The Fatima Cult

Article by Victor Balaban, Enyclopedia of millennialism and millennial movements (publisher link), "The Fatima Cult", Routledge (2000).

Apparitions of the Virgin Mary form an important element of popular Catholic apocalypticism. The most important apparitions in the development of twentieth-century Marian apocalypticism were those at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. Fatima is probably the most influential apparition site in the twentieth century in terms of its effect on how subsequent visionaries and apparition sites were perceived and understood.

What developed from Fatima was a new, continuing, prophetic role of the visionary that continued long after the apparitions had ended. Lucia’s memoirs provided details of the apparitions and elaborations of her visions’ meaning. The gradual elaboration of the “Third Secret” has sparked interest in secrets and allowed their meanings to be continually reinterpreted in light of changing world events. As a result, the messages of Fatima have become the core of the apocalyptic view of history espoused by most modern Marian visionaries. Secrets and their associated scripts have become a central element of all post-Fatima apparitions, particularly elements such as the Miracle of the Sun, promises of a visible sign of coming chastisements, communion with an angel, and warnings about Russia and the rise of atheistic communism.

The Apparitions

On 17 May 1917 three peasant children, ten-year-old Lucia dos Santos and her younger cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, were herding sheep outside the village of Fatima, Portugal, when they saw the first of six monthly visions of the figure of a beautiful lady surrounded by light who told them to recite the rosary every day. The children had actually begun to have visionary experiences as early as 1915 when Lucia and three other girls saw a figure that looked like “a statue made of snow,” but it was the news of the vision of 17 May that quickly spread throughout the village of Fatima. The children had apparently already identified their vision as “Our Lady” and reported that she had told them that she would appear again on the thirteenth of each month for the next six months. On 13 June, a small group of about fifty people watched as the children again saw “Our Lady” in the same spot, and reported that she would appear again on July 13.

Fatima occurred as bread riots swept through Europe in response to an increasingly unpopular World War I, and during a Catholic backlash against the Portuguese government’s anticlerical campaign. The apparitions at Fatima were quickly turned into the symbol of a popular Catholic resistance, and the subsequent Catholic government in turn promoted the cult very heavily. The resulting groundswell of popular support for the church was a crucial element of the popularity of the apparitions, and larger and larger crowds came to see each monthly apparition. On 13 July, 5,000 people came; on 13 September, 25,000; and by the last apparitions on 13 October 1917, the crowds were estimated to be 70,000 people.

The routine that had developed at these monthly apparitions was that the children would kneel near a tree where “Our Lady” had previously appeared and pray the rosary. Lucia would then announce that the Virgin had arrived, apparently converse with her, and finally announce that she could be seen leaving. On 13 October, the final apparition, the expectation had spread among the pilgrims that the Virgin was going to perform a miracle. It was a rainy day, but as the time of the apparition approached, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Many people in the crowd reported seeing the sun move and spin in the sky, others saw different colors radiating from the sun or else saw the face of Mary in the sun. This event has come to be known among Marian devotees as “The Miracle of the Sun,” and images of the sun moving in the sky have become incorporated into the basic schema of expectations at most subsequent Marian apparition sites.

The Influence of Fatima

Until World War II, the apparitions at Fatima were little known outside of Portugal. The messages of Fatima that are so important to Marian devotees today actually come from four memoirs written by Lucia between 1935 and 1941. More than previous visionaries, Lucia played an extremely active and approved role in defining the meaning of the Fatima apparitions both at the actual time of the visions, when she was the only one of the visionaries to interact with the crowds, but even more clearly in later years. Francisco and Jacinta died quite young, and so it was Lucia who was almost entirely responsible for shaping the cult of Fatima.

Lucia has continued to write about the apparitions of 1917 and her subsequent mystical experiences. More than anything, it is these writings that have made Fatima the most influential apparition site of the twentieth century.

With the publication of Lucia’s memoirs, hagiographic accounts of Fatima became increasingly popular. At a time when Catholics were trying to make sense of World War II and the postwar world, Fatima and the ideology associated with it became internationally famous. The messages from Fatima and other apparition sites were incorporated into anti-communist messages with calls for the conversion of Russia and images of Mary in battle against the forces of godless communism. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, elaborate devotions to Our Lady of Fatima developed, and several very popular lay organizations were founded to promote devotion to Mary. These included the Militia of the Immaculate Conception in 1917, the Legion of Mary in 1921, and the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima in 1947.

A great deal of the popular fascination with Fatima focuses on the apocalyptic predictions in the messages, especially the so-called Third Secret of Fatima. On 13 June and again on 17 July 1917, Lucia and her cousins reported that part of the message they had received from the Virgin that day was not a secret. The children were questioned about the secret, not only by friends and family but also by local officials such as the mayor, who threatened to have them boiled alive in oil if they did not tell. In her later writings, Lucia described a three-part secret received on 13 July. The first part was a vivid and frightening vision of hell. The second part was the revelation of the Devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, from Lucia of Fatima, and a message stressing the need for the Consecration of Russia as a way to obtain grace and mercy for the entire world. Lucia also alluded to a third part of the secret, one that she could only reveal to the pope. In 1943, Lucia did write down the third part of the secret. The secret was placed in a sealed envelope which the Bishop of Leiria kept in his safe until 1957. In 1957, the secret was sent to the Vatican, but there is no record as to what was done with it.

The contents of the so-called Third Secret of Fatima became a subject of intense speculation in Marian circles and have remained so ever since. During World War II, it was assumed that the secret referred to the outcome of the war. In the postwar years, the third secret was taken to refer to the ongoing struggle between the church and communism. As with all apparitions since the Middle Ages, it was presumed that Mary was interceding to save a beleaguered community, in this case the entire world. The key to defeating the forces of godless communism was for all sinners to renew their devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This interpretation was particularly encouraged by church authorities in Europe, who considered it their mission to bring young communist sympathizers back to the church.

Published interviews with Lucia at this time alluded to prophesies of impending doom as part of the secret. Mary was in a battle with the devil, Lucia reported, and God was preparing to chastise the world. Russia (the Soviet Union), if left unconverted, would become the instrument of God’s chastisement on the world. Mary was the last hope offered by God as a means to save those souls that would otherwise be going to hell.

In the 1950s the belief arose that the Third Secret was going to be made public in 1960. When this did not happen, a variety of scenarios were proposed as to why Pope Paul VI was unable to make the secret known. Some versions simply reasoned that it could not be made public while Lucia was still alive, but more elaborate scenarios were discussed where the secret was considered to be too dangerous to be disseminated. Some reports had the pope weeping or falling unconscious upon reading the secret.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a drop in the number of reported apparitions and in the popularity of lay devotions to Fatima. There are many reasons for this, but a major part was changing views within the church. During the Second Vatican Council in 1961-63, it was clear that many church officials and theologians felt that popular devotions to Mary were being overemphasized. Pope John XXIII, who called the council, even said “the Madonna is not pleased when she is placed up above her son.” Although Marian devotion did not end, the statements and discussion at Vatican II had the effect of discouraging Marian devotions, and presumably also influenced many bishops not to approve apparitions within their dioceses.

Since the early 1980s, revived popular interest in Marian apparitions has centered around the vision in Medjugorje in the former Yugoslavia. However, devotion to Our Lady of Fatima remains strong among traditionalist Catholics. For instance, on 13 May 1991, Pope John Paul II celebrated the tenth anniversary of the assassination attempt on his life by placing a crown of diamonds on a statue of Mary in Fatima. The crown included one of the bullets from the attack.


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