Pope Francis prays in front of a figure representing Our Lady of Fatima during his visit to the Chapel of the Apparitions at the Fatima shrine, in Fatima on 12 May 2017. (Photo credit: TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Catholicism at its most bonkers—and prescient

The strange and startling events at Fatima continue to intrigue and haunt as the Catholic Church wrestles against the liberalising world order

In Fatima heaven touched the earth to remind us of the relationship between our life in time and the life we are called to beyond death. The celestial visitation also served to remind us of the continuity, responsibility and consequence between earth and heaven and between heaven and earth. Heady stuff, really. So says an information panel about Jacinta, one of the three Portuguese shepherd children whose experiences in the Cova da Iria fields outside the hamlet of Aljustrel in 1917 led to Fatima becoming one of the most important Catholic shrines and pilgrimage sites in the world, visited by up to 20 million people a year (when the world isn’t locked down).

Fatima is a pretty unusual place simply in its modern manifestation before you even get into the miraculous side of it all—Disneyland for Catholics, as one person described it; I stayed at Hotel Alleluia—very good value, I might add—the ethereally styled corridor outside my room looking like how a corridor in heaven might look. If you enjoy a shopping experience in which to look at a store window is to meet hundreds of pairs of doleful Marian eyes looking back at you and to find inside every shelf bulging with statues of the Virgin Mary, the Holy Family and cherubic baby Jesuses, then Fatima is the place for you.

When I arrived at the Sanctuary of Fatima at the end of a day’s Camino hiking, as I leaned on my walking sticks taking in its impressively encircled expanse, with the Chapel of the Apparitions to one side and the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary at the top of the square—Portugal’s answer to Rome’s Saint Peter’s Square—a masked man approached me and asked where I had come from. After telling him that I had started in Bayonne in southwest France about 1,700 kilometres ago—which was true, though at the beginning I hadn’t even thought of reaching Fatima—he backed away while crossing himself, in terror or reverence, I wasn’t sure. Not far from the Chapel of Apparitions, a woman was advancing on her knees in penance along a 300-metre marble pathway toward the chapel that marks the spot where five of the Virgin Mary’s six appearances to the children happened.

The Catholic Church has continued in the role of an inconvenient Cassandra offering unheeded advice

There’s a lot to take in at Fatima. Ten-year-old Lucia Santos and her cousins 7-year-old Jacinta and 9-year-old Francisco Marto were tending sheep when they began to say the rosary as was their custom (kids have really changed, right). Suddenly they experienced a vision of a woman surrounded by light who identified herself as the Lady of the Rosary who exhorted them to pray the rosary for world peace. Lucia described seeing the lady as “brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal glass filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun.” That alone would have secured Fatima’s reputation. But there was much more to come from heaven touching earth. Over the course of her six apparitions, the Virgin Mary gave the children three “secrets” and promised a miracle in October. By then, word had spread about strange miraculous goings on around Fatima, and on 13 October a crowd of about 70,000 people witnessed the Miracle of the Sun, involving the sun spinning and changing colour in the sky and appearing to fall toward Earth. It’s been dismissed as a mass hallucination, wishful thinking or just a meteorological phenomenon. Maybe, but quite a coincidence, all considered.

And then there were those “secrets” that were more prophesies and have enflamed imaginations and conspiracy theories ever since. Two of the secrets were revealed in 1941 in a document written by Lucia—who was the only one of the three left alive then—while she wrote the third secret down and sealed it in an envelope that was kept hidden by the Vatican until releasing it in 2000.

The first vision was of all the souls in Hell. Reportedly the vision lasted only a second, but the children said that it was almost unbearable. Makes sense. The second secret predicted the end of World War I that was ongoing, and the beginning of World War II; the Virgin Mary also asked that Russia be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart. The third vision was of a pope, along with other bishops, priests, religious and lay people, being killed by soldiers.

There’s nothing like mixing religion and politics for a volatile brew

Personally, I find the second secret most intriguing. Of all the countries Mary might have chosen, she hit on the one that was going to cause itself and everyone else immeasurable problems over the course of the rest of the century (and still into this one). It’s easy to forget that Russia hasn’t always been the global menace it’s portrayed as today. As I previously wrote about in We have much to learn from nineteenth-century Russia, the middle decades of the nineteenth century in Russia were “distinguished by a wealth of good prose-writing unsurpassed in world literature … as new writers poured out their ideas in a succession of stories and novels that would take the world by storm.” You could argue those Russian writers were touched by heaven as they revealed and discussed great truths about the human heart and spirit, but along came the Russian Revolution, the rise of communism, and that ennobling side of Russia was lost and replaced by the sad story we know of purges and gulags, followed by the Cold War and all the terrible machinations that went with it.

The majority of Catholics seem to get most excited about the third secret, due to how it relates to the failed assassination attempt on John Paul II in 1981. The obvious remonstration to this, though, is the fact the pope didn’t die as in the Fatima vision. But another pope, Pope Benedict XVI, whose generally negative media coverage doesn’t tend to touch on him being one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians, had some wise words to say about all this.

Writing as Cardinal Ratzinger in 2000 in response to the third secret being released by the Vatican, he noted how the secret “will probably prove disappointing or surprising after all the speculation it has stirred. No great mystery is revealed; nor is the future unveiled.” He went on to explain that “the purpose of the vision is not to show a film of an irrevocably fixed future,” rather “it’s meaning is exactly the opposite: it is meant to mobilize the forces of change in the right direction.” As a result, he cautioned, we must not get entangled in arguments over to what degree the vision tallied with the assassination attempt. Rather, the vision—as with the others—”speaks of dangers and how we might be saved from them.”

Leaving aside the manner in which the secrets were rolled out to the world, with the Vatican’s involvement leaving them open to all manner of fiddling to serve the Church authorities’ purposes, Ratzinger makes a valid point (as great theologians are wont to do). Because Mary’s basic warning about peace, as cliched and simplistic as it was, was borne out in a rather terrible way. Along with those two world wars, it’s estimated that humans killed in excess of 100 million fellow humans in the twentieth century, according to R. L. Sivard in World Military and Social Expenditures. And when it comes to the third vision and its persecution of the religious, I suspect Mary would be just as irked by the persecution of non-Christian religious groups that gave us the Holocaust and extermination of 6 million Jews, and by our seeming inability to either learn from or be willing to confront the dangers of religious intolerance as evidenced by the current Chinese government’s continuing genocidal actions against the country’s Muslim Uighur population.

Like Mary, the Catholic Church has continued in the role of an inconvenient Cassandra offering unheeded advice, which I suspect is one of the reasons why it generates so much hostility, in addition to entirely understandable reasons such as its cover up of child sex abuse by so many priests. As the 1960s sexual revolution was getting into gear, the Catholic Church warned about the perils of unbridled sexual freedom, contraception and abortion.

In Love and Responsibility, the 1960 book written by Karol Wojtyła before he became Pope John Paul II, in surprisingly candid prose he analyses the human sexual urge and relates it to marriage and monogamous relationships within the “norms of Catholic sexual morality.” The unintended consequences sped on a slippery slope of unrestrained sexual urges that Wojtyła and the Church warned of are increasingly prevalent in society today: the breakdown in family structures, increasing objectification of the body and porn addiction, abortion becoming simply another form of contraception, the gathering momentum for euthanasia.

It remains to be seen how having the first Catholic president in 60 years plays out in our progressive times

That the Catholic Church might have had a point on some of these awkward issues is highly inconvenient to its detractors, which is perhaps why no one, especially mainstream media, really talks about it. But Catholicism and its apparently antiquated social teaching may be about to become more front and centre in American politics—and thereby more front and centre for all of us given America’s ideological lead—because of the tension and widening distance between the new president being a church-going Catholic and the progressive policies of the Left that his administration may push and is already pushing. It’s not alleviated by the fact that Joe Biden chose a vice president who “attacks conservative Christians, especially Catholics, who dare to challenge the strict creed of identity politics,” Damian Thompson wrote in his article Godforsaken: religion is vanishing from American politics for The Spectator’s US magazine.

As Thompson alludes to, much of the head scratching about the societal ruckus going on in America currently misses the argument that the underlying tension in the world’s most religious developed country is “the tectonic shifts going on between God-fearing America and its emerging secular twin,” as discussed in we have much to learn from nineteenth-century Russia.

One of Biden’s first Tweets as president, on 22 January, addressed the issue of the US Constitution protecting a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose an abortion without excessive government restriction: “As we mark the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, now is the time to rededicate ourselves to the work ahead. From codifying Roe to eliminating maternal and infant health disparities, our Administration is committed to ensuring everyone has access to the health care they need.”

It generated a particularly Catholic response from some Twitter users who re-Tweeted an elegant-looking painting of Jesus sitting in a desert setting—presumably during his 40-days-and-nights stint—looking pretty mournful and hacked off with life.

But the thorny issue of Biden’s Catholicism versus very un-Catholic parts of his administration’s policy goes beyond disgruntled Catholic American voters showing their artistic merits on Twitter. According to how the Vatican tried to suppress criticism of the new president, the latest edition of The Spectator’s Holy Smoke podcast, which focuses on important and controversial topics in world religion, more liberal elements within the leadership of the Catholic Church in America, who support Biden, had been hoping to keep his stance on abortion out of the spotlight during his inauguration. But the president of the US bishops’ conference, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, had drafted a statement on behalf of US bishops due to be released on inauguration day, which while complimentary also discussed Biden’s pro-choice activism—as well as his administration’s clash with Catholic teaching on contraception, marriage and gender—and drew attention to plans to remove certain legal protections from Americans who won’t participate in abortions or other actions that go against their conscience.

The liberal bishops liked the complimentary bits in the statement but not the bits on abortion and the touchy issues that fuel the culture wars and identity politics. An appeal was made to the Vatican to stop the statement being released. But news of the censorship was leaked and picked up by The Pillar, “a Catholic media project focused on smart, faithful, and serious journalism, from committed and informed Catholics who love the Church” (sign me up for that bad-boy, sounds great!), which broke the story. The resulting brouhaha has shone a veritable searchlight on exactly what the liberal bishops wanted to avoid: Biden being “radically pro-abortion,” in the words of Damian Thompson who presents the Holy Smoke podcast, “doing everything in his power to facilitate late-term abortions” and the “unbridgeable gap” between Biden’s stance on sexuality and bioethics and his Catholicism. (It’s a fascinating and troubling podcast on many levels—didn’t help me get to sleep.)

It is early days in the Biden administration so it remains to be seen how having the first president in 60 years who professes the Catholic faith during such progressive times plays out. It would be nice to think it could generate much needed and previously absent open debate of complicated topics. I suspect that Holy Smoke section is going to have plenty more rich material to work with. There’s nothing like mixing religion and politics for a volatile brew, and Biden is the personification of that mix for all the wrong reasons.

It would be interesting to get the new president’s thoughts on Fatima and where he stands on those exhortations of the Virgin Mary. One of the more prosaic, while still striking, elements of the Fatima riddle is the children themselves, especially a photo of the three of them shortly after news of their amazing story began to spread. You see the image all over Fatima, with these three amazingly serious-looking faces gazing at you. Similar to the Miracle of the Sun, it can be rationally explained along the lines of how, in those days, children looked like adults because they worked like adults and shared the same hard life, plus they weren’t used to photography and so probably felt uncomfortable and self-conscious.

And yet. Especially the expression of Jacinta—it’s hauntingly powerful, she has the sort of face you would imagine a child to have who had just witnessed heaven touch earth and everything that goes with it. I can’t help thinking that her stern brow would be even more hardened now if she could see how things have panned out since those prophesies. Though I hope she would be sympathetic, especially now that she is Saint Jacinta. Both she and Francisco died in the influenza pandemic a few years after the visions—a poignant detail made all the more striking given current events—with Jacinta apparently offering her suffering for the conversion of sinners, peace in the world and the Holy Father (I’m not for a moment questioning that young girl’s astonishing piety and saintliness, but at the same time, it’s hard not to notice in the Fatima narrative a lot of mutual support between the events recounted and the role and exalted nature of the Pontiff). The two children were canonised in 2017 by Pope Francis—see what I mean—who doesn’t come out of that Holy Smoke podcast on the spiking of the bishop’s statement very well. Lucia became a Carmelite nun and lived to a ripe old age, dying in 2005. She has been accorded the title Servant of God, as the first major step toward her canonization.

Fatima, an interesting place. Worth seeing. Can leave you gnawing your lip contemplatively, much like Biden’s Catholicism and his administration’s outlook on life. If you do the kneeling catwalk toward the Chapel of Apparitions, try and avoid the knee pads. It’s cheating if you are a proper Catholic, surely, and just looks a bit ridiculous.

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