This year is the 75th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady in Fatima, Portugal. October 13th is the anniversary of the "miracle of the sun."
The apparitions began on May 13,1917, when Lucia, aged ten, and her two cousins, Francisco, nine years of age, and Jacinta, aged seven, were tending her parents' flock in a little valley about a kilometre outside Fatima. All three were illiterate and not particularly pious; they recited the rosary each day, as they had been told, by reciting only the first two words of the Our Father and the Hail Mary!
Disturbed by lightning, they were running for shelter, when the two girls saw a "pretty little lady" standing above a tree. Only Lucia heard her say she was from heaven, telling them to come back on the thirteenth for the next six months. Jacinta never spoke to Our Lady and initially Francisco could not see the vision.
The apparitions were eventually approved by the Church and both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have visited Fatima on pilgrimage. However, some difficulties do remain and it seems that Fatima is like so much of the rest of Catholicism, where we have confusion, if not error, mixed with truth (even in the Scriptures), with our treasures often found in earthen vessels, or shoddy containers.
A couple of these difficulties should be mentioned. It was on May 13th that Lucia believed Our Lady to say, in answer to her question, that a local child who had died would be in purgatory until the end of the world. This seems excessive by any human standards.
On October 13th, Lucia believed Our Lady to say that the First World War would end that day and that the soldiers would soon return home; in fact, the War did not end for another thirteen months.
Crowds increased in number each month, without any encouragement from the government or the Church. In fact this was a time of strong anti-clericalism and the secular government feared a religious revival. The local administrator was a violent atheist who imprisoned the children for a night on August 13th, threatening to fry them in boiling oil! The children stuck to their story.
The local priest was initially sceptical also, as was his duty, and he even wondered in June whether the apparitions were from the devil. With time, such opposition softened.
Our Lady was described as wearing a white dress with gold borders, tied at the neck with a golden cord. She also wore a white veil, carried a white rosary and wore small gold earings.
On October 13th an excited crowd of 70,000 had gathered at the Cova in pouring rain for the expected miracle. Lucia's mother was frightened that there would be no miracle and the crowd would take revenge on the family; thousands were on their knees weeping and praying when Our Lady did appear telling Lucia that she was the lady of the Rosary. She then disappeared.
It was after this that Lucia cried out "Look at the sun" and claimed she saw a succession of visions. The rain had now stopped and tens of thousands saw the phenomena which they described in various ways: the sun rotating, zig-zagging from east to west, appearing to fall from the sky and then return. The dance of the sun was an extraordinary event by any calculations.
Church approval came slowly, after Francisco died of influenza in 1919 and Jacinta in 1920. A canonical inquiry was set up by the bishops in 1922 and in 1930. They declared the apparitions worthy of belief. Pope Pius XII was a great champion of Fatima. On the twenty-fifth anniversary he consecrated the world to Immaculate Heart of Mary and in 1952 he consecrated Russia to Our Lady. Lucia claimed that if this were done, the conversion of Russia would follow.
Apparitions such as Lourdes or Fatima can never be at the centre of our faith; only Christ the Son of God has this central role. Also, all apparitions fall under the authority of the Church, not just in the sense that the Church is forced to judge whether people can be prudently encouraged to visit and pray, but, more importantly, whether the messages are in conformity with the Gospel.
It was the messages of Fatima, despite the odd, difficult detail, much more than the October miracle, which gained Church approval. The threefold message of Fatima was the call to penance, to the recitation of the rosary and to devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Lucia herself became a Carmelite nun and wrote two accounts of the visions, revealing part of the "secret." The full secret was to be revealed in 1960 but Pope John XXIII decided to postpone this indefinitely, and subsequent Popes have done likewise. While gossip and conjecture abound on the contents, no reliable information is available.
Lenin had not staged his coup when the apparitions ended and no-one then foresaw the evil the Communists would unleash on the world. For many years at the end of Mass, in response to the Fatima message, we prayed for the conversion of Russia.
The Communist collapse in Europe and Russia is a momentous event, most in its consequences, and never hinted at by the best opinion. Equally surprising was the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev to Pope John Paul II in December 1989, a visit that will rank with Leo the Great's bargaining with the barbarians in the fifth century or, more aptly, with the visit of the German Emperor Henry IV to submit to Pope Gregory VII at Canossa in 1077.
"We need spiritual values, we need a revolution of the mind," Gorbachev told the Pope. "All of them [the people of the U.S.S.R.] have a right to satisfy their spiritual needs."
Whatever the subsequent history of Eastern Europe and the former U.S.S.R., the collapse of Communist atheism is a far greater miracle than the miracle of the sun. It is an amazing conclusion to the second Christian millennium.
Dr George Pell is a Melbourne auxiliary Bishop and a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.