wrenched apart and the sun appeared in all its splendour.

Then it began to revolve on its axis like the most magnificent fire wheel that we could imagine, taking all the colours of the rainbow and sending forth multi-coloured flashes of light, producing the most astounding effect.’

With an estimated 100,000 people present, the weight of witness evidence is overwhelming. This, coupled with the children’s ability to predict the event to within a few hours, proved to many people that they truly had experienced a miracle.

Even so, a careful examination of individual statements reveals many contradictions. In some the sun looked like a ‘ball of snow’ and in others an opaque disc. Some reports state the sun was ‘dancing’ and in others that it was zigzagging.

Some witnesses believed it actually touched the earth’s surface while others failed to see it move at all. There have been statements claiming columns of fine blue smoke and others describing how the very air seemed to change colour.

Everybody claims to have witnessed the miracle at the same time and simultaneously let out either a roar or loud gasp that echoed around the valley, but the timing of the reports vary from between midday and dusk.

The only connecting theme is that most people saw something happen at around the same time and on the same afternoon. But scientific records contain no reports from anywhere in the world of unusual astronomical or solar activity.

This is strange because even if there had been a natural reason for the phenomenon, such as a cloud of dust from the Sahara Desert or unusual atmospheric gases, as has been suggested, then astronomers would have recorded those.

That is exactly what happened when stratospheric dust made the sun appear to be blue and red to the people of China in 1983, or the blue moon reported for two years after the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883.

It is hard to believe that so many well-educated and rational people could either make their story up or be fooled by what might amount to a vast con trick. But for those who claim some sort of collective hallucination at Fatima, there is the evidence of witness reports from as far away as thirty miles from people going about their normal business.

Some years later, in 1931, Lucia claimed Jesus himself had visited her in Rianxo, Galicia, to teach her two new prayers and he had given her a message for the Pope. Soon afterwards the Catholic Church added its considerable weight to the debate by announcing they were ‘approving the visions as worthy of belief’.

So, with the official stamp of approval from the Man Wearing the Dress in Rome, the Blessed Virgin as she appeared at Cova da Iria became known throughout the world as Our Lady of Fatima. By then little Lucia de Jesus Rosa Santos had become Sister Lucia of Jesus, following her ordination as a Carmelite nun.

In 1942, as the Second World War was at its bloodiest, Sister Lucia finally decided to reveal the first of the secrets confided in her by the Virgin Mary all those years ago. The first was a terrifying vision of Hell, which she recorded in her third memoir, published towards the end of that year;

Our Lady showed us a great sea of fire which seemed to be beneath 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 all the time the 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.

Fortunately, as she goes on, ‘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, during the first Apparition, to take us to heaven? Otherwise, I think we would have died of fear and terror.’

[indent plus close up to the previous paragraph]The second secret included Mary’s instructions on how to save souls from Hell and convert the world to Christianity;

You 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 in the world. 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 illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given to 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 and 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.

All of you who find the timing and content of this revelation suspicious, what with it coming in the in the middle of a ‘worse’ war and during Pope Pius’s reign (even if it was Pius XII rather than XI by this time), will be struck down by the next bolt of lightning. But come on! This is a serious matter.

The Catholic Church actually approved the visions as ‘worthy of belief’, and granted them genuine, bone fide miracle status, eleven years before revealing one of the three big ‘secrets’ with its anti-Russian warning. Are they really expecting us to believe the Virgin Mary visited three young peasant children in Portugal in 1917 to warn the world about something as specific and politically biased as the threat from Russia in twenty-five years’ time?

For reasons best known to themselves, Vatican officials refused to release the third secret until the late 1990s when Pope John Paul II finally unveiled Sister Lucia’s (somewhat disjointed) account of the third secret;

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, men and women Religious [sic] 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 [sic]; 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 fire [sic] 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 [a vessel for holding holy water] 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.

It is said that Pope John Paul II believed that the text refers to the attempt on his life in St Peter’s Square by Mehmet Ali Aqca in 1981, while others have suggested it is a prediction of the end of the world. Although I, to be honest, can make neither head nor tail of it.

In March 1948, Sister Lucia joined the Carmel of St Teresa at Coimbra, where she remained until her death on 13 February 2005, passing away shortly before her ninety-eighth birthday. During her lifetime she wrote six memoirs and two books.

The day of her funeral, 15 February, was declared a national day of mourning, even disrupting political campaigning for the Portuguese parliamentary elections a few days later.

Before she died, Sister Lucia claimed to see her ‘pretty lady from heaven’ many times throughout her life time, although nobody else ever witnessed or corroborated her claims. I wish I could. In fact I only wish the Blessed Virgin would appear round here. We could do with a few heavenly visitations to liven things up a bit.

The events in Fatima during 1917 have never been fully explained and remain as mysterious today as they did in the beginning. Nobody knows what happened, although everybody agrees that something did.

I find it hard to completely rule out the appearance of some sort of vision or natural phenomenon occurring near Fatima on those four separate occasions because that would suggest that around 100,000 people were either mentally ill, deluded or simply lying.

The sightings were, however, made in the midst of the Great War when things looked particularly gloomy. Perhaps people so badly needed evidence of something spiritual, some proof of divine interest in them, that they were able convince themselves that they had witnessed something rather more impressive than they actually had.

After all, the famous incident of the Angels of Mons (the supposedly supernatural force of ghostly warriors that intervened to help protect British forces at the crucial moment in the battle of Mons), which had happened only a couple of years earlier, is commonly considered now to be a mixture of morale-boosting propaganda and hallucinations on the part of sleep-deprived soldiers.

And we have seen how it possible to create an illusion on a huge scale, as evidenced by the way in which magician David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty appear to vanish before the eyes of millions of people, and yet we know it didn’t really go anywhere.

So that leaves us with one final question. Even without the assistance of ‘magic’, is such mass deception otherwise possible – convincing a vast group of people to believe in the same lie at roughly the same time?

Anybody would have to hesitate before saying yes. But then you remember Barack Obama’s two election victories and you realize that of course it’s possible; in fact it’s surprisingly easy.

Or to quote Abraham Lincoln, it’s perfectly feasible to ‘fool all of the people some of the time’.

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