It was 1917 when at the Cova de Iria, a little more than two kilometres from Fatima, where three children were bringing their sheep to graze, a lady “dressed in white and shining like the sun” appeared to Lucia dos Santos and to the brothers Francisco and Jacinta Marto, who were respectively 10, 9 and 7 years old. According to the chronicles of the time, Lucia was a good animator of games that knew how to entertain the little ones; Francisco loved to play trump and Jacinta, with a little touchy character, loved the game of the buttons. They belonged to large families (the dos Santos had six children, the Marto nine), of humble origins but rich in faith. The two families never failed to pray the rosary every evening and the three shepherd children used to pray it during their journey towards the pasture.
The ilex, the tree of the visionaries
On the road of Leiria, around midday, on 13 May, a flash of light attracted the attention of the three children: Our Lady appeared on an ilex a little taller than a meter. According to a legend of the Ionian islands, the cross of Christ was made with the wood of this tree. The Virgin Mary revealed what went down in history as the “secret of Fatima”. According to what has been reported by the same visionaries, Francisco would have only seen Our Lady without hearing her, Jacinta would have seen and heard, while Lucia, was the only one that could talk with her. The shepherd children, Lucia wrote in her “Memories“, saw a “Lady all dressed in white brighter than the sun, spreading a light clearer and more intense than a crystal glass filled with pure water crossed by the most blazing rays of the sun”. Her face was characterized by an indescribable beauty, “neither sad nor cheerful, but serious”, with a tone of “gentle rebuke”. She had the hands joined resting on the chest and facing upwards. The garments seemed “made only of light”: a white tunic like the cloak, hemmed with gold, that covered the head up to the feet.
A “lady” dressed in light
Our Lady began by saying: “Do not be afraid, I will not hurt you“. Lucia asked her: “Where are you from?”. “I am from heaven”, replied the Virgin, lifting the hand upward. Then, she added: “I came to ask you to come here for six months in succession, on the day 13, at this same hour. Then I will tell you who I am and what I want. And I will return here yet a seventh time”. Then, she asked: Do you want to offer yourself to God, to bear all the sufferings he wants to send you, as an act of reparation for the sins by which he is offended, and in supplication for the conversion of sinners?”. “Yes, we want”, answered the shepherds. “Go, then, you will have much to suffer but the grace of God will be your comfort”, concluded the Virgin which, according to what is written by Lucia, “pronouncing these last words opened her hands for the first time, by imparting a very bright light, almost a reflection that emerged from them and penetrated in our chest and in the most intimate part of our soul, and made us see us at ourselves in God, who was this light, more clearly that if we saw ourselves in the best of mirrors”. Before saying goodbye, Mary said: “recite the Rosary every day to obtain peace for the world and the end of the war”.
The request of the miracle
As promised by Our Lady, the apparitions continued until October 1917, the 13th of each month, always with the same signs: a flash of light and, subsequently, the apparition on the ilex. The news travelled around the whole Europe. Many people turned to the shepherd children to bring their prayers and requests of intercessions to Our Lady. Invocations to which the Virgin, punctually answered always in the same manner: “Yes, I will heal some of them within the year”. But in a Portugal that had seen the rise of the republican revolution, during which occurred the biggest “war” against the Church ever recorded in the country, and despite the fact that most of the population remained anchored to the Catholic faith, many people began to question the veracity of the visions. Thus, Lucia asked Our Lady a sign so that all might believe. Mary replied: “In October I will make a miracle so that all may believe. Also our Lord and Our Lady of Sorrows and Our Lady of Carmel, Saint Joseph with the Child Jesus will be here to bless the world”.
Every month, at the Cova de Iria, more and more people flocked to attend the apparitions. The people present told of a small cloud that seemed to hover over the shaft. Some of them noticed the sunlight darken during the dialog with the little shepherds. Other people reported that the ilex bended, as if it was squashed by a weight, a moment before Lucia began to speak. In addition, some felt a whisper, similar to the buzzing of a bee, coming from the tree.
The miracle of the sun
On 13 October 1917, there was the sixth and last apparition. At the Cova de Iria there were about seventy thousand people from every part of Portugal to assist the miracle promised by Our Lady. Many of them were faithful, but there were also the sceptics rushed to unmask what they believed to be a deception. Many journalists, sent by their respective newspapers to document the fact. The rain descended in floods. At noon, Our Lady, preceded by the usual glow of light, said to Lucia: I want to tell you to build in this place a chapel in my honour, that I am the Queen of the Rosary, to continue always to recite the Rosary every day. The war will end and the soldiers will soon return to their homes.” Lucia asked: “I had many things to ask. If you healed some sick people and if you converted some sinners”. The response of the Virgin was not different from the one she gave few months before in this regard: “Some yes, others no; they shall repent, ask forgiveness for their sins, stop to offend God our Lord who is already too much offended”. And opening her hands “Our Lady reflected them on the sun (Lucia wrote in her “Memories”), and while she was elevated, the reflection of her light continued to be projected on the sun”.
Dr Almeida Garrett, who was present, described in this way the fact that went down in history as the “Miracle of the sun“: “Suddenly I heard the clamour of hundreds of voices and I saw that the crowd scattered around me… was turning the back to the place where, up to that moment, was concentrated and waited, and looked towards the sun on the other side. I also turned towards the point that drew their gaze and I could see the sun appearing as a clear disk, with its sharp edge, which shone without offending the sight. It could not be confused with the sun seen through a mist (that was not there at that time) because it was neither veiled nor attenuated. In Fatima, it kept its light and its heat and stood out clearly in the sky with its sharp edge, like a large game table. The most astonishing thing was to be able to stare at the solar disc for a long time, brilliant with light and heat, without hurting the eyes or damaging the retina. We heard a clamour, the anguished cry of the entire crowd. In fact the sun, keeping its rapid rotational movements, seemed to be free to move in the firmament, and to go, red like blood, towards the earth, threatening to destroy us with its enormous mass. Those were really terrifying seconds”. The event lasted approximately ten minutes. Many people noticed that their clothes steeped in rain until a short time before, suddenly dried. This miracle, moreover, was also observed by many other people far from the place of the apparitions.
The three secrets of Fatima
But the Fatima apparitions, are mainly known for the “secrets“, divine revelations that Our Lady did to the three shepherd children. In reality this is a single text, wrote down only in the 1940s, divided into three parts. The first describes the vision of hell, while in the second it was announced the beginning of a new world war and the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The martyrdom of Christians and the assassination of a Pope relates to the third part of the secret. Lucia, in her writings, described this vision like that: “We saw at the left side of Our Lady a little more up, an Angel with a flaming sword in his left hand; it was sparkling and sending out flames that seemed to set the world on fire; but they were flickering when in contact with the splendour that Our Lady emanated from her right hand towards him: the Angel indicating the earth with his right hand, said with a loud voice: ‘Penance, Penance, Penance!’ And we saw in an immense light that God is a Bishop dressed in white. We had the impression that it was the Holy Father. Various other bishops, priests, religious men and women climbing a steep mountain, on top of which there was a large rough-hewn Cross as if it was made of cork with the bark: the Holy Father, before to get there, crossed a big city reduced to ruins and quivering with hesitant step, afflicted with pain and grief, he prayed for the souls of the dead bodies that he met along the way; once he reached the top of the mountain, kneeling at the foot of the big Cross he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired several shots of firearm and arrows”: It was Our Lady herself who asked the shepherds not to tell anyone the last part of the vision, which took place during the third apparition at the Cova de Iria on 13 July 1917.
The drafting of the text
As already mentioned, many years passed before the vision was written. The first and second part were reported by Lucia, which in the meantime she became a Cloister nun, in 1941: the first between the months of July and August, the second between October and December. The two texts were immediately delivered to the Bishop of Leiria, under whose jurisdiction Fatima falls, Monsignor Jose Alves Correia da Silva. The prelate, concerned for the poor health of the nun (which however remained alive until 2005), was afraid that Lucia could die without transcribe the last part. Thus, in the summer of ’43 he ordered the nun to put in writing the last vision. But the visionary, for five times, was not able to do it. In January of 1944 Sister Lucia felt the presence of Our Lady. In her letter, recently published, the visionary wrote: “The indication of the Virgin was precise: ‘Fear not, because God wanted to try your obedience, faith and humility; be serene and write what they order you, however not what you think to understand about its meaning. After you have written it, put it in an envelope, close it and seal it and write on the outside that it can be opened in 1960 by the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon or by the Bishop of Leiria'”. It should be noted how Our Lady emphasizes the nun to not write anything on the meaning and on the interpretation of that vision. The text was closed in an envelope and delivered to the Bishop of Leiria, that informed the Holy See. The response of the Vatican was to keep the letter safe.
In the Vatican for over half a century
In 1956, when the date indicated by Our Lady for the publication of the text was approaching, from the Holy See came the order to send to the Vatican the photocopy of all the manuscripts of Sister Lucia and the envelope with the secret. In April 1957, all the papers arrived in Rome. Pope Pius XII decided to open it and then store it in a wooden box. The text was published in June 2000 together with a theological interpretation of Ratzinger, at that time cardinal, and with the history of its custody at the Sacred Palaces by Monsignor Bertone.
A fourth secret
After the publication, spread the legend of a fourth secret. In reality, it is more likely that in the Vatican were preserved two copies of the text in two different places: one in a hidden drawer of the desk in the bedroom of the Pope and the other in the archives of the Holy Office. This is the only way to understand the truthful statements of Mons. Capovilla, the closest collaborator of John XXIII (the first Pontiff that read the contents of the manuscript), according to which the letter was kept in the papal apartment, and the historical reconstruction made by Bertone with the official acts of the Holy See.
Wojtyla, the Pope of the prophecy?
Accordingly to the statement by the then spokesman of the Holy See, Joaquín Navarro-Valls in the year 2000, John Paul II would have read the text in 1978, a few days after his election to the Pontificate. On 13 May of the same year, Pope Wojtyla celebrated the Beatification of Francisco and Jacinta Marto, at the presence of Sister Lucia on the esplanade in front of the Shrine of Fatima. On that occasion, the Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, taking the floor, told some excerpts of the third secret using the past, by referring to the persecutions suffered by Christians in the twentieth century and to the assassination attempt of 13 May 1981 where the Polish Pope, shoot with weapon fire, fell “like dead”. In June of the same year the text of the Secret was published with “an appropriate comment”, as ordered by John Paul II. Many were amazed because Our Lady spoke of a Pope who “died” and not wounded as actually happened. Ratzinger explained that this type of prophecies must not be considered as a detailed forecast of the future. Wojtyla recognized himself in the Vision, but according to Ratzinger also other interpretations are possible. When he was elected Pope, Benedict XVI, in reference to the persecutions of Christians in the Middle East and to the scandals of paedophilia, stated: “Those who think that the prophetic mission of Fatima is concluded will be deceived”.