At the 2020 Rome Life Forum, a virtual event hosted by Voice of the Family from May 20 to 22, LifeSiteNews editor-in-chief John-Henry Westen gave a talk which opens with the following statement:
In these times of coronavirus, it has become for me clear that we are living in the end times, at least as that pertains to the chastisement predicted by Our Lady of Fatima in 1917.
It is remarkable that Westen is willing to say publicly, and with such frankness, that he believes we are currently in the “end times.” End-times speculation among Catholics is usually just speculation, but Westen’s talk is representative of what appears to be an increase in fervent Marian apocalypticism, driven by a gathering of influences that include the amplification of fringe Catholic beliefs through social media, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis, the ascent of a chaotic right-wing populism in the United States and elsewhere, and now the coronavirus pandemic.
Given the current visibility of this strain of Catholicism, over the coming weeks I will provide a series of posts that will function as both a primer regarding Marian apocalypticism and a survey of some of its most recent manifestations. I am neither an expert on the subject nor a theologian, but I believe that ordinary Catholics can easily equip themselves with the background knowledge and critical tools necessary to examine these ideas dispassionately and avoid being influenced by those promoting dubious prophecies or interpretations of prophesy.
I should state at the outset that I do not in any way wish to denigrate devotion to Mary, which is a beautiful, powerful, and unchangeable part of the Catholic faith. I also accept the judgement of the Church regarding which Marian apparitions are worthy of belief. My trust in the Church’s judgement means, however, that I would never let, for example, a particular interpretation of the Secrets of Fatima determine my faith or override my allegiance to the Magisterium. As for those alleged apparitions and prophecies that fall into the very large grey area of phenomena that the Church has not investigated, I see no reason to treat them as being necessarily evil in nature or lacking in all worth. They may in some cases be manifestations of “popular piety” that should be treated with care. For example, I have paid many visits to the pilgrimage destination of Greensides’ Farms in Marmora, Ontario to walk the Stations of the Cross, even though I give no serious attention to the claims that Dory Tan has been receiving messages from Mary at the site. It’s still, to me, a place of wonder and contemplation.
Another clarification is necessary: although I will point out where some varieties of Marian apocalypticism stray from what the Church typically teaches, I do not intend to act as a heresy hunter. An idea can be bad and dangerous without being heretical. What separates popular Marian piety or hopeful speculation from the forms of Marian apocalypticism that I will survey is that the latter, whatever their origins, have hardened into orthodoxies or ideologies. They have become like idols, standing in the place of other more important aspects of the faith and in some cases demanding an allegiance that threatens to turn their adherents against the pope and the institutional Church. Westen’s brand of apocalypticism is a case in point.
Two Forms of Marian Apocalypticism
There are two forms of Marian apocalypticism that we see thriving right now—the traditionalist and the charismatic—and although they each have different histories and dynamics, they derive from many of the same original sources. Two of the most important sources for both are the Secrets of Fatima and St. Louis de Montfort’s A Treatise on the True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin. The central ideas common to both are those of a future chastisement (involving multiple sub-chastisements and in some cases a Great Chastisement) followed by a “period of peace” in which the Church will triumph on earth. It is important to note that the triumph of the Church, in this schema, will precede the Second Coming and Last Judgement.
We can see the idea of chastisement (no longer impending in this case) in Westen’s statement quoted above. A little later in his talk, he addresses the corresponding idea of the “period of peace” between the chastisement(s) and the Second Coming:
Whereas I do believe the times are apocalyptic, it’s certainly not the ‘end of the world.’ Remember what Our Lady of Fatima told us: we are first to experience the triumph of her immaculate heart—the prophesied and promised peace that will be given to the world. Her peace.
This “prophesied and promised peace” is not a mere temporary respite. As we shall see, it is far more than that, and plays just as important a role as the idea of a future chastisement. It is, indeed, the source of an often esoteric mythology.
Two Sources of Marian Apocalypticism
Before delving into more current manifestations of Marian apocalypticism, I should look briefly at the historical sources I have identified. The first is the famous Second Secret of Fatima (also known as the second part of the Secret of Fatima), as delivered by Our Lady and revealed by Sister Lúcia of Fátima. I have highlighted the most important sections:
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. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father. To prevent this, I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the First Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she 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. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.
The description of the chastisements is clear. What is less clear is the nature of the “period of peace” to follow (on the condition that Russia is consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary—an issue that we will turn to later). Is this period merely one of relative peace, as compared to the wars and persecution that preceded it? Is it an unprecedented and long-lasting era of peace or merely a merciful pause? What will happen in the world to bring about this triumph? The answers to these questions have been cobbled together over time from bits and pieces of prophecy dating from both before and after Fatima.
As I mentioned earlier, the work of St. Louis de Montfort is a second important source, and we might even describe much Marian apocalypticism as a fusion of the prophecies of Montfort and Fatima. Montfort’s prophecies can be found primarily in A Treatise on the True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin (or simply True Devotion to Mary), which begins with a sentence that provides the key to his eschatology:
It is by the most holy Virgin Mary that Jesus has come into the world, and it is also by her that He has to reign in the world. (1)
Within the eschatological context that Montfort establishes later in his book, this means that Mary is the Mediatrix through which Jesus will establish on earth a foretaste of His final, eternal Kingdom. What Montfort predicts is not, strictly speaking, an example of the millenarianism that is condemned by the Church, since it does not suggest that Christ will reign in person. Yet at the same time it has the potential to function as a myth in a manner very similar to millenarianism.
Montfort’s description of the role of Mary in the end times is vivid, even if it focuses more on the leadup to her triumph in the world and those who will help to bring it about. He speaks of the coming of “great Saints, who shall surpass most of the other Saints in sanctity, as much as the cedars of Lebanon outgrow the little shrubs”:
These great souls, full of grace and zeal, shall be chosen to match themselves against the enemies of God, who shall rage on all sides; and they shall be singularly devout to our Blessed Lady, illuminated by her light, nourished by her milk, led by her spirit, supported by her arm, and sheltered under her protection, so that they shall fight with one hand and build with the other. With one hand they shall fight, overthrow, and crush the heretics with their heresies, the schismatics with their schisms, the idolaters with their idolatries, and the sinners with their impieties. With the other hand they shall build the temple of the true Solomon, and the mystical city of God; that is to say, the most holy Virgin, called by the holy Fathers the temple of Solomon and the city of God. By their words and their examples they shall bend the whole world to true devotion to Mary.
This city which men shall find at the end of the world to convert themselves in, and to satisfy the hunger they have for justice, is the most holy Virgin, who is called by the Holy Ghost the City of God. (26-7)
Although the details are not entirely clear, and although there is more to what Montfort describes that I haven’t included here, the central idea of Montfortian apocalypticism is present in these selections: Mary will first reign in the world in order to bring about the Second Coming. This fits very well with the idea of the “period of peace” from the Second Secret of Fatima, which will come after the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
In all that I have described above, there is nothing that is especially controversial or that can’t be simply brushed aside as private revelation or speculation that we should not worry ourselves too much about. The problem is, many read very deeply into such prophecies, and see them as absolute certainties. Further, certain groups within the Church have built whole ideologies and mythologies upon them, some of which are flourishing visibly in our historical moment and breaking into the mainstream through social media. I’ll turn to examining these in the next installment.
Print Work Cited
Grignon de Montfort, Louis-Marie. A Treatise on the True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Trans. Frederick William Faber. London: Burns and Lambert, 1863.
Statue of Mary near Medjugorie, Hercegovina.