Sixteen years ago today the last seer of Fatima, Lucia dos Santos (known in religious life as Sr. Lucia of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart), joined her beloved cousins Francisco and Jacinta in eternity. She died in her convent in Coimbra surrounded by her Carmelite sisters. Francisco and Jacinta died young, as predicted by Our Lady, in 1919 and 1920 respectively. In 1917, when Our Lady told the children that Francisco and Jacinta would be going to Heaven soon, she told Lucia that it was God’s will that she remain on earth “some time longer.” That “some time longer” turned out to be 85 years! And all of that time was spent spreading the message of Fatima, spreading devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Fatima has always presented something of a difficulty for me. I believed the events and the message the first time I heard about them as a child. My difficulty wasn’t with disbelief. It was with understanding and incorporating some of the more challenging aspects of the message. And, I think part of my difficulty was wrapped up in the tendency to seek after the sensational… my own tendency and that same tendency in others. So often when I read or heard anything about Fatima, it focused on the “secrets” and the controversy involving the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. And there are no lack of conspiracy theories surrounding the events of Fatima and the ensuing decades. As a matter of fact, I don’t think it would be hyperbole to say that the message of Fatima often gets lost in a sea of conspiracy theories. For this reason, I am very grateful that Sr. Angela de Fatima Coelho wrote the recently published book entitled Inside the Light: Understanding the Message of Fatima.
She states at the beginning of the book: “The primary goal of this book is to take each of us deeper into the theological message of Fatima and the spirituality of the shepherd children, with the explicit goal of deepening our relationship with Christ.” She assumes a basic knowledge of the events of Fatima. But, if you are not familiar with those events, don’t worry. She provides a overview immediately before the Introduction. That overview is plenty to get you caught up to speed.
The message of Fatima can be boiled down, I think, to the basic message of the gospel: “Repent and believe the good news!” Our Lady of Fatima calls us to a full embrace of the gospel. It is a message of repentance… a turning from sin, and turning to God… a radical reorientation of our life toward God. It’s a message of embracing penance as a pathway to joy.
Penance is not a popular topic today. It is certainly not usually associated with joy. Yet, I have discovered over the last several years that penance is indeed a path to joy. But for the longest time I couldn’t see it. The idea of penance (of making sacrifices, of “offering it up”) was one of the reasons I had such a difficulty incorporating the message of Fatima in my life. What kind of penance, I would wonder. Suffering, pain, discomfort… making sacrifices… none of it sounds good to me. I would read about the sacrifices and penances the little shepherd children would make (fasting, skipping meals, giving their lunches to other children, praying SO MANY rosaries, wearing rough ropes tied tightly about their waists…), and I would, sincerely, feel scared. Those were not things that I wanted to do. By nature, I like comfort… good food and drink, relaxing, taking it easy. Maybe sharing a meal with friends, yes… but a meal during which I would eat too!
During the final apparition, on October 13, 1917, when the miracle of the sun occurred, the children saw an angel with a flaming sword pointed toward the earth and the angel cried, “Penance! Penance! Penance!” Much later in life, Sr. Lucia commented on this, saying: “But what penance is it that God asks of us? To begin with, the sacrifice that each one has to impose on him or herself in order to leave the way of sin and embark on a path of honesty, purity, justice, truth and love.” To begin with… leave the way of sin. Over time, this started to make sense to me. Penance is about recognizing the love that God has for me and wanting to love him in return. And what is loving God? As Jesus says in John’s gospel (John 14:15), “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” By nature, we may have difficulty keeping Jesus’ commandments. Penance is what we call those efforts we have to make in order to keep his commandments.
In reading about the lives of the little shepherd children, it becomes very difficult to excuse myself from making sacrifices. As I mentioned above, they routinely gave their lunches away, fasting from food. They wore tight ropes around their waists. They did this, as Our Lady instructed them during the June apparition, “For love of you, Jesus, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary!” The way I typically see things, I would assume that God would see these little kids making such sacrifices and tell them to take it easy, that there is no reason to overdo it. But that’s not what happened. Instead, in the September apparition, Our Lady told the children, “God is pleased with your sacrifices.” With such care and attentiveness, she does go on to say regarding the rope, “He does not want you to sleep with the rope on, but only to wear it during the daytime.” So, yes, there is an overdoing it, but not in the way that I would have expected it.
Another major difficulty for me over the years has been the story of the young woman who died at the age of 18. During the apparition of May 13, Lucia asked Our Lady about two young girls from the village that had died recently. They were both about the same age, 18. Maria, Our Lady said, was in Heaven. And Amelia? Our Lady said that she was in Purgatory, and that she would be in Purgatory until the end of the world!
I have thought about that statement often. Indeed, I could say that it has haunted me. We are talking about a young lady in 1917. Life was much simpler then. Families were intact, especially in Portugal at that time. There wasn’t the constant barrage of advertising and the incessant distractions of blips and blings and screens. Of course, we don’t know the circumstances of her death, and even less do we know the condition of her heart and soul at the moment of death. But I would think that, comparatively, the climate in which Amelia lived was purer, less complicated, and less sinful than the state of the world today. If this young girl is going to be in Purgatory until the end of the world, then what chance do I have? I turn 51 this year, and I shudder to think of my lifetime of sins and the many, many, many selfish and stupid things I have done in my life. Yes, I go to confession regularly, I pray the rosary daily, and I go to Mass almost daily. I strive to repent and do penance, and to love God with all my heart. But I still mess up daily. Like any of us, and all of us, I can only rely on the mercy of God who is All Good and the Lover of Mankind.
I confess, though, that I have frequently prayed for Amelia, hoping in some small way to help her get to Heaven sooner. But there are two other things that have come to me from this story of Amelia. First, I have to conclude that I do not understand the gravity, the magnitude, of sin. Even the smallest sin. And secondly, it becomes all the more obvious, since I do not understand the gravity of sin, that I do not understand the nature of Purgatory. I believe both because of the witness of Scripture and Tradition. But I don’t really understand them. I can only pray.
I highly recommend this book. It would be a perfect companion during Lent, which starts in just a few days. During Lent, I want share more with you about penance as a path to joy and about the necessity of fasting, especially in our times.
Before I end for today, I want to share with you a few aspects of the book Inside the Light that really struck me, and (below) also a talk that Ralph Martin did on the message of Fatima. First, a few things that really struck me from the book:
- It’s all about understanding the message. Sr. Angela does talk about the secrets of Fatima, but all within the context of the message and how the message pertains to our lives today.
- As Vice Postulator for the cause of canonization of Francisco and Jacinta, and as Postulator for the cause of Sr. Lucia, Sr. Angela has had access to anything and everything dealing with Fatima… including texts that may have never been published. Her wealth of knowledge shines through and helps to illuminate aspects of the message that I had never heard before. For example, she illuminates the impact on the children of the vision of hell. She also ties together the friendship shared between Sr. Lucia and Pope St. John Paul II, noting how their lives were intertwined in the message of Fatima and that the two of them died within a couple of months of each other.
- She spends time illuminating the spirituality of each of the seers. Her explication of the spirituality of Francisco and the spirituality of Jacinta were both just beautiful. I had only been exposed to the two of them as a pair, never each one individually, until reading this book. And I have come to love each of them, and I seek their intercession for certain needs in my life.
- Sr. Angela explains certain elements of the message in a way that just makes sense. The secrets, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Rosary, what Reparation is and why it is important, what Consecration is and why it is important. The centrality of the Trinity and the Eucharist in the message of Fatima is also highlighted.
- Overall, I came away from reading this book convinced that the message of Fatima is more vital and urgent for us today than it has ever been. We need to know and to live the message of Fatima.
Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us!
I also found this excellent talk by Ralph Martin to be inspirational: