One hundred years ago, in rural Portugal, when three young children were looking after their families’ sheep, something happened which was the beginning of perhaps the most extraordinary series of events of the twentieth century. Lucia, one of the children, takes up the story:

“We began to see … a light, whiter than snow, in the form of a young man, quite transparent and as brilliant as crystal in the rays of the sun…

When he came near us he said: ”Do not be afraid. I am the Angel of Peace. Pray with me”… And he knelt and bent his forehead to the ground…we did the same and repeated the words we heard him say:

“My God, I believe, I adore, I hope and I love You. I ask forgiveness for those who do not believe, nor adore, nor hope, nor love You”

After repeating this prayer three times he rose and said “Pray in this way. The hearts of Jesus and Mary are ready to listen to you”. And he disappeared”.

Monument of the Guardian Angel of Portugal apparition to the three shepherd children of Fátima

In the months that followed, Our Lady herself appeared several times to the children, (“a lady brighter than the sun”, Lucia called her) giving them a message which reverberates still.

We were fortunate enough recently to be part of a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Fatima, which commemorates the apparitions to Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta. It was a profoundly moving experience.

Fatima instantly strikes you as a place of joy, peace, fervent prayer and simple faith. There is an absence of commercialism and we had the clear impression that the village and homes of the visionaries had changed little since 1917.

The teaching of our Lady of Fatima is straightforward: we must pray much harder, especially for those who do not believe in God and for those in Purgatory, and we must undertake more “penances” (in essence, small acts of self-denial, cheerfulness, gratitude for our blessings, a hopeful attitude, turning away from selfishness, etc). Our Lady stressed that sin is a terrible reality in the world, that the devil and hell exist and that those who set their face against God run the terrible risk of going there. Unless we pray earnestly, there will never be peace in the world. These are not popular messages today, but there is no way round them. The Church holds unequivocally that the truth of the Fatima visions, and the teaching arising from them, is not in doubt.

Lúcia Santos (left) with her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto, 1917

For me, what makes Fatima so authentic is the joy and fervour of the pilgrims (so many of them young people!) thronging the Basilica and the town – on the week before our visit well over a million came to see Pope Francis canonise Jacinta and Francisco. It was as clear as the beautiful Portuguese sky that something supernatural and hugely significant occurred on those hillsides exactly 100 years ago, something wholly authentic, and that the effects of Our Lady’s appearances are still very much with us today – pilgrims visit Fatima from all over the world to pray, go to confession, attend Mass and adore before the Blessed Sacrament.

The miracle of the sun, dancing and plunging in the sky, occurred on 13th October 1917. This had been accurately foretold by Our Lady as a sign to the world and was witnessed by over 70,000 people – believers and non-believers alike. However, it is the testimony of the visionaries, two of whom died in 1920 after great suffering and one (Lucia) only in 2005, which is so convincing to sceptical, modern minds. It has the undeniable ring of truth. Their lives were changed utterly by the visions – they were turned wholly towards God and spent each moment praying for sinners, including the prayer now said by many today after each decade of the Rosary: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of your mercy”.

Page from Ilustração Portuguesa, 29 October 1917, showing the people looking at the sun during the Fátima apparitions

Particularly moving are the words of little Francisco. He was deeply distressed at the sinfulness in the world, feeling that, as Our Lady had told him, if greatly offended Jesus and made Him sad. I have been thinking hard about what it means for God to be offended. I found an excellent answer in Ruth Burrows’ “Interior Castle Explored”:

“Is it really true that we “offend” or “displease” God? What do we mean by such expressions? Surely what we mean is that when we sin, that is, when we disobey His loving summons to fuller life, we tie God’s hands. He cannot give us all he wants to give us; cannot make us happy as he wills. This is God’s grief; this is how we offend him.

We arrived in Fatima during the terrible events in Manchester and Humberto, the pilgrims’ photographer, was quick to offer his sincere sympathies to us all on behalf of the people of Portugal: “We are praying for all those affected” he said, and added very significantly “and also for the young man.” That is the true spirit of Fatima – prayer for all those most in need of mercy.

Fatima is an unambiguous wake-up call. The central message is the fact that Jesus and Our Lady have the tenderest, most intense love for each one of us, but that we must respond much more fervently and pray for those who, for whatever reason, live in darkness.

Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us

Socius Novus

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