Circular Letter: Advent 2016
The Secrets of Fatima
1. The Importance and Relevance of the Fatima Message
In a few months’ time we will be celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the Fatima apparitions: The apparitions of our Blessed Mother to three shepherd children in a remote village of Portugal during the spring and summer months of 1917.These apparitions have profoundly affected and influenced the course of the twentieth century. If Mary’s requests had been heeded, we would be living in a quite a different world today. Moreover, since her message is perennial, it is likewise the question of the “tomorrow” we may choose or fail to choose to hand down to the next generations. It is, therefore, worth our while to review the events that happened there and to ponder their significance for our times.
In particular, we want to review in this article the so-called three “secrets” of Fatima. More specifically, we want to examine the Third Secret, not only because it has profound significance for our times, but also because of its teachings on the angels.
Before we can begin our study of this topic, though, we must first be aware of the fact that the Three Secrets were revealed to Sr. Lucy and her two cousins all at once during one big panoramic vision that was granted to them by the Blessed Mother on July 13th of 1917 at the Cova de Iria in Fatima.
2. The First Secret
The First Secret was the vision of souls falling into Hell because no one prayed and sacrificed for them. Sr. Lucy tells us that, “Our Lady showed us a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium, and amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair….” (Please note: all quotations from the Three Secrets are taken from the official translation of them published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in their document, The Message of Fatima of June 26, 2000, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the then Prefect of that Congregation.)
3. The Second Secret
The Second Secret was the revelation that Our Lord wanted to establish devotion to the Immaculate Heart of His Mother in order to help save souls from going to Hell. For after the vision of Hell ended, Mary told the children: “You have seen Hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart.” What’s more, she added—though this does not form part of the Second Secret per se—the request that Russia should be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart and that a Communion of reparation should be made on the First Saturdays of the month. She also gave the warning that if this were not done—then: “The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; and various nations will be annihilated.” However, she ended her message with both the promise and the prophecy that: “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”
4. The Third Secret: An Overview in Context
The Third Secret, however, cannot be summed up in a few short sentences like the first two, for it is a much more complex and detailed than the other two are. In fact, it can be said that the Third Secret itself, even though it was written down by Sr. Lucy in just one big paragraph, actually contains within itself three other secrets. Nevertheless, let us keep in mind, in order to properly understand the meaning and significance of the Third Secret, that it is also one integral part of the panoramic vision that was granted to the three children by the Blessed Mother on July 13, l917.
This message or secret also regards the ministry of the angels. Therefore, we may also hope to deepen our knowledge and love of the Holy Angels. We have here an opportunity to contemplate them as ministers through whom God implements His divine providence.
5. Part I of the Third Secret: An Angel with a Flaming Sword
So now let’s begin to examine the Third Secret systematically by reviewing each part of it as it was unfolded to Sr. Lucy in the final part of the vision. Thereafter, we will study the comments that Cardinal Ratzinger made about the significance of what was revealed. Accordingly, Sr. Lucy states that she saw: “An angel with a flaming sword in his left hand; flashing, it gave out flames that looked as though they would set the world on fire; but they died out when they came into contact with the splendor that Our Lady radiates towards him [that is, the angel] from her right hand: [And then] pointing to the earth, the angel with his right hand cried out in a loud voice: ‘Penance, Penance, Penance!'”
Consider how the angel, while holding a flaming sword in his left hand, pointed to the earth with his right hand while at the same time shouting out the words, “Penance, Penance, Penance!” in order, it seems, to stress the great need for and the importance of performing acts of penance in today’s sinful world.
The vision of the angel with the flaming sword, then, brings to mind the Cherubim with the “fiery revolving sword” (Gen 3:24) that the Lord stationed at the gates of the Garden of Eden in order to safeguard the Tree of Life after Adam and Eve had been expelled from Paradise. What’s more, the vision can serve to remind us of the angels of wrath described in great detail for us in the Book of Revelation, who will be commissioned by the Lord in the End Times in order to punish the world for its sins (cf. Chapters 15-16 of the Book of Revelation).
So how, then, are we to understand the significance of this vision so far and the command to perform penance by the angel? Cardinal Ratzinger in his commentary states that the: “Angel with the flaming sword represents the threat of judgment that looms over the whole world.” He goes on to explain: “The prospect that the world might be reduced to ashes by a sea of fire no longer seems pure fantasy, since man himself with his inventions has forged the flaming sword.” (Please note: all quotations of Cardinal Ratzinger, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from his Theological Commentary on the Message of Fatima that was published in the above mentioned document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith on June 26, 2000).
Nevertheless, it should be noted here that it is entirely within the providential power of God to send an angel with a flaming sword to chastise the world for its sins. For example, consider the time that the Lord sent an avenging angel to kill seventy thousand Israelites when King David, out of pride, conducted a census of the people (cf. 2 Sm 24: 15-17). On another occasion He sent an angel to strike down one hundred eighty-five thousand Assyrian soldiers when they attacked Jerusalem (cf. 2 Kgs 19: 35) because of the blasphemous pride of their king.
Cardinal Ratzinger then goes on to explain: “The vision shows us the power which stands opposed to the face of destruction, namely the splendor of God, and stemming from this the summons to penance given by the angel.” In other words, the prophesied chastisement can be prevented not only by the prayers and intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary but also by our own acts of penance and reparation. In short, if more people do more penance, then the chastisement prophesied in the Secret will not be inflicted on the world by the Lord for its sins.
For this reason, Cardinal Ratzinger stresses in his commentary that: “The purpose of the vision is not to show us some kind of film preview with a fixed future.” Rather, its purpose is to “mobilize forces of change in the right direction” since the “vision tells us not only about future dangers but also about how we can be saved from them.”
In other words, as he put, there is no such thing as an “immutable destiny.” That is to say, there is no such thing as a future that cannot be changed. For as he declares: “Faith and prayer are forces which can influence history.” For example, we have only to remember the case of the Prophet Jonah and the city of Nineveh. For when Jonah announced to the people of that ancient metropolis that their city would be destroyed within forty days, the king proclaimed a fast and, in response to the penances performed by the citizens of the city, the Lord in His great mercy relented of the prophesied punishment that He had threatened to inflict (cf. Jonah 3: 1-10). From this striking example in the Old Testament, we can learn something of the power that prayer and penance have to draw down the mercy of Almighty God upon us, even when in our eyes the situation looks hopeless.
6. Part II of the Third Secret: A Prophecy of Martyrdom
This concludes, then, the first part of the Third Secret and Cardinal Ratzinger’s commentary on it. So now let’s move on the second part of the Third Secret by reviewing what Sr. Lucy saw in the next sequence of her vision. We saw, she tells us:
“A bishop dressed in white. And we had the impression,” she stated, “that it was the Holy Father.” Moreover, she said, they saw: “Other bishops, priests, men and women Religious going up a steep mountain, at the top of which there was a big Cross of rough-hewn trunks as of a cork-tree with the bark….” When the bishop dressed in white reached the top of the mountain, while “on his knees at the foot of the big Cross, he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him.” Sr. Lucy further relates in the vision: “There died one after another the other bishops, priests, men and women Religious and various lay people of different ranks and positions.”
This concludes the second part of the Third Secret. How are we to understand this breathtaking and dramatic scenario? Cardinal Ratzinger explains as follows: “We can recognize the last century [that is, the twentieth century] in the vision.” For the twentieth century, as he went to say, “was a century of suffering and persecution for the Church, a century of world wars which have inflicted unprecedented forms of cruelty.” Indeed, Cardinal Ratzinger stated later in an interview which he gave to the journalist Peter Seewald, that “we can see in this text a brief snatch of a vision, in symbolic images, of the Church of the martyrs of the twentieth century” (God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2002, p.313).
To repeat: Cardinal Ratzinger affirms that Sr. Lucy saw in her vision of July 13th, something of the terrible persecutions that were to be unleashed against the Church by her enemies in the last century. That persecution, in fact, was unprecedented not only by its vastness but also by its viciousness. It is estimated that some twenty-six million Christians were martyred in the twentieth-century which is two-thirds of the total number of the forty million Christians who have been martyred in the two-thousand-year history of the Church. In other words, more Christians were martyred in the twentieth century than in all previous centuries combined. (N.B. These statistics were officially announced in the Roman Colosseum by Bishop Michel Hrynchyshyn, President of the Commission of the New Martyrs of the Vatican Jubilee Committee, on May 7, 2000, the Jubilee Day of the Martyrs.)
Most importantly, it can be stated now with certainty that the “bishop dressed in white,” whom Sr. Lucy saw killed on the mountain top in her vision was indeed Pope St. John Paul II. He himself stated this after having read the contents of the Third Secret while he was recovering in the hospital from the gunshot wounds that he had received during the assassination attempt on his life on the most significant date of May 13th—Feast day of Our Lady of Fatima—in the year l981. In fact, Cardinal Dziwisz, the former personal secretary of Pope John Paul, later testified: “It was there, in the hospital, that the Holy Father read the ‘secret'[on July 18th]. When he was finished, all his remaining doubts were gone. In Sister Lucia’s vision, he recognized his own destiny” (A Life with Karol, Doubleday, 2008, p. 136).
Cardinal Ratzinger similarly notes in his commentary on the Third Secret: “We can undoubtedly see a convergence of different Popes in the figure dressed in white who was killed on the mountain top.” How so? Cardinal Ratzinger goes on to explain: “Beginning from Pope Pius X right up to the present pope [that was Pope John Paul at the time], they all shared in the sufferings of the century and strove to go forward through all the anguish along the path which leads to the cross.”
So in other words, we may say that the Bishop dressed in white whom Sr. Lucy saw being killed in the vision was at one and the same time both an image for and a prophecy of the sufferings that lay in store for the popes of the twentieth century. And we can probably project this to the popes of the twenty-first Century as well, unless there is a great hour of conversion and return to God.
7. Part III of the Third Secret: The Angels and the Martyrs
Finally, let’s now review the Third Part of the Third Secret. In this part of the vision Sr. Lucy saw: “Beneath the two arms of the Cross… two angels each with a crystal aspersorium [that is a holy water sprinkler] in his hand in which they gathered up the blood of the martyrs and with it sprinkled the souls that were making their way to God.”
The blood that was dripping down from the two arms of the Cross and which was collected by the angels represents simultaneously the Blood of Christ along with the blood of the martyrs who were killed as they struggled to reach the mountaintop. Cardinal Ratzinger asserts this in his commentary saying: “The Blood of Christ and the blood of the martyrs are considered as one.”
This vision seems to indicate to us, then, that the graces won by the martyrs will not only be collected up by the angels but also distributed by them to other members of the Mystical Body of Christ who are suffering persecution and oppression in order to strengthen them in their trials. For there is an ancient proverb from the early Church which states that the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians” (cf. Tertullian, Apologetics, Chapter 50). In other words, the supreme sacrifice that the martyrs make by giving up their lives for God can draw down countless graces for the expansion of the Church. Accordingly, if more Christians were martyred for the faith in the twentieth century than in all previous centuries combined, then we can expect that more graces will be given to the Church in this century and in the following centuries than in all previous centuries combined.
It is certain, then, that the graces needed for a “new springtime of the Church” that Pope St. John Paul II continually talked about during the last years of his papacy can and indeed will be given. The only thing uncertain is the extent of our cooperation with these graces.
Nevertheless, as we know from the current persecution of Christians in the Middle East, the prophesied persecution of the Church that Sr. Lucy saw in her vision of July 13th, l917 still continues even now and on into the foreseeable future. Pope Benedict XVI went so far as to state in the homily that he gave at the Fatima shrine on the Feast day of Our Lady of Fatima in 2010 that: “We would be mistaken to believe that Fatima’s prophetic mission is complete.” What’s more, he concluded his homily by expressing the wish: “May the seven years which separate us from the centenary of the [Fatima] apparitions hasten the fulfillment of the prophecy of the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to the glory of the Most Holy Trinity” (cf. Homily of Pope Benedict XVI for the Feast day of Lady of Fatima on May 13, 2010 published in the L’ Osservatore Romano newspaper). To understand the full significance of this statement, though, we should recall that Mary herself promised the children after giving them the Second Secret that: “Even though the good will be martyred; and the Holy Father will have much to suffer; and even though many nations will be annihilated; still in the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”
8. The Prophetic Dimension of Fatima
The prophetic mission of Fatima is not complete, for as Pope Benedict has gone on to explain: the “Church continues to suffer, and a threat still hangs over the human race…. For even now, in every conceivable form, power threatens to trample down faith” (cf. Interview with Peter Seewald in Light of the World, Ignatius Press, 2010, pp. 165-166). In fact, the Church continues to be persecuted in the twenty-first century almost as much as it had been in the twentieth century. Cardinal Dolan noted at the end of his term as President of the U.S. Bishop’s Conference: “Many of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world… are experiencing lethal persecution on a scale that defies belief.”And then he went on to note that: “The twenty-first century has already seen in its first thirteen years one million people killed around the world because of their belief in Christ” (Zenit.org, November 12, 2013).
The message of Fatima in general, then, and the Three Secrets in particular should be seen, as the current Bishop of Fatima put it, “as a prophecy in motion” (cf. Address of Bishop Antonio Marto to the World Apostolate of Fatima, in Fatima, Portugal on March 29, 2011). In other words, it should be seen as a prophecy that continues to unfold before our eyes. While it has a permanent theological content that helps us to understand history, it also has that contingent prophetic quality that invites us to change history through prayer, adoration, and reparation (cf. Address of Bishop Marto, March 29, 2011).
What can we learn from the Fatima message? Cardinal Ratzinger synthesizes this so beautifully in his commentary on the Third Secret, stating: “Faith and prayer are forces which cannot only influence history but also that, in the end, prayer is more powerful than bullets, and faith more powerful than armies.” One of the greatest proofs that we have of this reality is the fact that Pope John Paul II was miraculously preserved from death by the Blessed Mother when he was shot by an assassin in l981. In fact, “He became convinced that his life had been saved—no, given back to him anew—thanks to our Lady’s intervention and protection” (Cardinal Dziwisz, Life with Karol, p. 136). Pope John Paul himself put it: “It was a mother’s hand that guided the bullet’s path” from causing a fatal wound (Pope John Paul II, Message to the Italian Bishops on 13 May 1994, in L’Osservatore Romano, no. 22, 1 June 1994). What’s more, he added at another time, in order to stress the miraculous help that the Blessed Mother had given to him: “One hand shot, and another guided the bullet” (Dziwisz, p. 136).
The prophetic message of Fatima is a great gift that the Lord and His Blessed Mother have given to mankind. For it can be used as a lens by which we can not only study and learn from the past but also view the future of the papacy, the Church, and the world in the years to come.
9. Fatima and the Future
With all of this in mind, then, what might the future hold in store for us? Well, if we look through the lens of the Third Secret in particular, we will be able to see a fork in the road that lies just up ahead of us. While the material dimension of the Prophecy of the martyred pope belongs to history, the moral challenge is perennial. If mankind is converted, there will be peace and abundant grace, but if mankind remains obstinate, things can get only worse. Hence, at this fork in the road of history, one road leads to an avenging angel with a flaming sword in his hand while the other road leads to a tender mother’s flaming heart filled with love.
The history of salvation makes it clear, then, that the world is always faced with the decision of choosing which one of these two roads it wants to follow. For the Lord has set before us life and death, a blessing and a curse, penance and pleasure, good and evil. Let us today, then, choose life and Mary. For we know that, in the end, good will triumph over evil. We know that God has the final word. We know that the Blessed Virgin Mary is on the winning side. Let us never forget that Mary, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, has promised us—that no matter what may happen to an individual pope, or around the world, or within the Church, — “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph!” and there will be peace. Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us.
Fr. Matthew Hincks, ORC
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