Today, May 13, 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the first apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to three little shepherd children at Cova da Iria, Fatima, in Portugal. The three shepherd children are Lucia Santos, aged 10 at the time, and her two cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, aged 8 and 7 respectively. Today, also Pope Francis canonised two of the three Fatima children: Francisco and Jacinta at the centenary celebration at Fatima. Thus, we have two new saints in the Universal Church. There is an interesting prelude to the apparitions. In the spring and summer of 1916, Lucia and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta were herding sheep at Cova da Iria near their home village of Fatima. They later said they were visited three times by an apparition of an angel. They said the angel, who identified himself as “The Angel of Peace,” taught them prayers, to make sacrifices, and to spend time in adoration of the Lord.”
Following this angelic apparition, on May 13, 1917, the children reported seeing a woman “brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal goblet filled with the most sparkling water, and pierced by the burning rays of the sun.” The woman wore a white mantle edged with gold and held a Rosary in her hand. She asked them to devote themselves to the Holy Trinity and to pray “the Rosary every day, to bring peace to the world and an end to the war.” On the throne of Peter at this time was Pope Benedict XV. This was during the period of the First World War. During the war, Benedict XV had made repeated but forlorn appeals for world peace. So in May 1917, he appealed directly to the Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede for peace in the world. The response to the Pope’s appeal was Mary’s appearance at Fatima over a week later. In one of her accounts of the apparition, Lucia, the oldest of the three children, recounted the request of the Blessed Virgin on the first month of her apparition: “Say the Rosary every day, to bring peace to the world and the end of the war.”
The Blessed Virgin Mary repeated this same request in the July apparition. She said to Lucia: “I want you to come here on the 13th of next month, to continue to pray the Rosary every day in honour of Our Lady of the Rosary, in order to obtain peace for the world and the end of the war, because only she can help you.” Unpredictably, the First World War ended barely a month after the last apparition in October. Many Catholic commentators have said that the end of the war was secured not by arms but by the praying of the Rosary. As a result of the Fatima apparition, the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary today has acquired heightened significance and spread rapidly throughout the Catholic world. Because of the rich spiritual benefits of the Fatima apparition, many people today easily think that Marian devotions in the months of May and October started in the twentieth century. They often forget that these devotions have a history that dates back to centuries past.
Our Lady predicted a short life for Francisco and Jacinta. Francisco dies of the Spanish fever on April 4, 1919. He was just eleven. Jacinta died of Pleurisy on February 20, 1920. She was ten. Lucia, by contrast, lived a long life, which crossed the threshold into the third millennium. She died in 2005 at the age of 97, having spent much of her life as a Carmelite nun at Coimbra, Portugal. Thanks to Francisco, the wording of a prayer at the very end of every decade of the Rosary has come down to us. It was he who composed the prayer, “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy.”
Fatima has long been associated with St John Paul II. The Polish-born pope credited the Virgin Mary with having saved his life in 1981 when a would-be assassin, the Turkish Mehmet Ali Agca 2 shot him on May 13 at St Peter’s Square. The following year, May 13, 1982, Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage to Fatima to thank Our Lady for saving his life from bullets that would have otherwise killed him. One of the bullets fired at the pope now adorns the crown of the Statue of Our Lady at Fatima.
In speaking about the spiritual relationship which we all should foster as children of Mary, we need to draw our attention to the message of Fatima as a reference point for our spiritual life, not just in this month of May, but always. We need to grasp the message as something that is still perennially relevant to us today, after 100 years. The message of Mary speaks to the men and women of every age and time with its originality, newness and depth. What is demanded is our capacity to enter anew into the scene of Fatima and listen to what Our Lady is saying to us.
The Three Secrets of Fatima, which summarise the entire message of Mary’s apparitions, come down to two central themes: repentance and conversion. Mary urged the three pious children to pray the Rosary every day for the conversion of sinners and to obtain peace for the world. She wanted the whole human race to be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart and to stop offending her Son. This was all she asked. In an interview with the German journalist Peter Seewald in the year 2000, which is recorded in the book, God and the World, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) was asked what the content of the message of Fatima was. His answer is profoundly clear on the matter. He said: “It becomes clear, from the whole drift of the three parts of the secret, that the call to repentance is central… The whole secret is a dramatic call to the freedom of men, a call to change ourselves.” In other words, Fatima is a call from the Mother of God for a renewed fidelity to penance and prayer, which basically is the message of the Gospel. Also, it brings out the desire of Our Lord that his Mother be better know, loved and venerated through devotion to her Immaculate Heart.
Against this backdrop, apparitions do not add anything new to the content of our faith. They only clarify, reinforce and heighten the significance of the message of Jesus which we already well know from the Bible. The life and ministry of Jesus was a constant call to repentance. At the start of his public life, Jesus began by saying, “The kingdom of God is near at hand. Repent and believe the Good News” (Mark 1:15). Every year, during the Holy Season of Lent, we hear the call to repentance and conversion. We need to take this call seriously every day of our life. Only those truly converted to God will experience the joys of eternal life. St. Louis Marie de Montfort in the introduction to his book, True Devotion to Mary, says that the world does not really know the Blessed Virgin Mary and that is one of the reasons why Jesus Christ is not known as he ought to be; and that if the knowledge of Jesus Christ is to come into the world, it will be a necessary consequence of knowing Mary, who brought him into the world for the first time. St Louis Marie de Montfort further says: “He who shall find Mary shall find life, that is, Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (Jn. 14:6) But no one can find Mary who does not seek her; and no one can seek her who does not know her; for we cannot seek or desire an unknown object. It is necessary, then, for the greater knowledge and glory of the Most Holy Trinity, that Mary should be more than ever known.”
The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said that the importance of Fatima lay in the fact that poor, illiterate children – not the wealthy or learned – were able to convey a powerful message of love and forgiveness to the world at a time of war. If this message of love and forgiveness, repentance and conversion, is to resonate in our own spiritual lives, we ought to make a definitive commitment to praying the Holy Rosary every day for ourselves and for sinners. “If men knew what eternity is, they would do everything to change their lives.” This message of Our Lady of Fatima must become the guiding light in our journey to sanctity. May Our Lady of Fatima intercede for us all. May St. Francisco and St. Jacinta pray for us. Amen.
Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Ojeifo
Young & Catholic Soul Saturday Abuja, May 13, 2017