Fatima May 1917, by Donal Anthony Foley
May and October are traditionally the months associated with devotion to the Blessed Virgin, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that when she appeared to the little shepherds at Fatima, her apparitions spanned those months, beginning on 13 May 1917, and ending the following October with the spectacular “miracle of the sun.”
It can be convincingly argued that Fatima is the most important of all the modern Marian apparitions, but unfortunately, it’s all too easy to skim over Our Lady’s actual message, given the modern approach to spirituality, which, under the influence of television and the internet, can be all too shallow. We need to dig down and meditate on what happened during these apparitions, and see what lessons we can learn from them.
13 May 1917 was the Sunday before the feast of the Ascension that year, and the children, Lucia dos Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto, had been to early Mass that day, before leaving to pasture the family flocks at the Cova da Iria, not far from their homes. Around midday they said the rosary together, and were then surprised to see a bright flash of something like lightning, followed quickly by another flash; they looked up to their right to see, in Lucia’s words, “a lady, clothed in white, brighter than the sun, radiating a light more clear and intense than a crystal cup filled with sparkling water, lit by burning sunlight.”
They had been prepared for this encounter by three apparitions of the Angel of Portugal, or the Angel of Peace, the previous year, during when he had taught them various prayers, which they assiduously practised.
The beautiful Vision spoke to reassure the children, smiling as she said:
“Do not be afraid, I will not harm you.”
So like Christ appearing to his frightened Apostles after his crucifixion and resurrection, the Blessed Virgin’s first concern was not to frighten the young seers.
Lucia was the only one of the three who actually spoke to Our Lady, and while Jacinta could hear her, she didn’t speak during any of the apparitions; Francisco heard nothing and had to ask the others what was said each time.
Lucia asked her where she came from, and in reply Our Lady pointed to the sky and said: “I come from heaven.” Reassured by this, Lucia asked her what she wanted: “I have come to ask you to come here for six months on the 13th day of the month, at this same hour. Later I shall say who I am and what I desire. And I shall return here yet a seventh time.”
Lucia then asked if they would go to heaven, and was told “Yes”, she and Jacinta would go to heaven, but Francisco would need to say many rosaries first.
Lucia’s thoughts turned to two young women who had died recently, and she was told that one was in heaven and the other, her friend Amelia, would be in purgatory “until the end of world.” According to Lucia’s fourth memoir, Amelia was a young woman who was “about 18 or 20 years old when she died.” As such she, like all of us, was quite capable of committing sins which would have entailed a long period of purification in purgatory.
There is a tendency to “canonize” people at their funerals and reassure the relatives that they are in heaven, but surely this is an over optimistic approach in the light of traditional Catholic teaching? The reality is that most people are likely to spend some time, perhaps quite a long time, in purgatory, and therefore their relatives should be encouraged to pray for them and particularly to offer Masses for their deliverance. (This is one good reason, amongst others, for wearing the brown scapular, with its “Sabbatine privilege” promise of deliverance from purgatory on the Saturday after death).
The other thing worth noticing is the sobering directness of Our Lady’s words: she didn’t patronize the children, nor play down the serious side of purgatory. So for us too, she is a mother who will, speaking in spiritual terms, speak to us directly, providing we are prepared to listen. And that “listening” can only really happen in prayer.
The next thing that the Blessed Virgin said, is, if we think about it, quite extraordinary: “Are you willing to offer yourselves to God and bear all the sufferings He wills to send you, as an act of reparation for the conversion of sinners?”
This was spoken to three young children, living in an isolated country village, but in essence it sums up a very important aspect of the message of Fatimathat we are also called to accept whatever sufferings we have to endure as ultimately coming from the hand of God, as a way of making reparation for our own sins and those of others. This is not a very popular message nowadays, but it is an essential part of the Gospel message, that, like Christ, we should take up our daily cross and follow him.
Lucia as spokesman for all three readily agreed to accept such sufferings, to which Our Lady in reply said “Then you are going to have much to suffer, but the grace of God will be your comfort.”
Surely there is a crucial message here, too, one which we need to ponder, namely that suffering in this life is inevitable, but if we trust in God, we can count on His grace to support us in whatever we may have to suffer, and thus our sufferings will become bearable.
Lucia recounted that, at the same moment as she said these words, Our Lady opened her hands, “communicating to us a light so intense that, as it streamed from her hands, its rays penetrated our hearts and the innermost depths of our souls, making us see ourselves in God, Who was that light, more clearly than we see ourselves in the best of mirrors. Then, moved by an interior impulse that was also communicated to us, we fell on our knees, repeating in our hearts: ‘O most Holy Trinity, I adore You! My God, my God, I love You in the most Blessed Sacrament!’ ”
This is another aspect of the Fatima message that it is all too easy to skim over without realizing its full significance, that is that the children were privileged, in some mysterious way, to see the “essence” of God. Later on, this profound experience would prompt Francisco to say that he wished he could give joy to God who was so sad because of the sins of mankind.
After allowing them to remain like this for some time, Our Lady finished with a request: “Say the Rosary every day, to bring peace to the world and the end of the war.” With that she began to rise into the air, moving towards the east, until she disappeared.
The final lesson for us from this first apparition is thus the importance of the daily rosary, a practice so important it can stop wars and bring peace to the world, a message which our violence-plagued world desperately needs to hear.
This article appeared initially in the Wanderer.