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The Doctrinal Message of Fatima

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

To understand the basic doctrinal message of Fatima, we confine ourselves to the six Marian apparitions formally approved by the Church. This is not to say that other communications from Our Lady are not relevant or even spiritually profitable. But we have definite ecclesiastical confirmation only of what the three young seers saw and heard between May 13 and October 13, 1917.

What are the principle doctrines of faith contained in these communications? It is necessary to identify them as revealed truths before we can intelligently speak of the mission of Fatima.

In theological language, these Marian communications were private revelations. This distinguishes them from what we call the public revelation contained in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, which was completed by the end of the first century of the Christian era. It is called public revelation because the truths revealed are necessary for the salvation and sanctification of the human race. All other authentic revelations, although supernatural, are called private because they contain nothing which is not already contained in the Bible and revealed Tradition.

Why, then, have such revelations as those recorded in the lives of the great mystics, or as reported at Fatima? Their purpose is to recall what had already been revealed up to apostolic times and to reaffirm what needs to be believed and put into practice in times like ours. Surely ours is a period of trial, and some would say it is the most critical age in the history of Christianity.

Existence of a Personal God

Underlying everything else in the Marian revelations at Fatima is the existence of God, in three Divine Persons.

It is profoundly significant that the Fatima revelations coincided with the Russian revolution of 1917. The two events ran parallel to each other, almost to the day, for the six months from May through October of that year.

To be stressed is the Marxian atheism at the root of the Russian revolution. Karl Marx declared that religion is the opium of the people. Religion, he said, drugs the mind into a delusion about an afterlife when God will reward the patience of poor and downtrodden believers with a heavenly eternity.

It is not surprising, then, that Our Lady should have urged the consecration of Russia and prayer for the conversion of Russia; which meant the liberation of its people from their atheistic government.

Our Sins Offend God

As though to emphasize the truth, in the first and last apparition, the children were told that sins are and offense against God. In May, Our Lady asked them if they were willing to offer themselves to God and endure all the pain He wants to send them in expiation “for the sins by which He is offended.” In October, they were told, “Do not offend the Lord our God anymore, because He is already so much offended.” While saying these words, the Blessed Virgin was “looking very sad.”

This calls for some explanation. Certainly God cannot be harmed or hurt, as God, since He is infinitely perfect. Yet sin offends God because it is displeasing to Him. Sin is contrary to the will of God. Sin is a deliberate transgression of a law of God, which identifies the four essentials of every sin:

  • A law is involved, implying there are physical laws, like gravity, that operate with necessity, and moral laws that can be disobeyed by human beings;

  • God is offended, so that the divine aspect is never absent from any sin;

  • Sin is a transgression, since Catholicism holds that God’s grace can be resisted and the divine will can be ignored;

  • The transgression is deliberate, which means that a sin is committed whenever a person knows that something is contrary to the law of God and, yet, freely does it anyway.

Having said this, however, we know that God became Man. As the God-Man, Jesus was not only offended by the sins of human beings; He suffered and died for them. By anticipation, He foresaw all the sins that would be committed to the end of the world. There is, consequently, a profound sense in which we may say that the Incarnate God is still offended by our sins, even though He is now in immortal glory.

The Incarnation

One theme that Our Lady sustains through each of the six apparitions is the recitation of the Rosary.

The Rosary may be described as fifteen meditations on the Incarnation. From Mary’s Annunciation at Nazareth, to her coronation by her Divine Son. The Rosary is so many professions of faith in the cardinal mysteries of Christianity, that God became incarnate in the womb of His Virgin Mother, was born, lived in Palestine, suffered, died and was buried; that He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven; and was joined bodily in heaven by the same Mother from whom He received His bodily existence on earth.

From this perspective, recitation of the Rosary is not what it seems to be. It is no mere repetition of Hail Mary’s or even just a pious practice of devout Catholics. It is — or should be — a daily reflection on the revealed truths which undergird the whole edifice of the Catholic Church. Without these truths, nothing in Catholicism makes sense; with these truths, everything in our religion holds together.

Not only did Our Lady urge the daily recitation of the Rosary in each of her six apparitions, the formal inquiry following the apparitions also brings out the primacy of this Marian prayer.

Between September 27 and November 2, 1917, each of the three seers was interrogated on this subject:

  • Francisco related that Our Lady “carries between the palms and the back of the right hand some beads which hung down over the dress”;

  • When Jacinta was asked, “What was it that Our Lady recommended most earnestly to Lucia?” she answered, “She said we were to pray the Rosary every day.”

  • When Lucia was asked, “Did she, Mary, tell you and your cousins to say certain prayers, the answer was, “She told us to say the Rosary in honor of Our Lady of the Rosary, to obtain the peace of the world.”

It is no wonder that Pope John Paul II, on his visit to the Chapel of the Apparitions told the people, “I have come on pilgrimage to Fatima. With the Rosary in my hand. Fatima speaks to us so much of the Rosary - Pray very much. Pray the Rosary every day.” (Martins, pp. 58-9).

Reality of Hell

If there is one revealed truth of Christianity that scandalizes the modern unbeliever, it is the existence of hell. Yet if there is one thing that stood out most vividly in the memory of the children at Fatima, it was their vision of hell.

Certain features of this vision deserve to be identified:

  • Hell exists already now;

  • There are in hell both demons and human souls;

  • The pains of hell can be likened to living in a sea of fire;

  • The earthly counterpart of hell is military conflict, even as peace on earth is a prelude to the eternal joys of heaven;

  • It is possible to prevent souls from going to hell by doing penance for them.

Even some Catholic commentators on Fatima are uncomfortable with what the children reported they had seen. Allegedly it was “an exaggeratedly medieval representation of the pains of hell.” So much so that “the critic wonders how it came about that Our Lady could have presented it in the twentieth century.” (da Fonseca, Fatima e a Critica, pp. 528, 529: in Michel, p. 140).

But the existence of hell is an article of revealed faith. The Church infallibly teaches that for those who die estranged from God, there follows punishment immediately after death, not only after the Last Judgment, and that it is eternal.

Repeating this irreversible teaching of the Church’s magisterium, the Second Vatican Council reminds us that we have two powerful motives for serving God: the heavenly reward that awaits us if we have been faithful to His word; and the suffering we should fear if we are unfaithful, especially in the practice of charity.

Since we know not the day nor the hour, on our Lord’s advice we must be constantly vigilant so that, having finished the course of our earthly life, we may merit to enter into the marriage feast with Him, and to be numbered among the blessed and that we may not be ordered to go into eternal fire like the wicked and slothful servant (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, VII, 48).

It is highly instructive to read what St. Francis Xavier wrote to St. Ignatius, after he had left Portugal for India. Xavier was appalled at the indifference of the learned ecclesiastics to the existence of hell.

Many times I am seized with the thought of going to the schools of your lands and there cry out like a man who has lost his mind, and especially at the University of Paris, telling those at the Sorbonne who have a greater regard for learning than for charity, so that they might dispose themselves to produce fruit with it: “How many souls fail to go to glory but go instead to hell through your neglect” (January 15, 1544; Georg Schurhammer, S.J., Francis Xavier, His Life and His Times, II, -p. 407).

Against this background, it becomes less strange—in fact it is logical—to read about the lengths to which the Fatima children went to make sacrifices in order to save sinners from eternal damnation. Statements like the following “make sense” once you believe that prayerful sacrifice helps to keep souls out of hell:

There were two families in Moita whose children used to go begging from door to door. We met them one day as we were going along with our sheep. As soon as she saw them, Jacinta said to us, “Let’s give our lunch to these poor children, for the conversion of sinners.” And she ran to take it to them.
Jacinta made this one of her usual sacrifices, and often picked them acorns off the oaks or the olives off the trees. One day I, Lucia, said to her, “Jacinta, don’t eat that; it’s too bitter!” “But it’s because it’s bitter that I’m eating it, for the conversion of sinners.”
It was a lovely day, but the sun was blazing. We were parched with thirst. As there was a house quite near, I suggested to my companions that I should go and ask for a little water. A little old woman gave me not only a pitcher of water, but also some bread, which I accepted gratefully. I ran to share it with my little companions, and then offered the pitcher to Francisco and told him to take a drink. “I don’t want to,” he replied, “Why?” “I want to suffer for the conversion of sinners.” “You have a drink, Jacinta!” “But I want to offer this sacrifice for sinners, too.” Then I poured the water into a hollow in the rock, so that the sheep could drink it, and went to return the pitcher to its owner (Documentos de Fatima, pp 38-42; Maitins pp. 41-42).

As we read episode after episode of this kind in the lives of the Fatima children, it is not surprising that Jacinta and Francisco have both been officially declared “Venerable” by the Holy See, for their practice of heroic virtue. Somewhere near the heart of this heroism was the deep faith conviction that sinners who die unrepentant go to hell. They can be saved, however, by the sacrifices we offer to God for their conversion.

Heavenly Reward

If the vision of hell was the most startling of the Fatima apparitions, the existence of heaven was their underlying premise.

Already in the first apparition, on May 13, Lucia asked Our Lady, “Where are you from?” The answer was, “I am from heaven.” When Lucia further asked, in sequence, whether she and Jacinta and Francisco were going to heaven, the Lady’s answer in each case was, “Yes.” Except that Francisco had to “Say many Rosaries.” Lucia asked about two of her friends, if they were going to heaven too. Yes, they were, but one, Amelia by name, “will be in purgatory until the end of the world” (Memoirs, pp. 159, 161).

During the July apparition, the children were told to say after each mystery of the Rosary, “O my Jesus, forgive us, save us from the fire of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are in most need” (Memoirs, pp. 167, 169).

Some explanation should be made of this prayer. The text just given is a literal translation of Lucia’s written words, quoting Our Lady’s words. A more popular version says, “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fire of hell. Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy.”

Addressed to Jesus, this prayer is asking Him for four favors:

  • Forgiveness of our sins, not only our own personal sins, but the sins of all human beings on earth;

  • Deliverance from hell, again not only for us as individuals, but for all persons still on earth;

  • Heavenly salvation for everyone, which is the counterpart to deliverance from hell. To be emphasized is that God wants everyone to be saved. His salvific will is universal. Those who are not saved condemn themselves by their deliberate resistance to the will of God;

  • Special graces are requested for those who are in greatest want of God’s mercy. Correspondingly, a special plea is made for those in purgatory, who are in greatest need of divine clemency.

Through Mary to Jesus

Nothing is more characteristic of Fatima than its stress on the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is depicted as the one from whom we receive Christ and the one through whom we are blessed with a share in His divine life.

Without Mary there would be no Fatima and, without Fatima, we would not have the extraordinary growth in Marian piety throughout the world. To understand what this means, we need to go back a ways in Portuguese history, place the Fatima apparitions into historical perspective, and thus come to better understand the historic significance of what has come to be called the Fatima message.

According to Lucia’s Memoirs, one of Jacinta’s favorite songs that she liked to sing during the long hours of solitude in tending sheep was the popular hymn Salve Nobre Padroeira.

Hail, O noble Patroness,
Of the people whom you protect,
Of the people chosen among all others
As the people of the Lord.

O Thou, glory of our land,
Whom you have saved a thousand times!
As long as there are Portuguese people
You will always be their love.
(De Marchi, Temoignages sur les Apparitions de Fatima, p. 66; [Michel, p. 1]).

This song in two verses is the climax to the history of Portugal as the history of a deeply Marian people.

Marian Origins. What is now Portugal was mainly the former Roman Province of Lusitania. Evangelized in the early centuries, it was invaded by the Moors in 711 and had to wait three centuries before deliverance. The recognized founder of present Portugal was King Alonso Henriques (1128-1185). His years of military struggle with the Moslem overlords finally gave his country the freedom to practice Christianity without oppression from the Arab invaders. When a dispute arose over Henriques rights as king, Pope Lucius II in 1142 confirmed his royal authority after Henriques declared himself the Pope’s vassal. This papal recognition made Portugal an independent nation, whose sovereignty was further ratified in 1179 by Pope Alexander III.

No sooner was Henriques established as king, than he chose the Blessed Virgin as patron of his country. As explained by the Portuguese historian, Oliveira Dias, “The founder of the kingdom placed it under the protection of Mary, naming her as Protectress and Mother of all the Portuguese, and at the same time he decreed that an annual tribute should be paid to the Church of St. Mary of Clairvaux, in the name of its abbot, St. Bernard (1090-1153).”

St. Bernard’s great devotion to Our Lady took root in Portugal almost to the day that the nation was founded. His Cistercian monks began to arrive in the country in 1140 and immediately began to instill in the faithful a deep veneration for Mary.

When Henriques was planning the conquest of Santarem, then in the hands of the Moors, he vowed to build a monastery dedicated to the Virgin at Alcobace, only a short distance from Fatima. Thereafter, the crusaders used to carry into battle with them a statue of the Blessed Virgin. For centuries this statue was venerated in the Church of Our Lady of Martyrs in Lisbon.

Beginnings of Fatima. Tradition explains the origin of the town of Fatima. The favorite daughter of Mohammed was called Fatima, and Moslem girls adopted this name. It seems that a powerful Moslem prince, Alacer de Sol, was taken captive by the crusader Goncalo Hermingues. When Goncalo asked the prince for his daughter’s hand in marriage, she became a Christian and was baptized at Ouranea, which gave its name to the nearby town of Ourem. The young princess died in her youth and her husband decided to leave the world to become a monk. He entered the Cistercian monastery at Alcobaca. Shortly after, the abbey started a small priory in the neighboring mountainside. When Brother Goncalo was sent there, he took with him the mortal remains of his beloved spouse. The place, it is believed, took and ever since has kept her name.

Mary in Portuguese History. Two centuries after the rise of Portugal, the country’s survival was threatened by the more powerful Castillian army in 1385. The nation was saved by the courage of Dom Nuno Alvares Pereira, who had a strong devotion to the Mother of God.

On August 13 of that year, Dom Nuno (now Blessed) decided to march alone into battle with the enemy. The image inscribed on his banner was, “In the name of God and of the Virgin Mary.” Against all military odds, the king of Portugal joined Nuno and won a decisive victory that assured Portugal more centuries of independence. Pope Boniface IX described the victory as miraculous. Once again a beautiful monastery was built in Mary’s honor, this time to Our Lady of Victory at Batalha, a short distance from Fatima. From this Dominican monastery, devotion to the Holy Rosary spread among the Portuguese people.

One memorable event of Marian piety took place on October 20, 1646. King John IV of Portugal signed a document in which he laid down his royal crown at the feet of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, proclaiming Mary under that title as Patron of the kingdom. This act of dedication was the expression of a prayer.

Hoping with great confidence in the infinite mercy of Our Lord, who, by the intermediary of this Patron and Protectress of our kingdoms and our lands, of which we have the honor to declare ourselves her vassals and tributaries, will protect and defend us against our enemies while considerably increasing our lands, for the glory of Christ our God and for the exaltation of the holy Roman Catholic faith, the conversion of pagans and the submission of heretics. (Oliveira Dias, S.J., in Maria, “Etudes sur la Sainte Vierge”, vol. 4, p. 624; [Michel. pp. 5-6]).

With the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century, heterodoxy penetrated many of the learned circles of Portugal. But, by and large, the ordinary people held on to their Catholic heritage. Thus, when Pope Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Portuguese faithful decided to build a superb national sanctuary at Sameiro near Broga. A beautiful statue of the Immaculata was sculptured in Rome and personally blessed by Pius IX. Among the deposition records of Jacinta is the fact that this was the image of Our Lady which best reminded her of the Virgin’s appearance at Fatima.

As a matter of record, among the foreign pilgrims visiting Lourdes, the most numerous — with their bishops and priests — were the Portuguese. In 1876, the patriarch of Lisbon came to Lourdes and, in 1878, King Fernando of Portugal, along with members of his family. After the revolution of 1910, many Portuguese exiles chose to live at Lourdes, to be near Our Lady’s grotto.

One more item deserves to be mentioned. In the hectic years following the 1911 law of separation of Church and State, the region of Fatima was outstanding in its loyalty to the Catholic faith. As one historian observed, during this agitated period when the government sought to control all ecclesiastical property in “the neighborhood of Ourem in which Fatima is situated they were never able to take an inventory of the goods of the Church, and to my knowledge this was absolutely unique in all Portugal” (José Galamba de Oliveira, Fatima a Pruva, pp. 25- 27 [Michel, p. 8]).

Mary at Fatima. The preceding review of Marian piety in Portugal over the centuries was necessary to better understand the predominant role of Our Lady in what we are calling the doctrinal premises of Fatima.

The scope of the Fatima apparitions is global. But the place and the people where these apparitions took place can be called unique in the Church’s geography and history. For over a thousand years, Portugal and its citizens have looked to Mary for survival and religious freedom in a way that is quite unparalleled in the annals of Catholic Christianity. We may call this the backdrop of Fatima or, better, its proof from experience. The Portuguese are a standing witness to the Blessed Virgin’s power under God to perform moral miracles in the minds and hearts of sinful human beings — provided there are enough clients of Mary to invoke her great name.

Immaculate Heart of Mary. While Mary’s declared name at Fatima is Our Lady of the Rosary, the distinctive prerogatives that she stressed were her sinlessness and her exalted charity. Her sinlessness is expressed by the title Immaculate; her sublime charity is symbolized by the term Heart. Thus the composite “Immaculate Heart” tells us two things:

  • That Mary was absolutely sinless from the moment of her conception because, as the angel addressed her at the Annunciation, she was “full of grace.” And now that she is in heavenly glory, she is the holiest of human persons because she is the most pleasing to God;

  • That Mary loved God most dearly because she is the Mother of God; and loves others most generously because she loves them as the spiritual Mother of the Human race.

By now, the Immaculate Heart of Mary has become associated with Fatima almost to the point of identification. In October, 1942, Pope Pius XII consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fatima apparitions. The Pope’s Act of Consecration is a perfect synthesis of all that the Catholic Church believes by her devotion to Mary’s sinless Heart.

In this Act of Consecration, the Pope addressed Mary in no less than eight titles:

  • Queen of the Most Holy Rosary;

  • Help of Christians;

  • Refuge of the Human Race;

  • Conquerer in all God’s battles;

  • Mother of Mercy;

  • Queen of Peace;

  • Our Mother;

  • Queen of the World.

Each of these titles brings out a distinct facet of Marian faith in the Blessed Virgin as the one person, under Christ, to whose hands He has entrusted the destiny of mankind.

Since the Act of Consecration was made at the height of the Second World War, Pope Pius XII openly pleaded for peace among nations. But underlying this external peace, he asked Our Lady to obtain for mankind the grace of faith in the Divinity of her Son, “the one and only Savior of the world.” It was on the day Mary gave birth to Jesus that the angels promised “peace on earth to men of good will.” If only people would believe in Him and conform their wills to His, there would be peace among men because there would be peace within men.

Mary’s Divine Maternity. It is of more than passing importance to isolate the one truth of faith on which the whole edifice of Fatima depends, that Mary is the Mother of God.

This was the faith of the children who saw and spoke with Our Lady. During the September 13 apparition, Lucia recalled the ideas going through her mind when she saw the huge crowds around the Cova da Iria. They were begging the young seers to plead with Mary for some heavenly favor they wanted. Lucia said to herself:

If these people humbled themselves before three poor children, just because they were mercifully granted the grace to speak to the Mother of God, what would they not do if they saw Our Lord Himself in person before them?

Faith in Mary’s divine Maternity among the Portuguese was so deep because of their centuries of co-habitation with the Moslems. While Islam has a great veneration for Mary, she is not considered the Mother of God, for the most basic of reasons. Isa, (Jesus) her son, is only Ibn Maryam (Son of Mary); He is not Ibn Allah (Son of God).

Woven into the Koran, as a Christological theme, and since the cornerstone of Islam, is the dogma that God could not have had a son and, therefore, that Jesus could not be one with Allah. “Jesus in Allah’s eyes is in the same position as Adam,” wrote Mohammed. “He created him of dust and then said to him, ‘Be’, and he is.” This was revealed by Gabriel, and “whosoever disputes with you concerning Him (Jesus), we will summon our sons, and your sons, and our women and your women, and we will humbly and solemnly invoke the curse of Allah upon those who lie.” In one eloquent passage, Mohammed consigns all Trinitarian Christians to eternal doom.

They surely disbelieve who say, “Behold, Allah is the Messiah, Son of Mary.” The Messiah himself said, “Children of Israel, worship Allah, my Lord and your God.” Whoever ascribes partners unto Allah, for him Allah has forbidden paradise. His abode is the Fire. For evildoers there will be no relief.

They surely disbelieve who say, “Behold Allah is the third of three,” when there is no god save the One God. If they desist not from so saying, a painful doom will fall on those who disbelieve.

The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger. Many were the messengers that passed away before him. See how God makes His signs clear to them (Christians); yet see how they are deluded away from the truth (Koran, Surah V, 72-75).

No Moslem who professes to accept the Koran questions these judgments about Jesus and his followers. Christ is for him only a great teacher and the precursor of Mohammed.

On these terms, Mary cannot be the Mother of God. The history of Portugal is in many ways a history of a loyal faith that was tested and tried for over a thousand years. Fatima is a tribute to this deathless faith in Mary’s divine maternity.

Mediatrix of Grace. Given Mary’s divine maternity, it follows that she is the channel of grace from her Divine Son to the human race.

On these premises, the Marian Rosary is the prayerful repetition of the Hail Mary, at once an act of veneration and of invocation:

  • The act of veneration is of biblical origin and consists of two parts:

    • The words of the Archangel Gabriel, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women” (Luke 1:28); and

    • The words of Elizabeth, “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus (Luke 1:42).

  • The act of invocation is of ecclesiastical origin and also consists of two parts:

    • The titles of Our Lady, as “Holy Mary, Mother of God” and

    • The invocation proper, asking her to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

Chronologically, the Hail Mary as a prayer of veneration goes back to the eleventh century. As a form of invocation, it was finally fixed by the Dominican Pope St. Pius V in 1568.

Not surprisingly, invoking Our Lady in the Hail Mary was at least occasioned by the Protestant Reformation. When the Reformers denied Mary’s mediation of grace, the Church countered by adding the double title of her Holiness and Divine Maternity as the grounds for invoking her aid. The aid we ask of her is to intercede for us sinners all through our lives, i.e. now, and especially to obtain for us the crowning grace of final perseverance as we enter eternity.

The papal statements commending devotion to Our Lady of Fatima clearly distinguish the two ways that Mary is our Mediatrix of grace.

On the first level of mediation, Mary freely cooperated with God in consenting to the Incarnation, giving birth to her Divine Son, and sharing with Him in spirit the labors of His Passion and Death. We call this Mary’s mediation in the objective redemption of mankind. Yet, as explained by the Church, her mediating role was totally subordinate to that of Christ.

On the second level of mediation, Mary cooperates by her maternal intercession in applying Christ’s redemptive grace to human beings. This is called subjective mediation. Modern popes and the Second Vatican Council have spoken strongly in favor of this form of Marian mediation. The whole tenor of the Fatima apparitions confirms this understanding of Our Lady as Mediatrix. Not only was she the providential “cause of our joy,’ by giving us her Son and joining with Him in His original work of redemption; Mary is now, as “Mother of the Church,” obtaining from her Divine Son the graces we need to reach heavenly glory.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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