Prairie Messenger Header


Abbot Peter Novecosky, OSB


Abbot Peter NovecoskyA visit to Fatima

Pope Francis visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in northern Portugal to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children there on May 13, 1917.

He canonized two of the children — Jacinta and Francisco. Jacinta was seven years old and Francisco nine, and their cousin Lucia dos Santos was 10 at the time of their visions. Jacinta and Francisco died a year later in the Spanish flu epidemic. Lucia joined a Carmelite convent and died in 2005 at age 97.

The children said Mary appeared to them six times that year, on the 13th of the next five months. In one appearance, Mary said a miracle would occur on Oct. 13, 1917. Initially the children were scolded and even threatened with death for spreading what were considered baseless stories. But pilgrims from all over the world gathered in Fatima on that date and awaited Mary’s appearance.

In what came to be called the “Miracle of the Sun,” many reported seeing visions in the sky while others reported miracles of healing. A newspaper of the day reported, “Before their dazzled eyes the sun trembled, the sun made unusual and brusque movements, defying all the laws of the cosmos, and according to the typical expression of the peasants, ‘the sun danced.’ ”

Two years earlier, in 1915, the children had seen a strange sight while praying the rosary in the field. Lucia wrote later: “We had hardly begun when, there before our eyes, we saw a figure poised in the air above the trees; it looked like a statue made of snow, rendered almost transparent by the rays of the sun.”

In 1916 the mysterious figure appeared again, this time approaching close enough “to distinguish its features.”

“Do not be afraid! I am the Angel of Peace. Pray with me,” Lucia recalled the angel saying.

Thirteen years after Mary’s final apparition at Fatima, the bishop of Leiria declared the visions of the three shepherd children “worthy of belief” and allowed the veneration of Our Lady of Fatima. However, the bishop did not recognize the “dancing sun” as miraculous.

Today, Fatima attracts between five million and six million pilgrims a year, making it one of the most popular shrines in the world. The largest numbers come on May 13 — the anniversary of the first apparitions.

Jacinta and Francisco are the first children to be canonized by the church without having suffered martyrdom. — PWN

How apparitions are approved

Mary seems to be appearing frequently these days. More than 1,500 visions of Mary have been reported around the world, according to a Catholic News Service report. But in the past century, fewer than 20 cases have received church approval as worthy of belief. Even the reputed apparitions at Medjugorje have not been judged authentic, after several years of investigation.

When it comes to Marian apparitions, the Catholic Church takes a prudent approach that focuses more on the message than any miracle. Supernatural phenomena, like the alleged miracle of the sun in Fatima, are not the primary factors in determining that an apparition is worthy of belief.

The Vatican’s “Norms regarding the manner of proceedings in the discernment of presumed apparitions or revelations” were approved by Pope Paul VI in 1978. An official English translation was released in 2011.

As with Fatima, responsibility for determining an apparition’s veracity lies with the local bishop, according to the norms established by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The process is never brief, with some cases taking hundreds of years. Visionaries and witnesses must be questioned and the fruits of the apparitions, — such as conversions, miracles and healings — must be examined.

According to the norms, the local bishop should set up a commission of experts, including theologians, canonists, psychologists and doctors to help him determine the facts, the mental, moral and spiritual wholesomeness and seriousness of the visionary, and whether the messages and testimony are free from theological and doctrinal error.

A bishop can come to one of three conclusions: he can determine the apparition to be true and worthy of belief; he can say it is not true, which leaves open the possibility for an appeal; or he can say that at the moment, he doesn’t know and needs more help.

In the last scenario, the investigation is brought to the country’s bishops’ conference. If that body cannot come to a conclusion, the matter is turned over to the pope, who delegates the doctrinal congregation to step in and give advice or appoint others to investigate.

The Catholic Church does not require the faithful to believe in apparitions, even those recognized by the church.

Church recognition of a private revelation, in essence, is just the church’s way of saying the message is not contrary to the faith or morality, it is licit to make the message public “and the faithful are authorized to give to it their prudent adhesion,” now-retired Pope Benedict XVI said in his 2010 apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini (The Word of the Lord).

The original message of Fatima was for peace. There is no simple solution in today’s complex world. But, it has to begin in each person’s heart.