Tomorrow marks the 100th Anniversary of the third appearance by Our Lady to the children in Fatima, Portugal. It was during this visit that Our Lady disclosed to the children what has become known as the “Three Secrets.” The first two of these secrets included a vision into hell, a prediction of World War II and the spread of Communism. The third secret remained hidden and was not disclosed until the year 2000. At the end of the Mass of Beatification for two of the visionaries, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, Cardinal Angelo Sodano announced its release. He mentioned that the time was ripe partly because “the events to which the third part of the ‘secret’ of Fatima now seem part of the past.” This has not stopped many people from claiming otherwise, insisting on all kinds of apocalyptic interpretations and creating much controversy.
Shortly after Cardinal Sodano’s statement, the then Head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued a Theological Commentary on the Message of Fatima hoping to shine some light upon the third vision the children saw. The Cardinal began by affirming Cardinal Sodano’s assertion saying,
“[I]nsofar as individual events are described, they belong to the past. Those who expected exciting apocalyptic revelations about the end of the world or the future course of history are bound to be disappointed. Fatima does not satisfy our curiosity in this way, just as Christian faith in general cannot be reduced to an object of mere curiosity. What remains was already evident when we began our reflections on the text of the “secret”: the exhortation to prayer as the path of “salvation for souls” and, likewise, the summons to penance and conversion.”
Despite such a lucid statement, many still insist that the vision is pointing to something yet to happen even going so far as to insist that the Church is hiding something. There are certainly a number of psychological reasons why a person might do this, but there are those whose insistence comes from a misunderstanding about the nature of prophecy. Cardinal Ratzinger anticipated this aspect of it and spoke briefly about prophecy in hopes that some of the mistaken views could be put to rest and the focus could be placed on the message itself. It is in this spirit that we should examine what the future Pope Benedict XVI had to say and supplement it with St. Thomas Aquinas’ explanation of prophecy.
St. Thomas Aquinas and Prophecy
In addressing the charism of prophecy in the Summa (ST II-II, q.173, art. 2), St. Thomas speaks of three different ways in which a prophetic vision is conveyed. There is the ordinary vision in which something is presented to the exterior senses. Second, there is an interior perception. Finally there is a mystical vision that occurs without images. Regardless of the means by which the vision is conveyed, there is always a subjective element to it. St. Thomas says that “whatever is received, is received according to the mode of the receiver” (ST IA q.75, a5). What he means by this is that although a person may receive light from on high, how they receive it and how they explain it is based upon their own capacity and experience.
Applying this to what we know of Fatima we can say that the vision was neither the first (only the children could see it) nor could the third (because Sr. Lucia describes it using images). Through process of elimination we can conclude that the prophetic vision the children received would have been through an interior perception. What this means is that the vision as Sr. Lucia describes it, even though it is authentic, uses images drawn from her imagination and memory. This, by the way, is similar to what we see with St. John in the Book of Revelation. Many of the images as he describes them are based on images that were familiar to him, especially things he had seen on Patmos (like the sea of glass). In any regard, Sr. Lucia received an impulse from above that is then translated by her interior senses so that she can receive the message.
A thought experiment will make this more understandable. When I say to you the word “telephone,” you cannot think of a telephone without drawing up an image in your imagination. This telephone is likely drawn from something in your own memory. In that way it is completely unique to you and if you began to describe it, it would like be very different from the image I had in mind when I said the word. In this way, the vision as Sr. Lucia describes it describes is the product of her own imagination and memory. Again, this is not to suggest that it is made up, only that the images themselves are drawn from her imagination.
Any interpretation has to factor how the prophetic light is received in because it is not like she has seen something on TV or a picture on a wall. She has received a light and her imagination has attempted to match the light she received. Of course, it is a prophetic light that is always beyond our natural capacity to know (St. Thomas says of prophecy that it “first and chiefly consists in knowledge, because, to wit, prophets know things that are far removed from man’s knowledge” (ST II-II, q.171, a.1)) and thus much more complicated than my simple telephone example. In other words, it is not the vision that matters so much as the interpretation, that is the explanation of what the actual light that was received consisted in. This is why when asked by Cardinal Sodano whether the interpretation of the vision was correct, Sr. Lucia said she had been given the vision but not the interpretation. She said it was up to the Church to interpret it, but once she was shown the interpretation she thought it corresponded with what she had seen.
Not only do we tend to focus too much on the vision itself, but we forget another important aspect of a truly Catholic understanding of prophecy. Most tend to think of prophecy as a foretelling of future events, but the Catholic understanding of prophecy is broader than this. As Cardinal Ratzinger says in his commentary, “prophecy in the biblical sense does not mean to predict the future but to explain the will of God for the present, and therefore show the right path to take for the future.” By overly focusing on the “prediction” piece of the vision, we can miss the message.
With these principles in mind, we can turn to Sr. Lucia directly in her explanation of what she saw in the vision. Just after seeing an angel with a flaming sword crying out “Penance, penance, penance!” at which point Sr. Lucia saw
“an immense light that is God: ‘something similar to how people appear in a mirror when they pass in front of it’ a Bishop dressed in White ‘we had the impression that it was the Holy Father’. Other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious going up a steep mountain, at the top of which there was a big Cross of rough-hewn trunks as of a cork-tree with the bark; before reaching there the Holy Father passed through a big city half in ruins and half trembling with halting step, afflicted with pain and sorrow, he prayed for the souls of the corpses he met on his way; having reached the top of the mountain, on his knees at the foot of the big Cross he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him, and in the same way there died one after another the other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious, and various lay people of different ranks and positions. ‘Beneath the two arms of the Cross there were two Angels each with a crystal aspersorium in his hand, in which they gathered up the blood of the Martyrs and with it sprinkled the souls that were making their way to God.’”
Cardinal Ratzinger offers the following points of interpretation based on similar Biblical images:
- The angel with the flaming sword on the left of Mary represents the threat of judgment looming over the world, just as we see in Book of Revelation—a particularly apt image as today man “himself, with his inventions, has forged the flaming sword.” The image shows the power that stands opposed to the force of destruction—the Mother of God and the seriousness with which we ought to respond to the call to penance
- The mountain and city symbolize the arena of human history and how man is in great peril of bringing about his own destruction—the cross transforms destruction into salvation
- Time is presented (the entire century is represented) in a compressed form, just as history is directed towards the Cross. It would be a century of a great suffering for Christians. Martyrs and even the Pope himself (“The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated.” It is as Ratzinger says a “Via Crucis of an entire century”
Viewed through a wider-angled lens, prophecy is meant not primarily to clear up the incurable human blindness of the future, but the curable blindness of the present time. This is why it is so important not to get caught up in controversies surrounding the secrets and lose focus on the prophetic message of Fatima. While it is clear that the events depicted have come to pass, the prophetic nature of the message has not passed. The events were signs pointing to both the events themselves, but also, and primarily to the overall message of Fatima which is to become a people of both profound penance and dedication to the will of God through an imitation of Mary’s spirit of fiat (that is the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart). The events not only add credibility to the authenticity of the message, but also are signs through the suffering of the martyrs (the extreme form of Penance) and the Bishop dressed in white who cheated death through his dedication to the Immaculate Heart—his spirit of fiat exemplified through his episcopal motto, Totus tuus. As we recall this important Centenary, we can echo the thoughts of Pope Benedict that the events have passed while also saying “we would be mistaken to think that Fatima’s prophetic mission is complete.” Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!