Fatima 2, October 1917, by Donal Anthony Foley
Despite the fact that the Fatima miracle of the sun on 13 October 1917 shows every sign of being a genuinely supernatural event, that hasn’t stopped critics objecting to it. But before considering their arguments, we ought to focus on the fact that some rational explanation needs to be found for the remarkable changes that took place in Portugal following the miracle.
Following the assassination of the Portuguese King and his son in 1908, a Republic was proclaimed in 1910, and a period of vicious persecution for the Church ensued. One politician, Afonso Costa, openly boasted that “in two generations Catholicism will be completely eliminated from Portugal.”
So something profound must have happened on 13 October 1917, given that on the occasion of the silver jubilee of the first apparition, in May 1942, the Bishops of Portugal could declare: “If someone had shut his eyes twenty-five years ago and were to open them again today, he would no longer recognize Portugal, so profound and vast is the transformation …”
Members of the anti-clerical elite of the country had gone to the Cova da Iria on 13 October 1917 to mock the peasantry, but had come away chastened by what they had seen. The miracle of the sun was the cause of this, and was the catalyst for the subsequent great changes in the country.
But some writers have adopted a critical attitude to the idea that there really was a miracle proper at Fatima involving the sun. For example, Fr Stanley Jaki prefers to speak of a “meteorological miracle,” although he acknowledged that something clearly “miraculous” did take place, especially given that it was predicted three months in advance. Fr Jaki’s thesis seems to be that ice-particles in the clouds in the region of the sun may well have refracted its rays and broken them up into the colors of the rainbowhence the different colors seen by the crowd. It is clear, though, that a truly supernatural “apparition” of the sun could have descended towards the people at Fatima, without resorting to explanations involving meteorology.
One problem with Fr. Jaki’s approach is that he calls into question some well known biblical miracles, such as the Old Testament miracle of the sun involving Joshua, when he commanded sun and moon to stand still (Josh 10:12-15). For him, this was not a true miracle, and he argues rather that the biblical account indicated a “metaphorical phrase to convey a purely psychological sense of the lengthening of one afternoon.”
He advances a complicated but unconvincing explanation for how the Fatima miracle might have been caused, involving cloud vapor, ice crystals, “lens-like condensations of the air,” and finally “sudden temperature inversions” as a reason for why the sun apparently moved towards the earth. But he could not explain the drying of the ground and clothes experienced by many witnesses, and concluded that his ideas “constitute a hypothesis and nothing more.”
Contrast the above with what was said by the local Bishop in his 1930 pastoral letter ratifying the apparitions: “The phenomenon of the Sun on October 13, 1917, described in newspapers of the time, was simply marvelous and caused the greatest impression on those who had the happiness to witness it. ... This phenomenon, which went unnoticed by astronomers, and hence was something unnatural, was witnessed by people of all sorts and social classesbelievers and unbelievers, journalists of the principal Portuguese daily newspapers, and even by individuals who were miles away; which destroys all explanations of collective illusion.”
Everything about the miracle of the sun points to the supernatural and the miraculous, and perhaps the most likely explanation is that it was a type of “apparition,” although one on a huge scale. Since it was only seen in the general locality of Fatima, and the sun was observed as being normal elsewhere, this indicates that it was a relatively local phenomenon.
Another critic of the miracle was Hilda Graef, an influential writer, and author of Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion. Her objections, though, are more serious than those of Fr Jaki, in that she sought to deny its validity altogether. Her arguments revolve around the following points: firstly, that if a person stares at the sun they will see all sorts of colors; secondly, that diverse phenomena can occur in the atmosphere after heavy rain; and finally, that Lucia’s cry of “Look at the sun!” induced a bout of “mass suggestion” in the crowd, who were in expectation of something happening. She considers this last point the most likely explanation for many of the phenomena given in the various accounts.
These arguments, though, are a good example of how superficial many of the criticisms of Fatima have been. The first point about staring into the sun and seeing colors is very weak, as is the second one about the state of the atmosphere after rain. Similarly, her third point, about mass suggestion inducing the crowd to believe they had seen a miracle, is totally implausible.
Since the miracle of the sun was seen by 70,000 people, it’s very difficult to see how the vast majority of such a huge crowd could have reported a miracle unless they really saw something. Although the crowd were expecting a miracle, they had no idea that it would involve the sun. And this is ignore those who were far from the Cova, and thus not susceptible to “mass suggestion.”
Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, is a more recent critic, a self proclaimed atheist, who has made it his mission in life to argue that God, and the miraculous, do not exist. He sees the miracle of the sun as a mass hallucination, but grants that it is “not easy to explain how seventy thousand people could share the same hallucination.” He evades the obvious implications of this by saying that the sun could not have moved without this having had a devastating impact on the solar system as a whole. What he forgets, or chooses to ignore, is that God created the sun, and just as in the case of the miracle involving Joshua, he is quite capable of either stopping the sun or making it apparently move, in a vast apparition, without any harmful side effects: he is all powerful and can do anything. Dawkins starts with the presupposition that miracles can’t happen, and therefore the miracle of the sun could not possibly have taken place, regardless of what 70,000 witnesses say. And the fatal flaw with that position is that he is not being genuinely open to reality and truth.
These critics then, to varying degrees, deny the miracle of the sun, but it is clear that their arguments do not really stand up to critical investigation, and so we can be reassured that the miracle of the sun at Fatima, arguably the greatest miracle in 2,000 years of Church history, is something we can safely believe in.
This article appeared initially in the Wanderer.