One hundred years ago in Portugal, an angel appeared to three peasant children. He appeared three times in the coming months. Then six months later on May 13, 1917, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared.
She kept her appointment with them on the thirteenth day of the month for the next six months, and in visions gave them prophetic secrets about the future. Then on October 13, 1917 she appeared before them and made the sun spin and dance for tens of thousands of witnesses.
That’s what happened at Fatima…or did it?
The occurrences at Fatima in 1916 and 1917 were certainly astounding. If the shepherd children were to be believed, they really did see and speak with an angel from heaven who prepared the way for them to meet Mary.
Furthermore, every pope from Pius XII (who was consecrated as bishop the same day the visions of Mary began) onward have expressed their belief that the events at Fatima were genuinely supernatural, and that the whole of mankind, as well as Catholics, had best pay attention.
The peasant children—a brother and sister Jacinta and Francisco Marto and their older cousin, Lucia Santos—reported that the Blessed Virgin gave them a terrifying vision of hell. The second message predicted that the great war would end, but that if we did not mend our ways and consecrate Russia to her immaculate heart, a second more terrible war would break out.
A sign would be given in heaven that would mark the beginning of the second war.
Just twenty one years later an unusual blaze of light radiated across the Northern Hemisphere. It was so bright people in Paris thought the sky was on fire. It was January 1938. A month later Hitler seized Austria, invaded Czechoslovakia, and the next year his troops swept across the Polish border.
The third message was apocalyptic in tone. Kept secret for most of the twentieth century it sparked huge levels of speculation until it was finally revealed in the year 2000 and linked to the assassination attempt on Pope St John Paul II on the sixty fourth anniversary of the visions: May 13, 1981.
As we approach the one hundredth anniversary of the events at Fatima, Catholics who are apocalyptically inclined tend to make connections with other prophecies. They huddle and discuss the famous prophecies of St Malachy pointing out that the “Last Pope” is now on the throne of Peter.
They remember a legend about Pope Leo XIII’s terrible vision in October 13, 1884—thirty three years before the miracle of the sun at Fatima. In this vision the pope overheard a conversation between Satan and Jesus in which Satan requested more power and more time to destroy the church. Jesus granted him more power and one hundred years.
Prophecy watchers connect Pope Leo’s vision with Fatima, count down one hundred years, and predict that something big is going to happen in 2017.
There are problems with this scenario, however.
First of all, the skeptics question what happened at Fatima. They doubt the stories of credulous peasant children and point to the mass hysteria that burgeoned in the six months during the alleged visions.
When it comes to the miracle of the sun on October 13, 1917, they point out that anyone who stares at the sun will soon experience strange phenomena as the brilliance of the sun plays tricks on their retinas.
Further, were the prophecies in any way remarkable? The visionaries’ experience of hell is much the same as accounts of other mystics down the ages. The skeptic would say there is nothing unique or unusual about it.
The second warning of another war and the light in the sky also is easily explained away.
By 1917, most anyone familiar with European politics could foresee the outbreak of further troubles. Furthermore, the skeptic would point out that those who believe in prophecies and supernatural wonders have a handy way of matching up most any event with the prophecies while ignoring the facts and events that don’t fit.
Was it a supernatural sign from heaven in January 1938, or was it just an unusually bright display of the Northern Lights?
St Malachy’s prophecies have long ago been debunked as a medieval forgery, and as for the frightening vision of Pope Leo XIII— this article from EWTN points out that there is no original source for the story, there are various versions in circulation, and the story itself is little more than a Catholic urban legend.
So what did happen at Fatima?
It is well documented that on Sunday, October 13, 1917 between 30,000 and 100,000 people gathered on the hillside outside the little village in Portugal. This YouTube video shows photographs from the day. Their clothes were drenched from the constant rain. Then the clouds parted. The sun appeared as an opaque disc and began to spin, casting rainbow rays across the sky.
Then, as the crowd reacted in terror, the sun seemed to plunge to the earth. It soon returned to normal, but the people noticed that their clothes and the muddy earth were dry. The ten minute event has been researched endlessly with explanations propagated both for a supernatural explanation and against.
As the centenary of Fatima approaches, what can be said is that something remarkable took place one hundred years ago in Portugal. While the more credulous apocalyptic explanations dismay, the dismissive explanations do not satisfy.
I come away from reading about the events with the opinion of Hamlet, that “there are more things in heaven and earth…than your philosophy has dreamt of.”
Across the span of one hundred years, there are enough inexplicable details, and enough unexplained coincidences, to make me conclude that behind and beneath the politics and power plays of this world there is another Player, another Plan and a greater Power.