«I don’t know how it happened, but I saw the Holy Father in a very big house, kneeling by a table, with his head buried in his hands, and he was weeping. Outside the house, there were many people. Some of them were throwing stones, others were cursing him and using bad language. Poor Holy Father, we must pray very much for him.»
— St. Jacinta Marto, as quoted in Sister Lucia’s memoirs
One day, a patient of mine told me during his appointment that he had been on pilgrimage to Fatima. He had an incurable tumor, so it made sense he would do so: Fatima is a place where many sick people find solace. So far, so good. There was a bit of a surprising detail, though… this man was a self-proclaimed atheist. Not of the kind an apologist is used up to… not an atheist which makes it a hobby to engage in endless debates in high intellectual circles, or even in fiery comboxes in social media and blogs. No. He was an atheist (so had he explained previously to me and other fellow patients) because he didn’t trust the Church… and also, he didn’t trust God, even if He existed.
I then proceeded to ask him, if he didn’t trust the Church or God, why would he trust Our Lady of Fatima? He replied he didn’t know… he simply trusted her. And so, even if he wasn’t expecting for a miracle, he decided to go there just to feel her maternal embrace.
A rigorist might claim that this man had a distorted image of Mary, if he kept distrusting God while venerating her. However, as Francis points out both in Amoris Laetitia and in Gaudete et Exsultate, we should not revile these small imperfect acts that move the soul toward God, for God may very well use them to bring about a more perfect conversion for the sinner’s soul. Who’s to say that the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima, borne out of the imperfect piety from this atheist, might not be decisive for his salvation? We have it as a solidly established fact that Mary intercedes for the souls of sinners, especially those who are in most need of mercy…
I am indeed lucky to live so close to such a hub of sanctity. It is not just because I’m Portuguese that I like Fatima so much. Its story is truly overwhelming. The way 3 little shepherd children were able to stand up to the police and government, the iron hands of the anticlerical political forces which had seized power in the country at the time, runs parallel to that poor child, Incarnated God, being born in a stable at a time of Herods and Caesars.
The parallels get even more striking, if we think that scant years after the Consecration of Russia to Our Lady (as she asked in Fatima), a murderous empire which killed millions of people in the 20th century, and which held half of the world at the time captive on its ideological grip, fell in a couple of years, as easily as a castle of cards blown by a breeze. Whenever I marvel at such a miracle, all I can remember is the roman Coliseum where so many Christians were killed, now lying between the ruins of a warrior empire which had conquered the entire known world at the time, while the Vatican stands triumphant with the imperial obelisk captured in its arms.
In both instances, the frail and simple children outlived the empires that resisted them. Both cases sing eloquently about the frailty of the strong, a frailty that is invisible to us humans subjected to the laws of Time, all the while being perfectly manifest to the One Who sees more clearly than any mortal.
The Consecration of Russia was brought about by a saintly Pope, who played a major role in the fall of that same Communist empire. He was a Pope who sought Fatima’s intercession after attributing to her the miracle of being saved from a murder attempt.
However, the great deeds of Fatima are not imprisoned in a distant past. The miracles may be more subtle today, but they are still there. Fatima still plays a pivotal role on the faith of millions. On every day 13th between May and October, Fatima overflows with pilgrims from all around the world. In August, those are mostly emigrants who come back to Portugal after spending all year abroad, working for their own sustenance and that of their family… they come back to Portugal and find consolation there for the time they spend apart from their homeland, both earthly and heavenly. The sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation are dispensed for the multitudes, and they sing and pray rosaries in unison. The sick flock there to pray for a miracle for their condition, or simply for hope. There has been a story circulating today in Portuguese newsmedia about an italian couple that fulfilled today their dream of marrying at Fatima. Atheist intellectuals, some of whom I have the honor of knowing personally, converted to Christ by studying the archives describing the Miracle of the Sun. Finally, Fatima transcends even Catholicism itself, being a center for ecumenism with Muslims and Hindus.
All is not well, however. It is with great sadness that I witnessed how much Fatima is being used as a tool for dissenters to spread conspiracy theories with the express purpose of undermining the authority of popes and councils whose teachings they disagree with. It is not unusual to find people vilifying Pope Francis in social media while proudly displaying an image of Our Lady of Fatima as a profile pic.
This has, in turn, produced an understandable, but disproportionate overreaction on the opposite direction. People on the other side have started to distrust Fatima to the point that they not only invoke their right to not personally believe in any private revelation… but that they would like to interfere in other people’s right to believe in a private revelation duly approved by the Church. There exists a kind of anti-proselytism to lead people away from Fatima. The derogatory word “fatimista” has entered the lexicon of certain sectors of the Church. And some have even invoked the precedent of the brazen serpent (which had cured the Hebrews from the plague in the desert during the Exodus, but was then destroyed by King Hezekiah since the Israelites had fallen into idolatry for it) to justify closing Fatima altogether.
As much as I understand this reaction, I can’t agree with it. For one, it is imbued with a certain Americocentric mentality. According to this, Fatima must be closed because a vocal minority, mostly based on the USA, is weaponizing Fatima against the Pope… and because another set of Americans is finding it difficult to debunk them. All the thousands of pilgrims from all around the world are not taken into account. My atheist patient who didn’t trust God, but trusted Our Lady, doesn’t factor at all in this calculus.
However, if we take our eyes away from our computer screens and decide to fly to Fatima and take the time to approach a pilgrim there, most likely than not you’ll find said pilgrim protesting: “You’re going to close down this place because of what?”
Yes, it seems quite exaggerated to close down one of Portugal’s (and the world’s) holiest sites on account of polemics of which 90% of the Church have never heard of. This only sounds reasonable because we are currently experiencing a Culture War and Fatima has been sadly dragged into it.
According to this Culture War worldview, since those who oppose the Holy Father use Fatima to resist him, then Fatima is ascribed an “enemy” status through guilt by association. Therefore, it is postulated that Fatima should be closed down in order to weaken the enemy position.
Trouble is, this Culture War mentality is something Pope Francis himself urges us to transcend, when he tells us not to treat our faith as an ideology. The Culture War mentality is precisely the thing that has produced all this mess to begin with, since Francis is catalogued as an “enemy” for being viewed as close to the people the culture warriors battled for many years during the previous pontificates (an error the Pharisees also committed against Jesus Christ, since He consorted with the worst sinners).
However, things shouldn’t be catalogued according to simplistic dichotomies, but rather properly discerned according to their intrinsic value.
Pope Francis has visited Fatima as a pilgrim on the occasion of the apparition’s centenary and produced a homily where he had nothing but good things to say about Fatima. Clearly, Francis doesn’t see Fatima as “enemy”.
By the same token, Fatima doesn’t lend support for the idea of the Holy Father as an “enemy” too. For someone unbiased who reads through the memoirs and writings from the visionaries, we see nothing but praise and reverence for the Holy Father. And not just the pope at that time, but the Holy Father as an institution, representing all pontiffs across the ages.
In discerning Fatima’s intrinsic value, we should take into account all the fruits it has borne and continues to bear. Guilt by association is not an appropriate tool for discernment, since we should remember the traditionally Catholic adage “abusus non tollit usum” (i.e. “abuse does not cancel use”).
In other words, if the Fatima message is being misused, this in no way should be viewed as Fatima’s fault, for the fault lies in those who mishandle it. The proper way to address this is to refute those misinterpretations and conspiracy theories, not take the easy way out, throwing the baby out with the bathwater simply because it would be deemed more convenient for apologists. Because apologists exist to do this heavy work, not to make reality conform to their work so as to make their life easier. If we don’t accept this, we might as well get rid of the Church altogether, since there will always be someone bent on using the Church for bad purposes.
And since I believe this is the proper way to do things, I will try to debunk some of the ways papal critics abuse Fatima on my next article.
[Photos source: Agencia Ecclesia, except the last one, which belongs to the official Fatima Sanctuary website; Every photo depicts yesterday’s Procession of the Candles, May 12th, 2018]
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.