This is the first in a six-part series exploring the Marian apparitions at Fatima, Portugal, 100 years ago. Future installments will run the first issue of every month through October.
The world in which the three children of Fatima lived was not unlike our own. They began receiving supernatural visions in 1916, in the midst of World War I. Dubbed the “war to end all wars,” in many ways it embodied the rampant secularism beginning post-Enlightenment. Today there is no doubt that secularism has a firm grip on our world — not to mention an ongoing fear and threat of war in a deeply divided and wounded world. We are still a world longing for peace.
The message of Fatima is best understood in this context. The children were chosen to relay to us a heavenly message that was meant to direct us back toward humanity’s ultimate and truest destiny — to live as God’s true children. Fatima reminds humanity of our call to mirror our heavenly Father, to foster peace.
In many ways the message of Fatima was meant to heal a plagued society, by prescribing various essential aspects of Christian life that had gone by the wayside in a secularized world. The message of Fatima gave us the balm we needed to heal society’s wounds. That message, which was so relevant then, remains so relevant today.
Preparing the children
The apparitions at Fatima, the centenary of which the Church celebrates this year — specifically from May to October — were prefaced by three other apparitions of the self-described “Angel of Peace.” Some points of the angel’s message are worth considering and provide us with some of the kernels of the messages later delivered by Our Lady. Much more can and will be said about the messages from Our Lady’s apparitions in the coming months.
A look at the delivery of all great heavenly messages in Scripture will show us how God prepares the recipients of the message. Consider here the prophets of the Old Covenant, or even St. John the Baptist, who heralded the Messiah — the one who came to bring peace by reconciling the world though his sacrifice.
Thanks to such preparatory work, people knew not only to look for the Messiah — the longed-for savior of God’s people — but also to recognize him when he came. Those preparatory messengers were emissaries who prepared the way for the King.
At Fatima, the angel, a title that means “messenger,” prepared the three shepherd-children of Fatima to receive the message that Jesus intended for his mother to deliver.
The angel who visited the Fatima children came to them three times in 1916. And those preparatory visits were extremely important to prepare the children for Our Lady’s visits. But they also serve to highlight some of the essential themes to the overall message of Fatima that presents anew the remedy to sin that Christ alone can give.
Faithful in prayer
The foundation of the angel’s message to the Fatima children was to increase their prayer life. It was explained that a strong prayer life was needed to strengthen and sustain them in the future plans that Jesus and Mary had for them. It is known that the lives of the seers would change dramatically once the apparitions became known — that they would be mistreated and suffer. And the two Marto siblings, Francisco and Jacinta, would suffer painful, early deaths.
Beyond teaching the children prayers, the angel asked them to make sacrifices. But Lucia, the cousin of the Marto children and the eldest of the visionaries, asked the angel how they should go about this.
Years later, Sister Lucia recorded the angel’s response in her diary.
“Make of everything you can a sacrifice, and offer it to God as an act of reparation for the sins by which he is offended, and in supplication for the conversion of sinners. You will thus draw down peace. ... Above all, accept and bear with submission, the suffering which the Lord will send you.”
This angelic message contains several themes central to the later messages delivered to the children by Our Lady: sacrifice, love for sinners and peace. None of these themes are groundbreaking in the sense that they all flow from and direct us to Christ. But they were a necessary reminder to a troubled world that lost sight of these essentials.
Lives of sacrifice
By inviting the children to practice lives of sacrifice, the angel invited them to imitate Christ’s own life. Everything the Lord did, he offered to his heavenly Father.
On the night before he died, he sacrificed his own will in favor of God’s in the Garden of Gethsemane. On Good Friday he offered up his spirit to the Father for our sake, in the greatest act of sacrificial love the world has ever known. He gave us a model to follow at the Last Supper, showing us how to imitate his act of love on Calvary — to put ourselves aside and sacrifice ourselves in humble service to others. As St. Thomas Aquinas declared: “To love is to will the good of another.”
When we live in imitation of Christ’s sacrificial life, we find the cure to the selfishness that plagues the world. Today’s world is in great need of sacrificial living, of loving — to will the other’s good above our own.
The angel of Fatima says all things should be offered as sacrifice. So like Christ, we should sacrifice to God all that we would normally long for: our wants, comforts, longings or inclinations. We offer our very lives to God, who gave them to us in the first place.
St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, calls us to live sacrificially, exhorting us even “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1).
The message that the angel delivers about sacrifice connects it to two other realities. Our sacrifices should be offered on behalf of sinners. This is an act of charity, of love for those who are separated from God through whatever sins they committed. By living sacrificially and working to reconcile our brothers and sisters with God, the angel then teaches that peace will be the result.
Peace is the fruit of reconciliation. By working to heal ruptured relationships and eradicate selfishness, peace will naturally flow. In his own sacrifice, St. Paul says Christ was “making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20).
Our Lady gave further and clearer instructions to the children of Fatima relating to prayer and sacrifice, all of which aimed to direct the world on the path to peace — a world engaged in so much strife and destruction resulting from a lack of prayer and sacrifice.
After the thorough investigations conducted by the Church, which happens after any sort of supernatural apparition, the Church has endorsed the message of Fatima at the highest levels. The local bishop of Fatima deemed the apparitions to be worthy of belief by the faithful in 1930. The messages of Fatima became especially significant during the World War II era, and the apparitions were particularly championed by the wartime pontiff Pope Pius XII, who was ordained a bishop on May 13, 1917, the date of Our Lady’s first apparition to the shepherd children.
The first half of the 20th century was dominated by two world wars in which Russia was a major player. The rise of communism in Russia — an embodiment of secularism’s ideals, with its persecution of religion and its exaltation of domination and selfishness — was seen as a major obstacle to world peace. Sister Lucia received later visions from Our Lady in which she asked for the entire world, particularly Russia, to be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart — the heart through which we contemplate Christ’s own. Pope Pius XII did so on multiple occasions, notably in a solemn ceremony at the Vatican in 1942. Pope John Paul II also did so in 1984.
Subsequent popes have all been proponents of the message of Fatima. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI pointed out the connection of sacrifice and peace in Fatima’s message during a pilgrimage to the Fatima shrine, noting that the Christian is defined by an “unshakable hope which bears fruit in a love which sacrifices for others.” He added: “Only with this fraternal and generous love will we succeed in building the civilization of love and peace.”
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s The Catholic Answer. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.