A century has passed since a lady in white is said to have appeared to three young shepherds in the hills above Fatima, yet the story is as fascinating today as it always was
The Fatima story revolves around six apparitions of the Lady of Fatima, three secret prophecies and a miracle that astonished even the non-believers who were there to see it.
It began on a springtime morning about a century ago in a quiet Portuguese valley called Cova da Iria where Lúcia Santos and her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, were tending sheep. It was a Sunday so the children – aged just ten, nine and seven – had been to Mass in the morning before setting out to watch over their flocks grazing in the fields.
According to Lúcia they had just eaten their lunch and were playing when there was a blinding flash of light. Thinking it was lightning they gathered their flocks and set off for home. They had just reached a holmoak tree when there was a second flash which revealed an apparition of a beautiful woman dressed in white.
Lúcia said the apparition, which became known as the Lady of Fatima, told them not to be afraid and asked if they were willing to offer themselves to God. They said yes without hesitation even though she warned them it would involve suffering. The Lady of Fatima led the children in prayer and asked them to return to the same place on the 13th day of each of the next five months, promising that she would reappear. The children said she then rose into the sky and disappeared.
Back home in Fatima the three were initially reluctant to say anything for fear of being ridiculed but after the youngest let slip what had happened they told their parents the story. News spread quickly among the villagers, many of whom did not believe the children’s story and ridiculed both them and their families.
Even so a small crowd gathered on June 13, the day of the promised second apparition. The Lady of Fatima is said to have appeared again, dressed in white, but only the children saw her. She instructed them to pray, do penance, make sacrifices and say the rosary daily, and said she would come soon for Jacinta and Francisco. Lúcia, she said, would remain on earth for a long time as God wished her to establish devotion to the Virgin Mary throughout the world.
By the time of the third apparition on July 13 there was widespread scepticism but the story had brought crowds to the village. Some were believers, some saw it as the work of the devil and some were only there to see the unmasking of what they believed to be a hoax.
Revelation of Hell
When the Lady of Fatima appeared Lúcia asked her to work a miracle so that people would believe the children were telling the truth. The Lady of Fatima agreed, promising to identify herself in October and to perform a miracle ‘for all to see and believe’.
Although bystanders could not see the apparition, many confirmed the effect on the children of what happened next. The Lady of Fatima is said to have opened her hands and revealed a vision of hell which made them gasp out loud and grow pale in the face. She then revealed to the children the famous three secrets of Fatima, prophecies that included a warning that even though the First World War would come to an end it would be followed by an even worse war if people did not cease offending God.
By the time of the fourth apparition of the Lady of Fatima the story had attracted national interest. Newspapers joined the clamour by accusing the authorities of doing nothing to stop what was regarded as the ‘farce’ of Fatima.
Miracle of Fatima
As the story spread nationally, thousands of people converged on the village hoping for visions and miracles until the provincial administrator – an atheist – decided he had had enough. He threw the children in jail and interrogated them in an attempt to get details of the three secrets, even threatening to boil them alive in a vat of oil if they did not comply. The children resisted and were eventually released.
After the children reported seeing another apparition of the Lady of Fatima in September there was intense interest in the promised miracle on October 13. On that day an estimated crowd of 70,000 people gathered in the village and are said to have seen a strange phenomenon which filled the sky and made the sun dance, radiate with unusual colours and rotate like a fire wheel. It wasn’t just fervent believers who saw what became known as the Miracle of the Sun. Some of the most compelling accounts came from hard-headed journalists, teachers and even an eye specialist.
The events of Fatima made the children famous but tragedy soon struck the two cousins. Within three years both Francisco and Jacinta were dead, victims of the Spanish Flu epidemic. This was said to be as predicted by the Lady of Fatima during the second apparition. Inexplicably the young children are reported to have been very happy about knowing they were going to die young, and to have ecstatically repeated the prediction to their mother and visitors on many occasions.
Secrets of Fatima
Lúcia entered a convent and spent the rest of her life as a nun. In the late thirties she finally released details of the first and second secrets of Fatima, but the third was kept under wraps by the Vatican until this century, sparking huge controversy and dozens of conspiracy theories about its contents. The eventual release of the third secret in 2000 has done little to dampen the speculation as many believe it is not the full text of the original secret.
Sister Lúcia is reported to have been visited several more times by the Lady of Fatima during her lifetime and her memory is so revered that since her death in 2005 there have been moves towards her eventual canonization.