In 2017, the Church celebrated the 100th anniversary of Our Lady’s appearances at Fatima, Portugal. While belief in apparitions such as these are not required of the Christian faithful, one realizes, after examining the message of Fatima closely, that it really is just the basic message of Christianity. When understood properly, and in the right context, Fatima relays to humanity a plan for life that is contained already in Scripture.
Fatima’s promise is peace — something for which every human heart longs. The problem is, many of us debate how to achieve it. For the Christian, it is clear that peace comes through modeling one’s life after Christ himself. The message of Fatima aims to remind us simply of that basic fact. It redirects us to appropriate the life of obedience, sacrifice and prayer that defines the life of Christ — attainable through the heart of his Blessed Mother. Peace is not imposed from on high; it must well up in the hearts of men and women. We will know peace only when we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14).
The messages of Fatima were delivered only to the three shepherd children — Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta — but those messages were not just for them. Rather, the children were emissaries to all of humanity. And to add credibility to their word, the apparition at Fatima on Oct. 13, 1917 — the last apparition to the children — contained supernatural phenomena visible to more than 70,000. Even then, though, many still attempt to discredit what happened that day. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, often appropriated by many, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
The events of Oct. 13 have caused it to be remembered as “the day the sun danced.” The occurrences at Fatima that day brought many to conversion and belief. In many ways, the miracle that day supplied credibility to the shepherd children and the messages they received from the Blessed Mother at Fatima.
The day the sun danced
What happened at Fatima on Oct. 13, 1917? Eyewitnesses testified that the sun began emitting an astounding variety of rays in a spectrum of colors. As it began zigging and zagging across the sky, the sun eventually appeared to hurl itself down toward earth.
The crowds gathered in anticipation that morning were soaking wet from the massive rain that fell. When the sun did its dance, not only did their clothes instantly dry, but the soaked and muddied ground dried up, too — parched and cracked after the solar spectacle.
The event came to pass in accord with what had been foretold by the oldest seer, Lucia. For that reason, many came to the Cova di Iria at Fatima that day. The onlookers included believers and nonbelievers alike. Many in the secular press came to Fatima that day hoping to see the shepherd children proven wrong. They planned to seize upon an uneventful day in hopes to discredit not only the visionary children but also the Church itself. By God’s providence, many of them left converted.
In the subsequent decades since the final apparition at Fatima, theologians and scientists have attempted to explain the solar phenomena that happened that October day. None of the skeptics have been able to disprove it was on account of heavenly intervention. That does not mean they have not tried, however. Some skeptics have claimed that it was mass hysteria on the part of the crowds — something quite unlikely considering tens of thousands saw the sun dance that day. Likewise, there were no reports of eye damage by the witnesses, something that surely would have occurred for anyone directly staring into the sun under normal circumstances. Other skeptics have claimed it could have been a UFO, although even up until now no other life outside this planet has been discovered. And there are other attempts that have not held any weight according to reason or logic. Yet the question remains: How could the young, illiterate shepherd girl Lucia have predicted the day and time for the unique solar phenomenon without a heavenly disclosure?
Other visions that day
In addition to the usual vision of the Blessed Mother that the children saw during the previous apparitions at Fatima, the children also saw other visions on Oct. 13, 1917. It is worth exploring what these other visions mean and what their connection to the message of Fatima might be.
Lucia recorded that St. Joseph and the Child Jesus were there that day, blessing the earth. This connection illustrates the importance of family life, especially in connection to the promise of peace made at Fatima. Peace is only possible when we subscribe to God’s plan for creation, and there is no doubt that the family is a foundational building block in creation’s order. Additionally, St. Joseph reminds us that fatherhood, and, thus, complementarity, is intrinsic to God’s plan.
Aside from the way Mary appeared to the children during the six apparitions at Fatima, the children also saw her presence manifested in two other, familiar ways that October day: as the Sorrowful Mother and Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Throughout the ages, Mary has appeared and manifested herself in a variety of ways. These apparitions each draw our attention to different emphases of the spiritual life, for which she is the exemplary human model. Out of love and concern for us, Mary had repeatedly tried to steer humanity back on the path toward a full, life-giving relationship with God.
What can we draw from Fatima’s connection to the Sorrowful Mother? Devotion to Mary’s Immaculate Heart is encouraged at Fatima — a heart that is also sorrowful, as we learn in Scripture (see Lk 2:34-35). The message of Fatima renews the call to repent from our sins, and, when we think about it, Mary’s heart is sorrowful because of the harsh reality that her Son was born to die for the redemption of sins. Reflection on Mary’s sorrow draws our attention to the fact that the Sorrowful Mother is sorrowful solely because of us and our sins. For this same reason, peace is lacking in the world.
Devotion to the Sorrowful Mother helps us to remember that God’s favor is not immune from suffering. While Mary was favored and chosen to be the Mother of God, her life clearly is filled with suffering. The shepherd children knew suffering well — two of them would suffer painful deaths in a short period of time. By meditating on Mary’s experiences of grief and sorrow, we more fully can understand that God is alive and active even in our lives’ suffering. Her suffering offers a prism through which to view the totality of human suffering.
And the vision of Our Lady of Mount Carmel? Tradition holds that the Blessed Mother was especially honored by the founding members of the Carmelite order. The Marian devotion is so rich within that religious community that St. Teresa of Ávila — one of the greatest Carmelite saints — referred to the order as “the Order of the Virgin.”
Likewise, tradition holds that it was to the Carmelite St. Simon Stock that Mary appeared in the mid-13th century. It was in this vision that the Blessed Mother is said to have imparted the brown scapular to the saint — attached to it the promise that whomever dies wearing it will be saved.
Also related to the scapular is the apocryphal story that Pope John XXII received an apparition from Mary. In the message she delivered to the pope, Mary promised to retrieve from purgatory each Saturday those who died wearing the scapular in the previous week. While there is no verification or circumstantial evidence to support this claim, nor is it promoted today as part of the scapular devotion, it is interesting to note the connection of Saturday to Fatima. In 1925, the Fatima seer Lucia — at the time a professed religious nun — received a vision from the Blessed Mother requesting the First Saturdays devotion in reparation for sins, that which causes the sorrows of her heart. Long a day dedicated to the Blessed Mother, Saturday now contains special significance because of this subsequent apparition connected to Fatima — and those from Our Lady of Mount Carmel nearly a millennia before.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael. This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor.