Something About Mary

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
A Special Media Moment

Who wouldn't raise an eyebrow over an organization featuring victim newsgroups like alt.food.waffle-house, and whose members' home pages feature passages such as "We see the bride-to-be tonight wearing a wide-brim sombrero and sunglasses, a shredded shirt with the words on it WHO FARTED?, and a pair of Dingo cowboy boots."
Five years ago today in Suck.


Outside the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua, at the corner of Sullivan and Houston Streets in New York City, there is a modest diorama of plaster statues depicting the Fatima visitation. With its three innocent shepherd children in traditional peasant outfits, a benevolent Madonna looking down, and a sprinkling of placid sheep, the scene seems as iconic and steeped in myth as a nativity scene (which is what replaces the diorama during the Advent season). Inquiries in the church office reveal that neither a secretary nor an on-duty priest can remember how long the Fatima scene has been there or who donated it, and it's probable that over the years even Sullivan Street's many believers (including that notable Catholic Vinnie "The Chin" Gigante) have thought of the scene as mere symbol, not as a depiction of a specific twentieth century event, an event in which one of the principle players is still alive (and that's not even counting Mary).

The political climate at the time of the Fatima apparitions — May to October, 1917: Portugal's first Republic, founded in 1911, had made a strong effort to weaken the Catholic church — confiscating church property, eliminating the state religion, and prohibiting religious instruction in public schools, among other things. (This anti-clerical policy has been exaggerated by both the Fatima literature and an eventual Warner Bros. movie in order to paint the Republic as a pre-Soviet communist state.)

At least three different, secular histories of Portugal available in the San Francisco Public Library name the Fatima apparitions as one of the factors that helped mobilize public support for a December, 1917 military coup that doomed the Republic. When Antonio de Oliveira Salazar established his long-running fascist regime, he spelled out the recipe for maintaining a complacent Portuguese population as "fado, Fatima and football."

The Marian visitation that inspired all this has been exhaustively documented by believers and non-believers, church authorities and conspiracy theorists, so that Fatima aficionados can easily find out such minutiae as the lunch diets of the three pre-adolescent seers or the quality of the trees native to "Cova da Iria" (the pasture where the events took place). In short, on May 13, 1917, the three little shepherds met the Virgin just outside Fátima, a town about 50 miles north-northeast of Lisbon. Mary "was more brilliant than the sun," writes the leader of the pack, Lucia dos Santos, in her Memoirs, "and radiated a light more clear and intense than a crystal glass filled with sparkling water, when the rays of the burning sun shine through it." On Mary's orders, the three returned on the 13th of each succeeding month and received further instructions. As word leaked out, the Cova began to attract enormous crowds, but only the three kids could see the Virgin. The July 13 visitation proved particularly eventful; in August the children were detained by a provincial Administrator named Artur de Oliveira Santos (and were actually thrown in jail a few days later), but received a visitation at a different location. Finally, by October 13, some 70,000 people — braving rain and bomb threats — arrived to watch the apparition, and as the Virgin had promised young Lucia Santos, the "miracle of the sun" was seen by about half the specators (The other half saw nothing).


The Catholic Church proceeds cautiously in verifying new miracles, and it's hard to fathom why church authorities were willing to take a divine gamble on the Fatima kids. Of the three, ten-year-old Lucia had already racked up an impressive history of being visited by saints and angels; her cousins, seven-year-old Jacinta Marto and nine-year-old Francisco Marto, had some of the self-abnegating piety we might associate with Rod and Todd Flanders. (When threatened with death, for example, nine-year-old Francisco was joyful at the prospect of meeting God; seven-year-old Jacinta, as recorded in Lucia's Memoirs, was a self-tormentor who ate raw acorns and olives in order to suffer from their bitterness, fasted to the point of fainting, welcomed the flu that eventually killed her as suffering for the sake of sinners, and bound herself with circulation-stopping ropes until Mary told all three children to cut it out.) Lucia by her own admission had a habit of playing tricks on adults. Francisco appears never to have seen the Virgin at all except when prompted by the girls. And so on.

Nonetheless, having judged the Fatima apparitions "worthy of belief," the church began reaping unexpected fringe benefits a few decades later, when Lucia Santos (again acting on instructions from Mary herself) started leaking the three secrets that eventually took the tale of the Fatima visits beyond the confines of Rome and Lisbon (or possibly Newark) and into the wide world of America, Moscow, and the Weekly World News.

Jacinta and Francisco Marto both died within a few years of the visitations, (in fulfillment of the Virgin's prophecy), but Lucia Santos went on to become a Carmelite nun, eventually entering the convent at Coimbra, where she remains to this day. The first two volumes of her Memoirs — endearing skeches of young Jacinta — were published in May and October of 1938. But for the third installment, brought out during the Jubilee Year 1942, with Europe in flames and the world ready for more potent miracles, Sister Lucy and her editor the Bishop of Leiria came up with something truly special. In this excerpt from the third Memoir she unveils the first two parts of the three-part secret, the content of which is vital to any understanding of subsequent Fatima history:

Our Lady showed us a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration...

We then looked up at Our Lady, who said to us so kindly and so sadly:

"You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that He is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father.

"To prevent this, I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the First Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she will be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world."

Let's go to press! With the third Memoir Sister Lucy was transformed from a small-town seer into a major figure in Catholic history. Discrepancies in her story were easily wiped away: That Hitler invaded Poland during the pontificate of Pius XII was immaterial, Sister Lucy explained, because the war had actually started with the occupation of Austria in 1938, when Pius XI still wore the shoes of the fisherman. That Sister Lucy — at a time when Hitler's invasion of Russia was at its high tide — strongly implied that Russia was the real problem shrewdly avoided offending Portugal's non-aligned Fascist government, and seemed prescient a few years later, as the shooting war settled into a nuclear standoff between the liberal and communist worlds. Whether the Russians were supposed to convert to Roman Catholicism or back to Orthodox Christianity is a question that remains deferred as of this writing. The fact that the prophecy was delivered after the fact was a minor quibble.

Boosted by a great cliffhanger (the Third Secret known only to the Pope and Sister Lucy, to be revealed in 1960), the Fatima prophecies proved wildly popular. In New Jersey, a "Blue Army" was mustered in Our Lady of Fatima's name, steeled to oppose the Red Army with all their souls. Sequel Mary visitations occured around the world, and were immediately condemned by the church: On her farm in Necedah, Wisconsin, Mrs. Mary Ann Van Hoof was so filled with the spirit of the Queen of Peace that she could throw grown men across the room and pinpoint the locations of Soviet submarines off the coast of the United States. Societies, committees, splinter groups, and sources of further information grew up, along with a humming industry of Third Secret speculation. It was a rare postwar Catholic school education that didn't include at least some scuttlebutt or educated guesswork about the secret that remained locked in the Pope's sock drawer. Disturbing questions arose. When 1960 rolled around, why hadn't Pope John XXIII revealed the Third Secret, as Our Lady had requested? For the same reason, it was said, that reading the Third Secret had caused Pope Pius XII either to faint or to weep bitter tears. As modern Catholicism's first foray into eschatology, Our Lady of Fatima proved popular with non-Catholics as well. The Catholic Church generally leaves apocalyptic prophecies and talk of the Rapture to the Protestants, but Fatima gave Catholics a doomsday playbook more powerful than anything Hal Lindsey could cook up — the collective cognitive dissonance that results when a truth more sad than World War II, more terrible than Bolshevism, is kept secret.

For the rest of us, The Third Secret of Fatima may have been just one more thing to worry about during the Cold War, like fluoridation or killer bees. But for soldiers of Mary around the world it was, and still is, a matter of life and death.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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