On 13 May 1917, ten year old Lúcia Santos and her younger cousins, siblings Jacinta and Francisco Marto, were looking at sheep at a location known as the Cova da Iria near their home village of Fátima in Portugal. Lúcia described seeing a woman “brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal ball filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun.”
] Further appearances are reported to have taken place on the thirteenth day of the month in June and July. In these, the woman exhorted the children to do penance andActs of Reparation, and to make sacrifices to save sinners. The children subsequently wore tight cords around their waists to cause pain, performed self-flagellation using stinging nettles, abstained from drinking water on hot days, and performed other works of penance andmortification of the flesh. Most important, Lúcia said that the lady had asked them to pray the rosary every day, repeating many times that the rosary was the key to personal and world peace. This had particular resonance since many Portuguese men, including relatives of the visionaries, were then fighting in World War I. According to Lúcia’s account, in the course of her appearances, the woman confided to the children three secrets, now known as the Three Secrets of Fátima.
Thousands of people flocked to Fátima and Aljustrel in the ensuing months, drawn by reports of visions and miracles. On 13 August 1917, the provincial administrator and anticlerical Freemason, Artur Santos (no relation), believing that the events were politically disruptive, intercepted and jailed the children before they could reach the Cova da Iria that day. Prisoners held with them in the provincial jail later testified that the children, while upset, were first consoled by the inmates, and later led them in praying the rosary. The administrator interrogated the children and unsuccessfully attempted to get them to divulge the content of the secrets. In the process, he tried to convince the children that he would boil them one by one in a pot of oil unless they confessed. The children, however, resisted. That month, instead of the usual apparition in the Cova da Iria on the 13th, the children reported that they saw the Virgin Mary on 19 August at nearby Valinhos.
As early as July 1917 it was claimed that the Virgin Mary had promised a miracle for the last of her apparitions on 13 October, so that all would believe. What transpired became known as “Miracle of the Sun”. A crowd believed to be approximately 70,000 in number, including newspaper reporters and photographers, gathered at the Cova da Iria. The incessant rain had finally ceased and a thin layer of clouds cloaked the silver disc of the sun such that witnesses later said it could be looked upon without hurting the eyes. Lúcia, moved by what she said was an interior impulse, called out to the crowd to look at the sun. Witnesses later spoke of the sun appearing to change colors and rotate like a wheel. Not everyone saw the same things, and witnesses gave widely varying descriptions of the “sun’s dance”. The phenomenon is claimed to have been witnessed by most people in the crowd as well as people many miles away. While the crowd was staring at the sun, Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta said later they were seeing lovely images of the Holy Family, Our Lady of Sorrows withJesus Christ, and then Our Lady of Mount Carmel. They said they saw Saint Joseph and Jesus bless the people. The children were aged 10, 9 and 7 at the time.
Columnist Avelino de Almeida of O Século (Portugal’s most influential newspaper, which was pro-government in policy and avowedly anti-clerical), reported the following: “Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bare-headed, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws – the sun ‘danced’ according to the typical expression of the people.” Eye specialist Dr. Domingos Pinto Coelho, writing for the newspaper Ordem reported “The sun, at one moment surrounded with scarlet flame, at another aureoled in yellow and deep purple, seemed to be in an exceeding fast and whirling movement, at times appearing to be loosened from the sky and to be approaching the earth, strongly radiating heat”. The special reporter for the 17 October 1917 edition of the Lisbon daily, O Dia, reported the following, “…the silver sun, enveloped in the same gauzy purple light was seen to whirl and turn in the circle of broken clouds…The light turned a beautiful blue, as if it had come through the stained-glass windows of a cathedral, and spread itself over the people who knelt with outstretched hands…people wept and prayed with uncovered heads, in the presence of a miracle they had awaited. The seconds seemed like hours, so vivid were they.”
Since no scientifically verifiable physical cause can be adduced to support the phenomenon of the sun, various explanations have been advanced to explain the descriptions given by numerous witnesses. A leading conjecture is a mass hallucination possibly stimulated by the religious fervor of the crowds expectantly waiting for a predicted sign. Another conjecture is a possible visual artifact caused by looking at the sun for a prolonged period. As noted by Professor Auguste Meessen of the Institute of Physics, Catholic University of Leuven, looking directly at the Sun can cause phosphene visual artifacts and temporary partial blindness. He has proposed that the reported observations were optical effects caused by prolonged staring at the sun. Meessen contends that retinal after-images produced after brief periods of sun gazing are a likely cause of the observed dancing effects. Similarly Meessen states that the colour changes witnessed were most likely caused by the bleaching of photosensitive retinal cells. Meessen observes that sun miracles have been witnessed in many places where religiously charged pilgrims have been encouraged to stare at the sun. He cites the apparitions at Heroldsbach, Germany (1949) as an example, where exactly the same optical effects as at Fatima were witnessed by more than 10,000 people.
There is, however, no agreement regarding the most likely physical cause for such a visual phenomenon. A mass hallucination is more typically found among small groups rather than 70,000 people. Visual artifacts are commonly reported among large groups witnessing solar eclipses without eye protection, but these reports bear no resemblance to the descriptions at Fatima. The alleged apparition at Heroldsbach, in Franconia, was investigated by the Catholic Church and was not approved.
There is also no evidence that people who came to Fatima, even those expecting a miracle, were staring at the sun before Lucia spoke. Most would have been focused on the tree where the children said the lady appeared. Phenomena including luminous mist and showers of flower petals had been reported by onlookers as occurring around and above the tree at previous visitations.
In addition to the Miracle of the Sun, the seers at Fatima indicated that the lady prophesied a great sign in the night sky which would precede a second great war. On January 25, 1938, bright lights, an aurora borealis appeared all over the northern hemisphere, including in places as far south as north Africa, Bermuda and California. It was the widest occurrence of the aurora since 1709 and people in Paris and elsewhere believed a great fire was burning and fire departments were called. Lucia, the sole surviving seer at the time, indicated that it was the sign foretold and so apprised her superior and the bishop in letters the following day. Just over a month later, Hitler seized Austria and eight months later invaded Czechoslovakia.
Three Secrets of Fátima
The first secret was a vision of Hell, which Lúcia describes in her Third Memoir, as follows:
- “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 the 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, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. The demons could be distinguished by their terrifying and repulsive likeness to frightful and unknown animals, all black and transparent. This vision lasted but an instant. How can we ever be grateful enough to our kind heavenly Mother, who had already prepared us by promising, in the first Apparition, to take us to heaven. Otherwise, I think we would have died of fear and terror.”
The second secret included Mary’s instructions on how to save souls from Hell and convert the world to the Christian faith, also revealed by Lúcia in her Third Memoir:
- “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. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night illuminated by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father. To prevent this, I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the First Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.”
Fate of the three children
Lúcia reported seeing the Virgin Mary again in 1925 at the Dorothean convent at Pontevedra, Galicia (Spain). This time she said she was asked to convey the message of the First Saturday Devotions. By her account a subsequent vision of Christ as a child reiterated this request.
Lúcia was transferred to another convent in Tui or Tuy, Galicia in 1928. In 1929, Lúcia reported that Mary returned and repeated her request for theConsecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart.
Lúcia reportedly saw Mary in private visions periodically throughout her life. Most significant was the apparition in Rianxo, Galicia, in 1931, in which she said that Jesus visited her, taught her two prayers and delivered a message to give to the church’s hierarchy.
In 1947, Sister Lúcia left the Dorothean order and joined the Discalced Carmelite order in a monastery in Coimbra, Portugal. Lúcia died on 13 February 2005, at the age of 97. After her death, the Vatican, specifically Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (at that time, still head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), ordered her cell sealed off. It is believed this was because Sister Lúcia had continued to receive more revelations and the evidence needed to be examined in the course of proceedings for her possible canonization.
Lúcia’s cousins, the siblings Francisco (1908–1919) and Jacinta Marto (1910–1920), were both victims of the Great Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918-20. Francisco and Jacinta were declared venerable by Pope John Paul II in a public ceremony at Fatima on 13 May 1989. Pope John Paul II returned there on 13 May 2000 to declare them ‘blessed’ (a title of veneration below that of sainthood; see Canonization). Jacinta is the youngest non-martyred child ever to be beatified.
In 1941, Lúcia claimed that the Virgin Mary had predicted the deaths of two of the children during the second apparition on 13 June 1917. Some accounts, including the testimony of Olímpia Marto (mother of the two younger children) state that her children did not keep this information secret and ecstatically predicted their own deaths many times to her and to curious pilgrims. According to the 1941 account, on 13 June, Lúcia asked the Virgin if the three children would go to heaven when they died. She said that she heard Mary reply, “Yes, I shall take Francisco and Jacinta soon, but you will remain a little longer, since Jesus wishes you to make me known and loved on earth. He wishes also for you to establish devotion in the world to my Immaculate Heart.”
Exhumed in 1935 and again in 1951, Jacinta’s face was found incorrupt. Francisco’s body, however, had decomposed.