“Out of any scientific logic”. Thus the secular press defined the phenomenon that took place near Fatima on 13 October 1917, exactly a century ago. In the locality of Cova d’Irìa, where during a period of five months, three shepherd children reported that they were attending the apparitions of “A Woman dressed in white with a Rosary in her hand”, the sun “danced”– to use a common jargon – in front of the unbelieving eyes of tens of thousands of people who flocked in from every part of Portugal.
“Our Lady will give a sign”
Many went to the green ravine near Fatima, intrigued by the wide echo that the Portuguese press had given to the phenomenon of the presumed apparitions and attracted by the announcement of the three shepherd children on a miracle that would take place on that day. Our Lady, said the children, will give a sign. The rain did not stop people, whose curiosity was satiated.
We can still imagine the amazement on their face, when we read the testimonies of the solar disc changing colour, size and position, as if it was precisely dancing. Among the multitude present at midday on 13 October 1917 at Cova d’Irìa, there were also many sceptics, who went there with the only purpose to unmask what they considered to be a fraud organised by the three visionary children.
But it was precisely them, the sceptics, some belonging to the large masonic ranks of Portugal of that time, the most enthusiastic witnesses of the event occurred in the sky. They told of having experienced a sudden climate change: suddenly, at noon, the sun rent asunder the clouds and its heat dried the clothes of the people present, wet because of the rain that was pouring until that moment. After that, the inexplicable happened.
The amazement of an anti-clericals
Very famous are the words with which Avelino de Almeida, chief editor of O Século, a newspaper of Lisbon considered to be anti-clerical described what he saw: “To the amazed eyes of that crowd, whose attitude brings us back to biblical times and that, pale of surprise, with head uncovered, stare at the blue (sky), the sun trembled and made sudden movements never seen out of all the cosmic laws, the sun ‘danced’, according to the typical expression of the peasants”.
As a result of the clamour aroused by his testimony, de Almeida decided to return to this event some day after on the pages of Ilustração Portuguesa, writing: “Miracle as the people cried? Natural phenomenon, as the experts say? For the moment, this does not concern me. I say only what I saw. The rest is a matter of science and Church“.
The position of the Church
The Church expressed its position on the Fatima apparitions with a document dated 13 October 1930 entitled A Divine Providência, fruit of the study of a commission of experts. The Bishop of Leiria, Mons. Jose Alves Correia da Silva, declared “worthy of credit the visions of the children in the Cova da Iria”, officially authorizing the cult of Our Lady of Fatima with the title of Nossa Senhora de Fátima, to whom it had already been entitled in previous years a chapel built on the place of the apparitions.
What does science say?
If therefore the Church has placed its imprimatur of authenticity on the apparitions (while officially did not expressed its position on the “dancing sun”), how does the science explain that miracle that transcends “any logic”? The question causes a great debate. The hypotheses produced by rationalist scientists are different but not entirely convincing. First of all, nobody has managed to explain the background to the “Miracle of the sun”: how could the three countryside children, semi-illiterate, know in advance that Our Lady would have given a “sign” so imposing on 13 October 1917?
And the fact that it was an imposing “sign” is demonstrated by the magnitude of material produced to evaluate the phenomenon. It is 1989 when on the Journal of Meteorology, Stuart Campbell hypothesized that in the stratosphere there was powder. Presence confirmed four years later by another American scientist, Joe Nickell, who tried to explain what happened at Fatima with the phenomenon of the parelio: certain weather conditions, characterized by the presence of tiny ice crystals, would have caused an optical refraction such as to show the solar disc flanked by one or two specular images. However, the parelio, as witnessed by some pictures on the net, does not seem to coincide with the description of the phenomenon by those who were present at Fatima on the 13 October 1917.
New shadows were laid on the “dancing sun” a few years later by a study of prof. Auguste Meessen of the Physics Institute at the Catholic University of Leuven. He insisted that the prolonged observation of the sun could create optical effects. It is certainly a hypothesis, that in order to be supported should however demonstrate that all the witnesses of the phenomenon had watched the sun for a long time.
Science and faith finally meet
Years later Father Szaniszló Jaki, Benedictine monk and physicist, honorary member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, made science and faith meet. As scientist, Father Jaki investigated the “dancing sun” starting from the assumption that “nothing is impossible to God”, but it is also true that “when God makes a miracle He recurs as much as possible to natural mechanisms“. Even the same healings – he underlined -, follow a sudden body heat which suggests an increased cellular metabolism, a phenomenon that in itself is natural.
The Benedictine monk of Hungarian origin imputed the “Miracle of the sun” to the weather conditions of that day at Fatima. By collecting several testimonies, Father Jaki came to assume that the sudden change of climate, from clouds to sun, could have created a “lens of air” of ice crystals. Two currents would then have moved this “lens” creating the “dance” of the sun, an elliptical motion, in the eyes of the people present. A circumstance similar to the parelio hypothesised by Nickell, but not identical, because more adherent to the descriptions of the witnesses.
Thanks to the work of Father Jaki, the “scientific logic” finally meets with the mystery. The latter maintains its charm intact, considering that the event was foreseen by the little shepherds, who asked for a “sign” to Our Lady during the apparition of 13 July and were satisfied three months after.
The “Miracle of the sun” and Pius XII
A document drawn up by Pius XII and emerged only nine years ago from the Pacelli family archive, suggests another “sign” of benevolence with respect to a pontifical decision. The pontiff born in Rome tells that on 30 October 1950, two days before the proclamation of the solemn definition of the dogma of the Assumption, the bodily Assumption into heaven of the Virgin Mary at the moment of her death, he saw a mysterious phenomenon in the sky from the Vatican Gardens.
“I was struck by a phenomenon, that I have never seen before – wrote Pope Pius XII -. The sun, which was still fairly high, appeared as an opaque yellowish globe, surrounded by a luminous circle”, and it was possible to fix the gaze on it “without any disturbance.” “The opaque Globe – continues Pope Pacelli – moved slightly outwards, both turning and moving from left to right and vice versa. But in the interior of the globe I could see with clarity and without interruption very strong movements“.
Pius XII certifies to have witnessed the phenomenon also on the following day, 31 October and on 1 November, the day of the definition of the dogma of the Assumption, as well as a last time on 8 November.