The devotion to Mary within the Christian DNA, could properly be said to derive in the first instance from the high esteem shown to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel, who brings to Mary the announcement of her vocation of mother of the Savior of the world. In his greeting he says that this simple handmaiden is the highest specimen of our race, “blessed among all women” whereby what is evident to any student of history is that Mary would be called blessed for all generations (Luke 1: 26-33 and 48).
Within the Scriptures themselves we see Mary as Jesus’ first and most faithful disciple. At virtually every critical moment of Jesus’ earthly life we see Mary in the background: first, of course at the Annunciation and the Nativity, then at his initiation into the covenant of Israel at his circumcision; then, at the Flight into Egypt; and her presence throughout our Lord’s adolescence as well as at the inauguration of his public ministry in Cana (which she herself prompted through her intercession); and she continues right on through to his passion, crucifixion, and burial, even when his own apostles had abandoned him.
Moreover, the dissemination of this devotion in the Church was initiated by our Lord himself from the height of the Cross when he entrusts his Blessed Mother to his disciple John and thus to us as well. In all these key moments, including the very birthday of the Church on Pentecost where the Church is gathered around her, we detect what could be called a blue thread that gently runs through the origins of salvation history.
Mary’s pivotal role—always derived from and in relation to her son—is far too expansive to elaborate here. It should be sufficient to say that countless armies of men and women over the centuries have responded to her example and have set forth under her name to educate, comfort, minister and heal those in every conceivable kind of need and that more literature, music, art and architecture have been animated by her and more localities named in her honor than any other woman in all history.
Mary’s personality as seen in Scripture displays her availability of graceful and loving willingness to assist, protect, understand, and comfort those in any need or dire circumstance. Thus, it should be no particular surprise that from the middle of the third century (which is history’s first notation) and onward she begins to be seen in dreams and visions, a point we shall come to in due course.
Notable Features of Fatima
In the second apparition of the Blessed Mother on July 13, 1917, the end of World War I was foretold along with the warning of another, far worse war if people did not stop offending God.
Twenty million people died during the First World War; 50 million more would die in WWII. Additionally, Lucia, the oldest of the children (who only died in 2005), identified the attempt to annihilate those she called “God’s elect people”—i.e., the Jewish people. She further spoke of the spread of Russia’s errors throughout the world, the annihilation of many nations and the persecution of the Church. She said too, the good would be martyred and that the Holy Father in particular would have a great deal to suffer.
All this was prophecy when first spoken, but today reads like history: The Miracle of the Sun took place October 13; twelve days later, on October 25, the Bolsheviks took power in the October Revolution. The Czar was deposed, the Royal Family executed and Vladimir Lenin would introduce, for the first time in history, the doctrine of Karl Marx in political form. The map of Europe would be reconfigured owing to Soviet domination. Hitler’s attempt to resolve “the Jewish problem” resulted in the extermination of more than 6 million of “God’s elect” in the Shoah, that is, the holocaust.
By the time the first 50 years of Communism was complete there had been more Christian martyrs than in all Christian history combined.
How three illiterate shepherd children from a small town in Portugal would be able to make these kinds of observations let alone predictions is dumbfounding. In fact, when they were first told about Russia, they were under the impression that the reference was to a woman named Russia, not a country.
A consideration of the particular elements of Marxist dogma make these utterances, in 1917 by these children, every bit as astounding to my mind as the dancing of the sun in the sky for 10 or 15 minutes in front of more than 70,000 people.
The concrete errors that would spread from Russia to other parts of the world included the wholesale advocacy of social divisions into warring classes known in the Marxist lexicon as “dialectical materialism.” This is the belief that there is an intrinsic hostility between workers and those who own the means of production. This would necessitate, according to Marx and his followers, an ongoing class warfare pitting these classes irrevocably against one another until the Communist revolution was triumphant and private property, the family and religion were abolished. Once all these impediments to the revolution were eliminated, what would emerge would be an atheistic, classless, egalitarian, and sexually free society led by the proletariat.
Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and State, as well as the especially dull work, Das Capital, had been written in the previous generation and outline all these errors. While the children would have no idea what they contained, our Lady did, and gave a warning of what would, and in fact did happen, even as she was appearing in Fatima.
There are varied elements of the Marxist dogma that would become influential both directly and indirectly in the coming century, up to the present moment—all of which are anticipated at Fatima. By directly I mean the ideology of class struggle, abolition of private property and materialism previously noted. By indirectly, I mean the hermeneutic or taxonomy (a way of interpreting or classifying things) applied to other areas: the diminishment of the individual human person and his private initiative; the transference of economic class warfare to posit a parallel hostility between the sexes; humans and the environment; racial division, etc.
St. John Paul II is noted as having observed that at Fatima our Lady “summed up the whole of the twentieth century.” I would extend that observation to say that in a sense at Fatima the Blessed Virgin recapitulated the whole of the nineteenth century, summed up the whole of the twentieth century and even anticipated what was yet to come.
Marian Apparitions and Feminism
Let me illustrate what I mean by linking Marian devotion and apparitions in general and the essential message of Fatima in particular, to broad movements in the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Fr. Apostoli does a good job in succinctly expositing some of these threats:
[N]ever before have they been so deliberately promoted and so widespread: divorce, infidelity, cohabitation, abortion, illegitimacy, all kinds of sexual and substance abuse, neglect, anger and violence. Add to these the assault on marriage and parenthood by modern technologies such as artificial birth control and in vitro fertilization. Then there is the pressure to define marriage itself… (Fatima for Today, p. 126).
The modern feminist movement has had a tremendous impact on social relations, the family and the economy. When we speak of the role of women in society it is important to make some critical distinctions between secular, left-leaning movements resistant to misogyny, and an earlier, more consistent and authentic feminism.
The most powerful movement to resist misogyny in history is Christianity with its view of the immortal destiny and intrinsic dignity of every human life. From its inception Christian anthropology contains an assumption based on the manner in which Jesus himself dealt with women within a culture that did not share his beliefs. This is evident from his encounters with, for example, the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-26) and the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11). While they saw natural differences and roles between men and women, the nascent Church also held to a metaphysical equality between the sexes, insisting that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond or free, male or female” (cf., Gal. 3:28 and Col. 3:11). This theology and the practice of the early Church did not go unnoticed in the first centuries of Christianity. The abundance of references in the epistles of Saints Peter and Paul yield a glimpse into the attitude of the early Church as to the vital role of women and the encouragement of these women to give witness to their husbands of their faith (see, 1 Peter 3:1-2; 1 Cor. 7:13-14; Romans 16:1-15; 1 Tim. 3:11, etc.).
These three peasant shepherds had no way of knowing any of this stuff much less the social impact it would have on the family, economics and society in general in the coming century.
A cluster of apparitions of the Blessed Mother occurred through the nineteenth century, notably the apparitions to Catherine Laborè in 1830, which resulted in the devotion to the Miraculous Medal and the warning that “times are evil in France and in the world”; in 1846 at La Salette to two children with a message of repentance and decrying unbelief in France; and in 1858 at Lourdes with the message entrusted to St. Bernadette of healing through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin under the title of the Immaculate Conception.
In conjunction with this, it is worth mentioning as well, that there were two formal infallible exercises of the Church’s magisterium in the modern era, both of which pertain precisely to the dignity and inviolability of a woman’s body at a time in history where the role of women would shift in a way never before seen. In 1854 Pope Pius IX would solemnly define the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and in 1951 Pope Pius XII would define the doctrine of the Bodily Assumption into Heaven of the Blessed Virgin. I want to underscore how these two definitions relate to the bodily integrity of a woman—her entrance to and exit from her earthly existence.
The rise of secular feminism over the last century and a half has posed one of the greatest challenges in world history, especially in the way in which it appears to have wholly embraced the premises of Marxism in terms of its economic, social, political and anthropological assumptions and goals, repudiating the earlier Christian roots of authentic feminism with its deeper grasp of the natural law and respect for vulnerable human life.
Fatima and Islam
In broad strokes the great sweep of history for the emancipation of women, beginning with the Incarnation of God’s son through the womb of the Virgin Mary, came to be distorted and aligned with secularist, relativistic, and socialistic movements from the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. This overall deleterious and corrosive impact on society, family and private property is evident and easily identified as among the errors that flow out of Russia foretold by Our Lady of Fatima.
Yet there is another great historical movement connected to the apparitions of Fatima that we should identify, a movement that came into being in the seventh century and can likewise be seen to be linked to the events and revelations at Fatima. The first hint of what that movement is comes from the very name of the location of the apparitions: Fatima.
The question all this poses: Did Our Lady come to this particular place in Portugal solely to deliver a message about what was occurring in Russia, or might there be an even broader, if more subtle, message, being communicated? In other words, is the message of Fatima something that pertains to the past, or could there be a message embedded in it for the future as well?
Consider the role of Mary in Islam. The place where the angel assumed a posture so familiar to the Muslim people and where the noted Miracle of the Sun was displayed is called Fatima, the name of the Prophet Mohammed’s favorite daughter. Yet, even the Muslim prophet considered his daughter second only to the Virgin Mary in terms of greatness. Mary is the only woman named in the Koran, where she is mentioned either directly or indirectly more than she is discussed in the New Testament, and where she is described as the “greatest of all women.” An entire Sura (chapter) in the Koran is named after her (Maryam).
There may be great potential here as a bridge to Muslim people with a perspective to which some may find familiar. Consider the fact that Sunnis have a great devotion to the Virgin Mary and make up 85 percent of the world’s Muslims.
Some within Islam see the need for a reformation and await their own Augustine or Thomas Aquinas in order to articulate and clarify their own beliefs. It may be that Islam is undergoing one of the most challenging periods of development in its own history.
On top of that, over about the past 25 years or so, contemporary and discreet apparitions of our Lord and the Blessed Mother to modern Muslims have been taking place. A simple Google search will reveal that this phenomenon is under wide discussion throughout both the Muslim and Christian worlds. (See, for example, the reportage of the Australian journalist Margaret Coffee in her July 17, 2013 piece for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.) Appearances of the Virgin Mary to Muslims have been reported either individually in dreams and visions or before large groups (some numbering over a quarter of a million people at one time), in Africa, Egypt, India, Syria, Pakistan and elsewhere. It is curious that most people are completely unaware of this.
Naturally, when considering the role of any alleged apparition, vision or dream, all of these must be submitted to the same objective standard of evaluation as to orthodoxy, as well as the principles distinguishing public and private revelation. Nonetheless, this sign of hope is worth pondering, especially in this centenary year of our Lady’s appearances in Fatima.
We who find ourselves standing on the precipice of a new century have a chance to bring the message of Fatima to new generations, with bolder and broader applications and in ways completely unimagined in the past century.
But we can only accomplish this if we stay true to Fatima’s core message:
To be continuous in the practice of prayer and sacrifices for the reparation of the offenses to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and
To be diligent in our devotion to the power of the Holy Rosary and the values and beliefs it embodies.
In this way in our lifetimes and before our very eyes we may yet dare to hope to see the triumph of that tender and Immaculate Heart.
Our Lady of Fatima … Pray for us!
This essay is adapted from a talk Fr. Sirico delivered at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.