The harrowing visions of Lucia de Jesus dos Santos and her two cousins in Fatima in 1917, and the famous secrets entrusted to the three seers by the Blessed Virgin Mary, have long been the subject of speculation and controversy, which in recent years seem to have reached a fever pitch. Following the revelation of the “third secret” of Fatima in 2000 by the Holy See, high-ranking Catholic prelates have become the target of accusations of a cover up and the protagonists of various conspiracy theories, all of them claiming that the “true” text of the secret has not been revealed, or at least not completely.
The cause of all the hubbub is what might be called the “Great Disappointment” of many of the faithful upon learning that the purported text of the secret did not contain an explicit prediction of apostasy within the Catholic Church, as they had long assumed. Rather, they were presented with an allegorical depiction of devastated cities and suffering clerics, who trudge up a hill led by a “bishop dressed in white,” where each one is shot down by bullets and arrows fired by soldiers as they kneel before a cross. Of the mysterious bishop, Lucia wrote, “we had the impression that it was the Holy Father.”
All the more irksome for Fatima conspiracists is the uncanny way the vision matches the interpretation offered by the then Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano at the time of its public announcement in 2000, at the behest of Pope John Paul II. Sodano associated the vision with an assassination attempt made against the pope, in which he had been shot down on May 13, 1981—the very anniversary of the apparitions. His would-be assassin had been trained by the Bulgarian secret police, whose mission to kill the pope had been ordered by none other than the Kremlin itself, a fact verified by an Italian parliamentary commission in 2006. Given that the vision of the third secret follows the second secret’s warning of persecutions caused by Russia “spread[ing] her errors throughout the world” and causing persecution and suffering for the Church and specifically the pope, a more precise fulfillment of the third secret could hardly be imagined.
This conclusion to the controversy regarding the third secret, however, was unthinkable for many professional Fatimists who had staked their personal reputation on theories that would now seem to be refuted. They have since responded with a barrage of allegations of conspiracy and cover-up, claiming that another, unrevealed text or “fourth secret” authored by Lucia must exist, one that interprets the third secret in accordance with their views. Since the year 2000 they have created a vast echo chamber of self-referential literature based on wild inferences, rumor, and raw conjecture, accusing high prelates of involvement in a web of deception that has denied them the vindication they have long awaited.
In response to all of this sound and fury, Catholic researcher Kevin Symonds has responded with a new work, On the Third Part of the Secret of Fatima (En Route Books and Media), that carefully and judiciously examines the claims that lie at the foundation of the “fourth secret” theory. In the process he shows that both the reasoning and the factual foundation of the conspiracists’ claims are woefully deficient.
A single case outlined in the book is highly illustrative of the way the Fatimist rumor mill produces its very questionable “facts.” One of the most essential ingredients of “fourth secret” theories is the claim that the text of the third secret revealed in 2000 is too long to be the same text described by those high-ranking prelates who claimed to have seen it in decades past. We are told by conspiracists that this text was said by numerous witnesses to consist of “20-25 lines,” while the text revealed in the year 2000 contains over sixty lines. However, as Symonds shows, this discrepancy only exists in the minds of the conspiracists, who have based it on a single conjecture made by Frère Michel de la Sainte Trinité, author of the sensationalist three-volume “Whole Truth about Fatima.”
Frère Michel claims he was told by the auxiliary bishop of Fatima, John Venancio, that he had tried to look through the envelope containing the secret, and had found that it was written on an “ordinary sheet of paper” with margins of three fourths of a centimeter. In a public talk regarding the conversation with Venancio, Michel adds that “We thus know that the Third Secret is not very long, probably 20 to 25 lines, that is to say, about the same length as the Second Secret.” This, then, is the conspiracists’ great proof of a “discrepancy”—a conjecture based on a reported conversation regarding events that had occurred over twenty five years earlier.
The now-established “fact” of a 20-25 line text then took on a life of its own, as Fr. Paul Kramer in his The Devil’s Final Battle (2002) attributed the claim not only to Bishop Venancio, but to Lucia herself, as well as Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the former pro-prefect of the Holy Office. Kramer provided no citations to support these new claims, and Symonds can only speculate that it was based on another article in the conspiracy-mongering Fatima Crusader in 2000, which merely claims that Lucia and Ottaviani agree that the secret was written on a single sheet of paper, and mentions nothing about the number of lines.
As Symonds shows, the page was much larger than it would have appeared to Fatima’s auxiliary bishop because it was folded inside the envelope, a fact apparently unknown to Bishop Venancio and Frère Michel, but revealed on live television in 2007, when Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone brought the original to a television interview and showed it to the cameras. Unfortunately, during the same interview, Bertone uncritically accepted the false claim that Cardinal Ottaviani had attributed “25 lines” of text to the document, and attempted to explain it as a mistake by Ottaviani. Bertone had apparently not read or heard the allocutions of Ottaviani regarding Fatima, which were given in 1955 and 1967 and are reproduced by Symonds in their entirety at the end of the book. This innocent mistake by Bertone added more grist to the Fatimist conspiracy mill, enabling the conspiracists to assert that Bertone himself was now accepting the claim.
Symonds examines many other purported discrepancies in the same way, sifting through the jumble of amorphous factoids and conjecture with a judicious and careful analysis that brings more light and cools the heat of conspiracy mongering. Other “proofs” for the existence of a yet undisclosed document are shown to be based on a vague and anonymous article reporting a rumor from another journalist, or an unjustified spin on an unremarkable letter from the nuns in Lucia’s convent in Coimbra. Symonds even quotes Lucia’s own diaries, only recently published in Portuguese and translated into English, stating that she was ordered by the Virgin Mary not to write any interpretation of the third secret. The revelation of this fact alone is devastating to the conspiracists’ thesis.
Throughout the work, Symonds avoids engaging in polemics and maintains a dispassionate and respectful tone, while providing extensive translations of source material to enable the reader to make his own judgments. The essence of his approach is to thoroughly examine the same facts that are glossed over and uncritically used by conspiracists and then to assess them without recourse to a conspiracy theory. And indeed, the alternative is truly outlandish. Are we to believe that the highest prelates in the Church—among which would be both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI—involved themselves in elaborate schemes to deceive the public, including permitting Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone to fabricate whole conversations with Lucia and to systematically deceive the public about crucial facts? Even Lucia herself and the other Carmelite sisters in her convent would seem to be implicated in their own roles as at least passive and silent cooperators, and the veracity of the whole of the Fatima message would be called into question.
However, there is indeed a sound basis for questioning the claim that the third secret is nothing more than a prophesy of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. The vision seems to have a much broader scope, and depicts a very general persecution of the Church. Indeed it is the vision of a mass slaughter, not only of the Holy Father, but numerous other bishops, priests, religious, and laity. In the context of the communist persecution of Christians undertaken by Russia in the twentieth century, the vision is easy to interpret. However, one might reasonably ask if the persecution depicted in the vision has truly ended, or if its scope is limited to political forces external to the Church.
Although Russia has indeed been converted from its Marxist ideology, neo-Marxism continues to exercise its noxious influence around the world, but particularly in the increasingly decadent West. The influence of leftist political ideology and the substitution of traditional Catholic doctrine in its favor has plagued the Church for decades since the fall of Soviet communism in 1991, particularly in Latin America. Indeed, the current pope seems himself to have been wounded in many ways by the influence of leftist ideological tendencies.
The view that Fatima may be understood as referring to an internal persecution of the Church was endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI himself in a discourse delivered at Fatima in 2010, when he noted that the vision of the third secret can indeed be applied to persecution from within the Church on the part of sinful members of the clergy.
“As for the new things which we can find in this message today, there is also the fact that attacks on the Pope and the Church come not only from without, but the sufferings of the Church come precisely from within the Church, from the sin existing within the Church,” Benedict said. “This too is something that we have always known, but today we are seeing it in a really terrifying way: that the greatest persecution of the Church comes not from her enemies without, but arises from sin within the Church, and that the Church thus has a deep need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn forgiveness on the one hand, but also the need for justice.”
It would be rather curious for the popes to go to such lengths to cover up an interpretation of a text that they then urge the public to adopt. Yes, the third secret can be seen as a commentary on the Church’s internal crisis, and we don’t need conspiracy theories to justify such an interpretation. Symonds’ new work may finally help to finally bury such theories, and to restore confidence in the vital message of Our Lady of Fatima.
Matthew Cullinan Hoffman is a Catholic journalist and the author and translator of The Book of Gomorrah and St. Peter Damian’s Struggle Against Ecclesiastical Corruption, (2015). His award-winning articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, London Sunday Times, LifeSite News, Catholic World Report, the National Catholic Register, and many other publications. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary.