Our Lady of Fatima

One hundred years after the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima, Portugal, do we have a clearer understanding of what happened? I don’t think so. We had tens of thousands of witnesses for the Miracle of the Sun, on 13th October 1917. We have an embarras de richesses of testimonies, for that and related occurrences, as we have for many other miracles declared “worthy of belief” by the authorities of the Holy See, now and in the past. The claims of the little shepherd children were exhaustively investigated, and what they said Mary told them was carefully recorded.

The apparitions at Zeitoun, in greater Cairo, over a period beginning in April 1968, I looked into once. Again, the number of affirming witnesses was in the tens, or hundreds of thousands. Most of them were Muslims, and they included even the Egyptian president at the time, the socialist Gamal Abdul Nasser. Many eerie photographs of the events were taken, and survive. Unquestionably something happened utterly foreign to the conditions of everyday life. But this “abnormality” included the message itself, delivered mostly in gestures from the roof of a Coptic church. It was not rationally simple and straightforward. There was an instruction to the Christian faithful, and arguably also a call for conversion to the Muslims, who venerate the Virgin Mother of the Prophet Jesus, yet deny the crucifixion and resurrection. (She pointed repeatedly to the Cross.) But this was in its nature mystical. Every tool of rational inquiry would be defeated by it. Every speculation is defeated about why she should appear then, and in that place. All the explanations I have read are incurably trite, facile.

But the mysterious bears contemplation. The thinking about this is useful. It can lead to a deeper appreciation of what, to the world, must seem arbitrary, even whimsical.

It strikes me, however, that trying to interpret the testimonies of Fatima, or the testimonies of Zeitoun, in terms of worldly historical events, is impossible. In general terms, Yes, to what we commemorate after one hundred years. The world was at war, and the twentieth century was unfolding in a hideous way. Our Lady warned of what is to come, and demanded a return to Catholic obedience — to the Faith, presumably as to the faith of little children.

She warned that human souls were falling, like snowflakes into Hell.

One of the principles behind the Catholic apprehension of the miraculous is that, it must be consistent with what we already know. It was. Mary did not come, and does not come, to revise any of the ancient teachings from out of our Deposit of Faith. She comes to accentuate and recapture. She comes bearing reminders, including the crucial reminder that her Son will verily come again.

We are right to commemorate these events; to absorb them into the liturgy over time. We are right to “take the message,” as it were. But that message is from another world, beyond place and time, and the contemplation must take us beyond the mere puzzlements of this one.