Every May 13th, people make a pilgrimage to Fatima. They come from across Portugal and from around the world. They gather in prayer to mark the apparitions of Mary to three shepherd children at Fatima on the 13th day of six consecutive months, starting on 13 May 1917.
This was no different on 13 May 2011 when thousands crowded the sanctuary at Fatima for Mass to be followed by the traditional procession. When the procession finished, images of Blessed John Paul II during his three visits to the Fatima were shown on a big screen monitor. Then all of a sudden, thousands of people started screaming "miracle." They were looking at the sun, all of them seeing an aureole, a luminous cloud like a rainbow around the sun.
The secular press reported the event, but not without comment. The media contacted a meteorologist who offered an explanation. For him, this was a natural event being merely the light of the sun reflected in ice crystals in the atmosphere at a high altitude. The meteorologist said that it was "one of those phenomena that we see often and do not notice, but when noticed during an emotional moment, has a different impact."
No doubt people witnessing this sight had a flashback to what took place on 13 October 1917. At this last apparition of Mary at Fatima, Mary revealed herself to Jacinta, Francisco and Lucia as Our Lady of the Rosary. A crowd of almost 100,000 people were present. The pouring rain drenched them to the skin. Then, all of a sudden, the sun appeared through the clouds. It made three rotations, each filled with the colours of the rainbow. The sun zigzagged in the sky. It began to descend towards the crowd. People screamed and cried out for mercy. They thought it was the end of the world. When the sun returned to the sky, the spectators noticed that their clothes were completely dry.
Those who witnessed this event included believers and unbelievers, sceptics and atheists, children and the elderly. Their recollections of the event differed only in minor details. Newspapers around the world widely reported the event.
When Mary appeared to the three children at Fatima, Portugal was no longer the strong Catholic country that it once was. The secular and anti-Catholic forces were strong. From 1910 to 1913, bishops and priests had been put in jail. Seminaries had been closed. Religious orders suppressed. Church property confiscated. Yet, in those difficult moments, our Blessed Mother appeared. She came as an ambassador of the mercy of God.
At Fatima, Mary's message was a strong appeal for penance and conversion. She gave the children three secrets. In the first, she showed the young children a vision of hell, letting them glimpse the eternal consequences of turning away from God. In the second, she prophesied the outbreak of World War II which would be preceded by a great sign. She also spoke of the damage that Russia would do under communism months before the October Bolshevik Revolution. She predicted that, in the end, her Immaculate Heart would triumph.
History has proven right the prophecies given to the children at Fatima. Mary had promised that there would be a great sign at her last apparition. Columnist Avelino de Almeida reported the event in O Seculo, the very influential newspaper of the day and a paper avowedly anti-clerical. He said, "Before the astonished eyes of the crowd ... the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws - the sun 'danced' according to the typical expression of the people."
On 25 January 1938, an aurora borealis appeared all over the northern hemisphere. It was seen as far south as Africa, Bermuda and California. People in Paris and elsewhere called their fire departments and reported that a great fire was burning. About a month later, Hitler seized Austria. Eight months later, he invaded Czechoslovakia. The world was entering another war even greater than the First World War.
Pope John Paul II publicly stated that he believed part of the third secret referred to the failed attempt on his life on 13 May 1981. With his unrelenting defence of freedom and human rights, the Pope played a major role in the demise of the Soviet Union. Together with bishops around the world, John Paul II consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on 25 March 1984. A few years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.
Many people question whether the third secret has happened as fully the first two secrets. The third secret spoke of the martyrdom of many bishops, priests, religious and faithful. Does this part of the secret refer to events of the past, the future or even the present?
At a time when there is an ever increasing secularisation of our culture, a disdain in the public forum for faith and a wide rejection of basic Catholic values, Mary's concern for us is no less than it was in 1917 when she visibly let thousands see the prodigy of the sun. The most recent reports of a similar phenomenon on 13 May 2011 will not go uncontested as a miracle.
Perhaps, there may be a natural explanation of what thousands saw this time when the images of Mary's Pope, Blessed John Paul II, appeared on the big screen monitor. After all, Benedict XVI has said, "God made the world so that there could be a space where he might communicate his love and from which the response of love might come back to him" (Homily at the Easter Vigil, 23 April 2011).
God has not abrogated his sovereign authority over his creation. Whether through natural or miraculous events, He wishes to communicate his love, his presence, his desire for us to turn from sin and be one with him. Would that our eyes be open to this truth at every moment!
Most Rev Arthur Serratelli is the Bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.