Although 2017 is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door, there’s another religious anniversary -– a centennial -– this past Friday that got far less publicity.
Oct. 13, 1917, is the date when some 70,000 people, including a few newspaper reporters, witnessed the “miracle of the sun” in Fatima, a town north of Lisbon in central Portugal.
Many dismiss this as outdated Catholic lore, but the alleged appearance of the Virgin Mary in Fatima was a big deal for St. Pope John Paul II, who was nearly assassinated on May 13, 1981. He attributed his escape from death to Our Lady of Fatima.
Yet, I found very little about this anniversary in the secular media. The Philadelphia Inquirer was one of the exceptions, possibly because the local archbishop, Charles Chaput, made its observance a priority.
Throughout the year, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s 1.5 million Catholics have been observing the anniversary with special services, lectures, movie screenings, retreats, and pilgrimages. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput will preside over a consecration service at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.
Fatima is among the three most popular Marian apparitions, including one reported in 1858 by St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France (Our Lady of Lourdes), and another in 1531 by St. Juan Diego and his uncle on the Hill of Tepeyac near Mexico City (Our Lady of Guadalupe), according to Jason Paul Bourgeois, an assistant professor at the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
Messages of prayer, penance, reparations for sin, and devotion to Mary are oft-repeated in Marian sightings, but Our Lady of Fatima’s three secrets — prophecies and apocalyptic visions of specific events to come — set it apart.
The story is quite complete, going into the history of the three secrets of Fatima as well as other Marian apparitions. My only complaint is that it gave too much credence to those debunking the “miracle of the sun” -- in that how does one deceive 70,000 people? The skeptics never explain that one.
The Washington Post had a far more sympathetic article. It has such a nice lead-in, I included the first six paragraphs.
The children were tending a flock of sheep outside the tiny village of Fatima, Portugal, when they first saw the angel. He was transparent, they said, and shining like a crystal.
Lucia Abobora, 9, and her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, 6 and 7, were stunned.
“He said, “Do not be afraid. I am the angel of peace. Pray with me,’” Abobora — later renamed Lucia de Jesus de dos Santos — recounted in her memoir, “Fatima in Lucia’s Own Words,” published in 1976.
During the rest of 1916, as World War I raged in Europe, the angel showed himself two more times to the children. But they told no one what they’d seen.
In the spring of 1917, something more extraordinary began unfolding — visions that would put three children on the path to sainthood and transform Fatima from an ordinary village to the site of a Catholic shrine venerated and visited by millions.
The Virgin Mary appeared to the children on May 13, 1917 as “a lady dressed in white, shining brighter than the sun, giving out rays of clear and intense light,” dos Santos wrote. She promised to come to the children on the 13th of each month.
The reporter went on to describe the “miracle of the sun” but used the words of a newspaper reporter and college professor -- people one could ordinarily count on to be skeptical -- to describe the weird colors of the sun and the surrounding landscape.
As I looked around to see what other publications had carried, I noticed some mentions, but mainly in the form of how local churches were observing the centennial or guest editorials, such as the one that Diocese of Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto wrote for the Sacramento Bee.
The religious press was quite different. One of the better essays was found in a British publication, the Catholic Herald. It described how Fatima was “the most important Marian event in 1,500 years” in how it influenced several popes and dealt with uniquely 20th century problems -- i.e. Russia’s fall to Communism.
Thus, Fatima wasn’t just any Marian appearance. It involved a Virgin Mary who gave out a series of “secrets’' (prophecies about world politics), a future World War II and (depending on how you interpret the third secret) the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. Thus, the centennial might have deserved more attention than it got.
Its coverage -– or lack thereof -– brings up some interesting questions. When it comes to a topic like this, is it the job of the secular media to note the anniversary or should they leave that to the religious press? Most media chose the latter. But reporters who had their ear to the ground on what matters to many Catholics managed to come up with stories about it.
There are ways to cover these things without taking a stand on whether they are real or not. In this case, if it's real for a succession of popes and millions of Catholic faithful, it deserves coverage.