Between May and October of 1917 three shepherd children, Lucia Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto, reported visions of a luminous lady believed to be the Virgin Mary. She appeared to the children in the Cova da Iria fields outside the hamlet of Aljustrel near Fatima, Portugal. She appeared to them on the 13th day of each month at approximately noon, for six straight months. The only exception was the month of August, when the children were arrested by the local administrator.
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.” According to Lucia’s account, the lady confided to the children three secrets, known as the Three Secrets of Fatima. She urged the children to do penance and to make sacrifices to save sinners. The children wore tight cords around their waists to cause pain, abstained from drinking water on hot days, and performed other works of penance. Most important, Lucia said that the lady asked them to say the Rosary every day, reiterating many times that the Rosary was the key to personal and world peace. Many young Portuguese men, including relatives of the visionaries, were fighting in World War I at that time.
Our Lady of Fatima explained to the children that war is a punishment for sin and warned that God would further castigate the world for its disobedience to His Will by means of war, hunger and the persecution of the Church, the Holy Father and the Catholic Faithful. God’s Mother prophesied that Russia would be God’s chosen “instrument of chastisement,” spreading the “errors” of atheism and materialism across the earth, fomenting wars, annihilating nations and persecuting the Faithful everywhere.
“If My requests are not granted, Russia will spread its errors throughout the world, raising up wars and persecutions against the Church. The good will be martyred, the Holy Father will suffer much and various nations will be annihilated.”
In all Her appearances at Fatima the Blessed Mother repeatedly emphasized the necessity of praying the Rosary daily, of wearing the Brown Scapular of Mount Carmel, and of performing acts of reparation and sacrifice. To prevent the terrible chastisement at the hands of Russia and to convert “that poor nation,” Our Lady requested the solemn public Consecration of Russia to Her Immaculate Heart by the Pope and all the Catholic bishops of the world. She also asked that the Faithful practice a new devotion of reparation on the first Saturday of five consecutive months (“the Five First Saturdays”).
Thousands of people flocked to Fatima and Aljustrel in the months following the reports of the visions and miracles. On August 13, 1917 the provincial administrator and anticlerical Freemason, Artur Santos (no relation), believing that the events were politically disruptive, arrested 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 consoled by the inmates and then led the inmates in saying 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 secrets. 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 lady on August 19 at nearby Valinhos.
The heart of Our Lady’s Message to the world is contained in what has come to be called the “Secret” which She confided to the three child seers in July 1917. The Secret actually consists of three parts, the first two of which have been publicly revealed. The first part of the Secret was a horrifying vision of hell “where the souls of poor sinners go” and contained an urgent plea from Our Lady for acts of prayer and sacrifice to save souls. The second part of the Secret specifically prophesied the outbreak of World War II and contained the Mother of God’s solemn request for the Consecration of Russia as a condition for world peace. It also predicted the inevitable triumph of Her Immaculate Heart following Russia’s consecration and the conversion “of that poor nation” to the Catholic Faith.
The last part of the secret (known as the “third secret”) was written down in 1944 in a letter by Lucia Dos Santos, the last living Fatima seer. It was placed in the care of The Holy See, with instructions that no one should read it until 1960. Most informed sources speculate that this portion of the Secret concerns chaos in the Catholic Church, predicting widespread apostasy and a loss of faith beginning in the 1970’s. However, it is now believed that it predicted the 1981 assassination attempt of Pope John Paul 11.
Fatima now attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over the world, particularly on the pilgrimage days in May and October. The large torch-lit processions in the evening are particularly impressive, often lead by Cardinals and Bishops. The pilgrims gather in Cova de Iria in an enormous plaza where a little chapel was built and where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to the children. Around the plaza are a considerable number of shops and stalls selling various religious articles. On the far side of the plaza rises the great basilica, built in the in neo-classical style, with a central tower 65 meters high, the construction of which was begun on 13 of May 1928. It is flanked by colonnades linking it with the extensive convent and hospital buildings. In the basilica are the tombs of two of the three visionaries, siblings Francisco and Jacinta Marto, who died in 1919 and 1920 respectively, and were beatified in 1970. The third seer, Lucia dos Santos, died in 2005.