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Secret No More

Jimmy Akin

After reading the secret, the Holy Father realized the connection between the assassination attempt and Fatima. He has since consistently attributed his survival of the gunshot wound to the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima. 

For years I have had a special devotion to Our Lady of Fatima. Of all the recent Marian apparitions, Fatima has spoken to me the most. Like millions of others, I had often wondered about the contents of the “third secret of Fatima,” which is more properly termed the third part of the secret of Fatima.

When the Holy See released the text of the 83-year-old third secret June 26, it was as part of a booklet prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith titled The Message of Fatima (MF). I wasn’t the only one surprised at its contents. It did not contain prophecies of the end of the world, of a great apostasy, or many of the other things it had been rumored to contain. However, I was not disappointed. (Relieved would be a better word.) And it gave me a new appreciation of the Church’s struggle with Communism and of the current pontiff by showing me the view from heaven.

What Happened at Fatima, Portugal

Lucia dos Santos—the only Fatima seer alive today—is in many ways the “core” visionary of Fatima. She says she experienced supernatural visitations as early as 1915, two years before the famous appearances of the Virgin Mary. In 1917, she and two of her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, were working as shepherds tending their families’ flocks. On May 13, 1917, the three children saw an apparition of Our Lady. She told them, among other things, that she would return once a month for six months.

At Our Lady’s third appearance, on July 13, Lucia was shown the secret of Fatima. She reportedly turned pale and cried out with fear, calling Our Lady by name. There was a thunderclap, and the vision ended.

The children again saw the Virgin on September 13. In the sixth and final appearance, on October 13, a dramatic outward sign was given to those gathered to witness the event. After the clouds of a rainstorm parted, numerous witnesses—some as far as 40 miles away—reported seeing the sun dance, spin, and send out colored rays of light.

Meanwhile, as World War I raged across Europe, an epidemic of Spanish flu swept the globe. It erupted in America and was spread by soldiers being sent to distant lands. This epidemic killed an estimated 20,000,000 people. Among them were Franciso and Jacinta, who contracted the illness in 1918 and died in 1919 and 1920, respectively. Lucia entered the convent.

On June 13, 1929, at the convent chapel in Tuy, Spain, Lucia had another mystical experience in which she saw the Trinity and the Blessed Virgin. Mary told her, “The moment has come in which God asks the Holy Father in union with all the bishops of the world to make the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, promising to save it by this means” (S. Zimdars-Schwartz, Encountering Mary, 197).

On October 13, 1930, the bishop of Leiria (now Leiria-Fatima) proclaimed the apparitions at Fatima authentic and worthy of assent.

The Secret Is Written Down

Between 1935 and 1941, on the orders of her superiors, Sr. Lucia wrote four memoirs of the Fatima events. In the third of these, she recorded the first two parts of the secret, explaining that there was a third part she was not yet permitted by heaven to reveal. In the Fourth Memoir, she added a sentence to the end of the second part of the secret: “In Portugal, the dogma of the faith will always be preserved, etc.” This sentence has been the basis for much speculation that the third part of the secret concerned a great apostasy. Sr. Lucia also noted that in writing the secret in the Fourth Memoir, “With the exception of that part of the Secret which I am not permitted to reveal at present, I shall say everything. I shall not knowingly omit anything, though I suppose I may forget just a few small details of minor importance.”

Upon the publication of the Third and Fourth Memoirs, the world became aware of the secret of Fatima and its three parts, including Our Lady’s request that Russia be consecrated (entrusted) to her Immaculate Heart by the pope and the bishops of the world. On October 31, 1942, Pius XII consecrated not only Russia but the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. What was missing, though, was the involvement of the world’s bishops.

In 1943, the bishop of Leiria ordered Sr. Lucia to put the third secret of Fatima in writing. She did not feel at liberty to do so until 1944. It was then placed a wax-sealed envelope on which Sr. Lucia wrote that it should not be opened until 1960.

The “Third Secret” and the Popes

The secret remained with the bishop of Leiria until 1957, when it was requested (along with photocopies of Sr. Lucia’s other writings) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. According to Cardinal Bertone the secret was read by both Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI (see MF, “Introduction”). “John Paul II, for his part, asked for the envelope containing the third part of the ‘secret’ following the assassination attempt on 13 May 1981” (ibid.). He read it sometime between July 18 and August 11.

It is significant that John Paul II did not read the secret until after the assassination attempt was made on his life. He notes in Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994), “And thus we come to May 13, 1981, when I was wounded by gunshots fired in St. Peter’s Square. At first, I did not pay attention to the fact that the assassination attempt had occurred on the exact anniversary of the day Mary appeared to the three children at Fatima in Portugal and spoke to them the words that now, at the end of this century, seem to be close to their fulfillment” (221).

After reading the secret, the Holy Father realized the connection between the assassination attempt and Fatima. He has since consistently attributed his survival of the gunshot wound to the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima. “It was a mother’s hand that guided the bullet’s path,” he said, “and in his throes the Pope halted at the threshold of death” (Meditation from the Policlinico Gemelli to the Italian Bishops, May 13, 1994).

As had Pius XII, John Paul II decided to consecrate not only Russia but also the entire world to her Immaculate Heart. After he read the third part of the secret in July, he decided to journey to Fatima on May 13, 1982, and there performed the Act of Entrustment.

This act, however, did not appear to satisfy the requested consecration, and so, “on 25 March 1984 in Saint Peter’s Square, while recalling the fiat uttered by Mary at the Annunciation, the Holy Father, in spiritual union with the bishops of the world, who had been ‘convoked’ beforehand, entrusted all men and women and all peoples to the Immaculate Heart of Mary” (Bertone, MF).

“Sister Lucia personally confirmed that this solemn and universal act of consecration corresponded to what Our Lady wished (‘Yes it has been done just as Our Lady asked, on 25 March 1984’: Letter of 8 November 1989). Hence any further discussion or request is without basis” (Bertone, MF).

The Fall of Communism

After it became public that there was a secret of Fatima and that it mentioned Russia, many pondered Fatima in the light of Russian Communism.

Nineteen seventeen was a year of turmoil for Russia. Besides fighting in World War I, the country experienced two civil wars known as the February Revolution and the October Revolution. The former led to the creation of a provisional government that proved unstable. On October 24–25, less than two weeks after the final appearance of Our Lady of Fatima, the second revolution resulted in the creation of the Soviet government.

In the ensuing years, Russia expanded its sphere of influence, exporting Communist ideology and revolution to other lands and martyring Christians wherever it spread. Once Pope John Paul II’s 1984 consecration took place, first the Soviet bloc and then the USSR itself crumbled from a variety of social, political, and economic factors.

As the Pope himself noted, “And what are we to say of the three children from Fatima who suddenly, on the eve of the outbreak of the October Revolution, heard: ‘Russia will convert’ and ‘In the end, my [Immaculate] Heart will triumph’ . . . ? They could not have invented those predictions. They did not know enough about history or geography, much less the social movements and ideological developments. And nevertheless it happened just as they had said” (CTH, 131; emphasis in original).

Though he did not reveal the third part of the secret until this year, six years earlier John Paul II hinted at its contents. Immediately after he meditated on the fall of Communism in connection with Fatima, he went on to write:

“Perhaps this is also why the Pope was called from a ‘faraway country,’ perhaps this is why it was necessary for the assassination attempt to be made in t. Peter’s Square precisely on May 13,1981, the anniversary of the first apparition at Fatima – so that all could become more transparent and comprehensible, so that the voice of god which speaks in human history through the ‘signs of the times’ could be more easily heard and understood” (CHT, 131-132).

By the year 2000, the Holy Father felt able to reveal the final part of Fatima’s secret, since “the events to which the third part of the ‘secret’ of Fatima refers now seem part of the past” (Sodano, MF, “Announcement”). The pontiff selected the beatification of Francisco and Jacinta on May 13, 2000 in Portugal as the occasion to announce this fact.

Interpreting the Secret

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the CDF, points out that the key to the apparition of Fatima is its call to repentance and conversion (MF, “Theological Commentary”). All three parts of the secret serve to motivate the individual to repentance, and they do so in a dramatic way.

The first part of the secret—the vision of hell—is the most important, for it reveals to individuals the tragic consequences of failure to repent and what awaits them in the invisible world if they are not converted.

In the second part, Mary says, “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.” Speaking of devotion to the Immaculate Heart as a means of salvation is not part of our cultural vocabulary and is easily misunderstood. Some anti-Catholics have even taken it as a false gospel replacing the gospel of Christ. It is no such thing, as Cardinal Ratzinger explains:

“According to Matthew 5:8, the ‘immaculate heart’ is a heart which, with God’s grace, has come to perfect interior unity and therefore ‘sees God.’ To be ‘devoted’ to the Immaculate Heart of Mary means therefore to embrace this attitude of heart, which makes the fiat —‘your will be done’—the defining center of one’s whole life. It might be objected that we should not place a human being between ourselves and Christ. But then we remember that Paul did not hesitate to say to his communities: ‘imitate me’ (1 Cor. 4:16; Phil. 3:17; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:7, 9)” (op. cit.).

After explaining the vision of hell, Mary spoke of a war that “will break out during the pontificate of Pius XI.” This latter war, of course, was World War II, which Sr. Lucia reckoned as having been occasioned by the annexation of Austria by Germany during the reign of Pius XI (J. de Marchi, Temoignages sur les apparitions de Fatima, 346).

Sr. Lucia understood the night of the “unknown light” mentioned by Our Lady to be January 25, 1938, when Europe was witness to a spectacular nighttime display of light in the sky. In her third memoir she wrote, “Your Excellency is not unaware that, a few years ago, God manifested that sign, which astronomers chose to call an aurora borealis. . . . God made use of this to make me understand that his justice was about to strike the guilty nations.”

Much has been made of the statement “Russia will be converted.” Many people have assumed this meant the Russian people as a whole would become Catholic. But the language of the text does not require this: The Portuguese word converterá doesn’t necessarily mean converted to the Catholic faith. It can mean simply that Russia will stop its warlike behavior, and thus “there will be peace.” This interpretation seems to be the one understood by John Paul II in a passage cited above from Crossing the Threshold of Hope.

The Third Part

In reading the third part of the secret, it is important to understand that its imagery is similar to that of many prophecies in the Bible in four key ways.

First, its depiction of events is non-literal. When it describes the pope’s ascent to the foot of a cross, it can be seen as symbolic of the continual struggle of the pope to follow Christ.

Second, it compresses events that occur over many years and in many places into a single image. The third secret of Fatima is essentially an icon of the twentieth-century conflict between the Church and Communist Russia. And, like any icon, the elements that it shows us must be meditated upon in a kind of timeless fashion.

Third, the third secret is written according to the language of appearances. It describes things as they appeared in the vision, not necessarily as they are in reality. We see this mode of speech (called “phenomenological language”) in the Bible, for example, when Scripture speaks of the sun rising and setting. The sun appears to move around the earth, though in reality it is the motion of the earth around the sun that causes this phenomenon.

Fourth, scriptural prophecies often can be changed by the response of human free will. For instance, when Jonah preached destruction to Nineveh and it repented, God spared it. Similarly, in Scripture, God declares, “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will repent of the evil that I intended to do to it” (Jer. 18:7–8).

In one crucial respect, the secret of Fatima is unlike any of the biblical prophecies: It is not divinely inspired. While it is the product of God’s grace, God does not guarantee the exact wording or even every element of the text the way he does with the statements of Scripture.

In a letter to John Paul II date May 12, 1982, Sr. Lucia wrote: “The third part of the secret refers to Our Lady’s words [in the second part]: ‘If not, [Russia] 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’ (13-VII-1917)” (MF, Introduction).

In interpreting the third part of the secret, the angel with the flaming sword clearly represents the judgment that would fall on the world were it not for the intercession of Mary (and, of course, the intercession of others, though here it is Mary with whom we are concerned). For many years it was rumored that the third part of the secret involved the possibility of a nuclear war. If there is anything in the text that suggests this, it is the flames of the sword, which Sr. Lucia noted “looked as though they would set the world on fire.”

In Scripture, fire tends to be an image of judgment or conflict in general. In his commentary on the angel’s flaming sword, however, Cardinal Ratzinger seems to allude to nuclear war: “Today the prospect that the world might be reduced to ashes by a sea of fire no longer seems pure fantasy: Man himself, with his inventions, has forged the flaming sword” (ibid.). In the 1984 consecration of the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the second of Pope John Paul II’s specific petitions was, “From incalculable self-destruction, from every kind of war, deliver us” (Sodano, MF, “Introduction”).

The angel then signifies the means by which the judgment is averted: “Pointing to the earth with his right hand, the Angel cried out in a loud voice: ‘Penance, Penance, Penance!’”

The seers then saw in the unapproachable light of God a reflection of someone who, Lucia says, ‘we had the impression . . . was the holy father.’”

With the pope were others climbing a mountain to a rough-hewn cross. Mountains are traditional places where man meets with God, the difficult process of ascending the mountain suggesting the perseverance required to follow God. The ruggedness of the cross depicted in the vision evokes the harshness of the sufferings of Christ and those who share in his sufferings.

The journey of the pope and those with him through the half-ruined city suggests that the Church must pass through the destruction that accompanies war, and it evokes the suffering of the pontiff in witnessing this destruction but being unable to stop it. This reflects the experience of many twentieth-century popes.

Then comes the part of the vision reflecting the attempted assassination on Pope John Paul II. It shows that he, like numerous other members of the Church, must face the possibility of martyrdom in the conflict between the Church and Russian Communism. (There are, in fact, significant indications that the would-be papal assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was on a mission sponsored by the Russian secret police, the KGB.)

There are two.aspects of this part of the secret that will be seized upon by those who wish to challenge the Holy See’s interpretation. First, the killers are described as a group of soldiers using guns and arrows, not as a lone gunman who is not a soldier.

The response to this objection is simple. The third part of the secret simply describes one group of people killing another group. The soldiers in the vision represent all those who have been used by Communists to martyr or attempt to martyr Catholics, and those being killed represent all Catholics who suffer in this way at the hands of Communists. The vision thus indicates that the Holy Father will himself be a victim of this violence, though without indicating the particular means by which it will be brought to bear upon him.

Critics of the Holy See’s interpretation will also point to the fact that Pope John Paul II did not die. To this there are a couple of responses:

(1) If in the vision Lucia saw the pope being shot and falling over, she might well have thought that he had been killed even though in reality he would only be gravely wounded.

(2) The intercession of Mary may have changed what would have happened. “That here ‘a mother’s hand’ had deflected the fateful bullet only shows once more that there is no immutable destiny, that faith and prayer are forces which can influence history and that in the end prayer is more powerful than bullets and faith more powerful than armies” (Ratzinger, MF, op. cit.).

In the final image of the two angels, an aspersorium can refer to a stoup, basin, or vessel used to hold holy water, or it can refer to the.aspergill used to sprinkle holy water. Either way, the angels using the blood of the martyrs to sprinkle the souls going to God gives us a powerful symbol of salvation, of the honor shows to the martyrs by God, and of the significance of their blood. Cardinal Ratzinger points out: “Therefore, the vision of the third part of the ‘secret,’so distressing at first, concludes with an image of hope: No suffering is in vain, and it is a suffering Church, a Church of martyrs, which becomes a sign-post for man in his search for God” (op. cit.).

Apologetic Fallout

Having looked at the entire secret of Fatima, it remains for us to assess a few questions and apologetic issues that remain in the wake of the release of its final part:

1) Has the Vatican revealed the whole of the secret?
Yes. Any accusation to the contrary is simply not credible. John Paul II clearly believes that the third secret of Fatima is crucial to understanding his own pontificate. He is specially invested in the third secret, and, if he says that he has released the full text of the document, then he has. No one with an accurate appraisal of the moral character of John Paul II could think otherwise.

2) Why does the end of the second part of the secret not flow seamlessly into the third? 
Because the third part was written more than three years after the first two. Though the three parts describe a single event, they were not composed as a single narrative. For whatever reason, when Sr. Lucia wrote down the third part of the secret she chose not to write it in a way that fit seamlessly with her previous narrative.

3) Wouldn’t it have been of use for people to have known the secret much sooner? 
Sr. Lucia herself explained: “It may be . . . that some people think that I should have made known all this some time ago, because they consider that it would have been twice as valuable years beforehand. This would have been the case, if God had willed to present me to the world as a prophetess. But I believe that God had no such intention, when he made known these things to me. If that had been the case, I think that, in 1917, when He ordered me to keep silence . . . He would, on the contrary, have ordered me to speak” (Third Memoir, 115).

This highlights the error of those who have insisted that the Virgin Mary demanded that the third part of the secret be read to the world by 1960 at the latest. When queried about this, Sr. Lucia replied: “It was not Our Lady. I fixed the date because I had the intuition that before 1960 it would not be understood but that only later would it be understood” (Bertone, MF, “Conversation”).

4) To what does the triumph of Mary’s Immaculate Heart refer?
Cardinal Ratzinger explains, “The Heart open to God, purified by contemplation of God, is stronger than guns and weapons of every kind. The fiat of Mary, the word of her heart, has changed the history of the world, because it brought the Savior into the world ” (op. cit.).

5) Are other interpretations of the “third secret” possible?
Since the Holy See has not infallibly defined the subject, other interpretations are possible. This does not mean that other interpretations are rational—at least if they depart from the main lines of the interpretation given by the Holy See.

The reason has to do with the nature of private revelation. Since it is principally for the benefit of the individuals directly involved, they are the most likely to interpret it properly. In this case, both Sr. Lucia and the Holy Father are in agreement that the interpretation offered in The Message of Fatima is the correct one. Those of us who are not principals have little reason to question the judgment of those for whom the revelation was given.

Bottom line: If they’re satisfied, we should be.

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