Joseph Bottum (alternately known as J. Bottum, or just Jody to friends and acquaintances) has a theatricality about him and so I expected that, in leaving the post of books and arts editor at The Weekly Standard to become editor of First Things, he would not go quietly. That expectation turns out to have been right on the money, but I should have doubled down on the bet. For his valedictory address, Bottum begins with what he calls a "curious thought." It is stated thus:
Maybe the single most important person in the 20th century's long struggle against communism wasn't Ronald Reagan. Maybe it wasn't Karol Wojtyla or Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa or VÃ¡clav Havel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Mikhail Gorbachev. Maybe it wasn't anyone whose name might leap to a cold warrior's mind . . .
He fingers instead Lucia dos Santos, one of the three children whose visions of angels and the Virgin Mary at Fatima, a small village in the northern part of Portugal, turned the country upside down in 1917. Sister Lucia died Sunday before last, at 97, at her convent in central Portugal. Bottum advances her cause, not only as a saint but also as the prophet whose pronouncements helped to arm the church against the Soviet Union, and ultimately defeat it.
I do not overstate Bottum's argument. He concludes: "[Sister Lucia] received innumerable tributes from around the world [after her death]. But she was little praised for the thing she may have done best: bringing an end to the Soviet Union."
He builds about the best case that one could muster, telling a hell of a story in the process. In 1916 three children were visited by an angel who told them that a visitor would come to them. On six different occasions the next year, they had visions and conversations with the Virgin Mary and the news spread throughout Portugal.
This brought the attention of the government in Lisbon, which was strongly anticlerical at the time and which "apparently feared a nascent peasant revolt was brewing in the religious revival emerging from Fatima." The predictable response was that a local civil administrator arrested the children in August and hauled them away to "the district headquarters in Vila Nova de Ourem -- where, by several accounts, he locked them in cells with 'criminals' and threatened them with 'boiling in oil.'" Bottum writes:
It didn't have the effect for which the government had hoped. The children refused to recant, the crowds grew larger, and, under enormous public pressure, the frightened administrator returned the children, unceremoniously pushing them out of his car in front of the rectory in Fatima two days later, and driving away as fast as he could before the townspeople caught him.
The crowds continued to swell. On October 13 of 1917, in response to the Virgin's promise of a "sign," nearly 70,000 people witnessed the so-called "miracle of the sun." There is a lot of disagreement over what exactly happened, but nearly everybody who was there admitted that it wasn't nothing. In fact,
Amidst all the enthusiasm and mass hysteria, the ecstatic stories of the sun breaking through the clouds and dancing across the sky, there are some surprisingly sober accounts -- mostly by reporters from anticlerical newspapers and skeptical academics who had come to watch the crowd. "The sun's disc did not remain immobile. This was not the sparkling of a heavenly body, for it spun round on itself in a mad whirl," wrote a professor from the University of Coimbra. "Then, suddenly, one heard a clamor, a cry of anguish breaking from all the people. The sun, whirling wildly, seemed to loosen itself from the firmament and advance threateningly upon the earth as if to crush us with its huge and fiery weight. The sensation during those moments was terrible."
Fatima was significant for the Catholic Church because the prophecies delivered from the Virgin to the three children have been granted a kind of standing that isn't usually awarded to private revelations. At Sister Lucia's urging Pope Pius XII consecrated the whole world, with a special emphasis on the U.S.S.R., to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and John Paul II repeated the consecration, along with all the other bishops of the world.
The Fatima prophecies that were made available to the public concerned World War II and the spread of the Soviet Union, but the so-called Third Prophecy was long a topic of fevered speculation. John Paul II made people scratch their heads when he visited Fatima in 1991. The pope "took the bullet with which he had been shot 10 years before and placed it in the crown of the statue of Mary at the site of the original apparitions."
The explanation wasn't given until 2000, when two of the three children, long dead, were put on the fast track for sainthood. By way of explanation, the Vatican released the communication that had been sealed away in its archives since Sister Lucia passed it on in 1957. The vision "predicted the persecution of the Church and the shooting of a pope."
Bottum explains, "John Paul II had come to the conclusion that the prophecy was fulfilled by the murder attempt of May 13, 1981, when the Turkish assassin Mehmet Ali Agca shot him in St. Peter's Square." He argues that the "prayers and the attitudes inspired by the visions of Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta at Fatima" influenced popular piety to such an extent that it helped to turn the tide against the Soviet Union.