Friday is the thirty-fifth anniversary of the attempted assassination of St. John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square in 1981. The date is significant, since May 13 is also the anniversary of the apparitions of Mary in the small Portuguese town of Fatima in 1917.
Given that intersection, a connection between the attempted assassination and the Fatima messages has been explored for decades. Does the argument for such a connection rely solely on an over-exuberant faith, or can a reasonable argument be made?
Even if one exists, does the message of Fatima still have any connection to the state of affairs in 2016?
An understanding of the timing, context, and content of the Fatima messages will assist such an inquiry.
The story is told that in 1917, Mary appeared to three uneducated shepherd children in Fatima with a message of hope. In her messages, Our Lady of Fatima is said to have predicted an end to the First World War (which ended in 1918) and called humanity back to God.
She gave hope to a suffering world, but she also warned that a greater calamity would happen if humanity did not cease to offend God. No such conversion happened, and the Second World War would ignite in 1939, only about two decades after the end of World War I.
In the same year as the apparitions, there were two revolutions in Russia that led to the country’s abandonment of its ancient Christian faith and the taking on of Soviet Communism. The atheism and materialistic anthropology of communism, as well as its use of violent force, subsequently led to millions of deaths in the contemporary era. Russia’s Communist government is generally estimated to have killed 20 million people.
Amidst suffering and martyrdom, countless believers found hope in Jesus Christ through Mary under many different titles.
Among these nations was Poland, whose capital was chosen as the center of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet military alliance. Poland found hope in its “Queen,” which was Mary under the title of Our Lady of Czestochowa.
The future John Paul II was a young seminarian in a clandestine seminary in Krakow at the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Soviet occupation of Poland. The motto of his life and his future papacy was Totus Tuus (meaning “All Yours,” implying a surrender to Jesus Christ through Mary). The pope’s simple coat-of-arms was a Cross and an “M,” designating Mary.
As the supreme pontiff, John Paul II was the first Slavic pope and came to Rome from a country under strict communist rule. The pope encouraged labor efforts in his homeland, drew worldwide attention to the Soviet Union and its threats to Poland, and denounced on every front the attack on human dignity and solidarity.
And so, we go back to the attempted assassination of May 13, 1981. Here are the facts: a trained assassin, at point-blank range, fired two rounds directly at the pope. One bullet ricocheted off his finger, while the other bullet entered his body but missed the main abdominal artery by the smallest possible fraction of an inch and then missed his spinal column and every major nerve cluster.
In evaluating these affairs, a person could reasonably argue – from a faith perspective of history – that on her feast day, Our Lady of Fatima protected a son-turned-pope of a homeland occupied and suffering under Communism, which the pope was fighting and she herself had denounced and called for its conversion.
In having the bullet series explained to him, Pope John Paul II commented: “One hand shot, but another hand guided the bullet.” And the would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, reportedly told the pope in their famous meeting on December 27, 1983, that he feared the “goddess of Fatima,” since she had protected the pontiff so well.
The pope survived and continued to fight Communism. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union began a process of disintegration.
No one could have ever imagined that the apparitions of 1917, and the hope they encouraged, would have been fulfilled by such a pope and in such circumstances. If, however, a reasonable faith could explain such a possible connection, is there any message of Fatima to our world today?
The answer is yes. Fatima has a message today, for the religious extremism and governmental oversteps against religious liberty in our world.
The name of the city in which the apparitions occurred is significant, since it was named by the Moors, who were Muslim, during their occupation of the Iberian peninsula. The city was named in honor of Fatimah, Mohammad’s favored daughter and the only one to give him male heirs that lived beyond childhood.
While Muslims have a great reverence for Mary, as the Mother of the “prophet” Jesus, and consider her to have been the holiest woman ever to have lived, they revere Fatimah as the second holiest.
Why were there apparitions of Mary in Fatima? If her messages could break through intransigence and hatred once, can they do it again, especially in the context of growing Islamic extremism and assaults on religious freedom in various parts of the world?
That, too, is a question to which a reasonable faith might be inclined to supply a positive answer.
Both of these questions give hope, the same hope that endured for over seven decades of Soviet Communism. It is a hope that points to peace, even as it conceals how that peace will be accomplished.
As before, so now Fatima offers hope that encourages perseverance and strength in the midst of the various persecutions of believers today.
Father Jeff Kirby is a doctoral candidate at Holy Cross University in Rome.