A saga of spirituality, secrecy and scepticism

 

The death of the last of the Children of Fatima revives the debate about the true meaning of their vision, writes Shane Hegarty

In Portugal there is a saying: O segredo é a alma do negócio - secrecy is the soul of business. Fatima was landed with possibly the biggest, most discussed, most feared and most profitable secret of them all. In 1917, three young children reported visions of the Virgin Mary and Fatima went on to become the country's third most popular tourist attraction, hosting six million people a year, some of them arriving as penitents on bruised knees.

When Sr Lucia de Jesus dos Santos, the last of the surviving children, died this week it was no wonder that the country declared a day of mourning and that canvassing in the general election was suspended. Whatever about the spiritual miracle, the economic one is beyond doubt.

At the age of 10, Lucia, with her two cousins, Jacinta (seven) and Francisco Marto (eight), claimed to have witnessed six apparitions while tending sheep. For the final one, 50,000 people gathered and the sun was said to have spun and swooped in the sky, although there were many people present who did not see it. Jacinta and Francisco died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919-20, but from her cloistered life as a Carmelite nun, Lucia's life story and revelation of the three secrets of Fatima made her a central figure of 20th-century Catholicism.

However, even as it brings comfort to the faithful, the Fatima tale contains much to occupy the sceptic, for whom it is less about divine intervention than political intrigue, religious convenience and mass delusion. One commentator has even pointed out that the number of people killed by cars on the way to Fatima each year is larger than those claiming to be cured.

The three secrets, debunkers mention, were written down by Lucia only in the 1940s, and were revealed only after the fact. The first was a vision of hell familiar to Christian culture: licking flames, evil demons, much groaning.

The second appeared to deal with the end of the first World War and beginning of the second, and included the rise of communist Russia.

The third secret, though, was the one that kept the suspense going, and which greatly contributed to the popularity of the shrine. The Virgin Mary had said that it could be revealed by 1940, and should be by 1960, but silence from the Vatican prompted only conspiracy and frustration. Those affected included a former Trappist monk, who in 1981 hijacked an Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to London, doused himself with petrol and threatened to light it unless the Pope revealed the Third Secret of Fatima.

The rumour was that each pope, upon hearing the secret, had either fainted or been left speechless for days afterwards. When it was finally revealed in 2000, it proved somewhat anti-climactic. The text was open to interpretation, involving a "bishop in white", walking amid urban destruction and corpses of religious people, before eventually being murdered by soldiers. Pope John Paul II believed it was a reference to the attempt on his life in 1981. Not all were convinced. "I have worn white a lot myself," commented one Portuguese bishop.

Nevertheless, the cult of Fatima has always been substantial in Portugal.

Although reluctant at first, the church gradually accepted the story although critics claim that finally giving credence to the story in 1930 was opportunism at a moment of political turmoil in the country. With its anti-communist message, it was embraced by the authoritarian Catholic regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, and his years in power are often described as being ones of "football, fado [Portuguese song] and Fatima".

However, at the time of the apparitions, the children displayed impressive fortitude, not least when the local mayor kidnapped them and it was said he threatened to boil them in oil if they didn't deny the apparitions.

For Fr Brendan Purcell, a UCD philosophy lecturer, this is hard to ignore. "Whatever about the meaning of the phenomenon and all that, to stick to the veracity of the story is beyond belief. To be so accepting of a lie even in the face of a death sentence is an important detail."

Lucia's veracity, though, has been questioned even within the church. Cardinal Ratzinger, a leading Vatican figure, said he believed Lucia's visions may have been conjured from the pages of her books. Another priest said she was someone who lived in a "delirious world of infantile fantasies" and suffered "religious hallucinations". Lucia had subsequently claimed to have had several visions of an angel before 1917, and of both Mary and Christ as late as 1929.

Ten years old at the time of the apparitions, with a mother who taught catechism and bible stories to local children, Lucia would have been familiar with both Marian adoration and religious imagery. She was also familiar with the Marian apparition in La Salette, France, in 1846, during which two child shepherds were given secrets relating to divine anger and threatened wrath.

The Fatima visions were of a Virgin Mary familiar to the children from Marian shrines, and when their visions included other figures such as Joseph and Christ, these too corresponded with contemporary iconography. Meanwhile, the pronouncements were familiar: that they must say the rosary and bear hardships to ensure that sinners reached heaven.

Cosmologist and writer Carl Sagan has argued that the advice that emerges from religious apparitions always appears to be generated from within the person and is influenced by the culture they inhabit.

FR PURCELL, OPEN-MINDED on these matters but impressed by the children of Fatima, says "With these predictions it is always the same. You almost never get an exact time and date of an event. Because it's general, you can neither prove nor disprove it, but what matters is that the moral intent is clear". The simplicity of such messages, he suggests, comes from how they would not be accepted if they weren't in line with the basic 10 commandments of the church.

Ultimately, of course, it's a matter of faith whether you believe and even Catholics are not required to accept it. It was neither the first nor last apparition to excite both believer and disbeliever. In 2003, an employee at Milton Hospital, Boston, pointed out how condensation trapped between panes of glass looked a little like the Virgin Mary. Within weeks, 40,000 people had looked at the window. How hard they had to squint to make out the image probably depended on how much each wanted to believe it was there.