As the Church marks the 100th Anniversary of the first of six appearances by Our Lady to three young children in Fatima, Portugal with the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, one question associated with the apparitions has remained largely unanswered. What exactly happened on 13 October 1917 when 70,000 witnesses saw the sun dance? While accounts may vary in some ways, there is universal agreement among the witnesses about several key facts surrounding the event. First, it had been raining hard for several hours and the sky cleared right as the children began praying. One of the children, Lucia, instructed the crowd that they should look at the sun at which point the sun, covered by what looked like a thin silver disc, appeared to change color, spin like a fire wheel and plummet towards the earth 3 times. Although it was bright, it seemed to have a filter (the thin silver disc) that made it possible to look directly upon it. This was met by both reverential awe and fear especially because many of the pilgrims spoke of a heat emanating from the sun as it approached; a heat so intense that all of their clothes were dried. All total, the miracle lasted about 10 minutes. Despite the near unanimous agreement about this extraordinary event and its overwhelming evidential power, the miracle itself has been largely ignored by those outside the Church and misunderstood by those inside the Church.
Perhaps some of the reason why it has been ignored is because of the label of miracle. Informed by a materialist philosophy, miracles are a priori impossible. Any talk of them is usually met with ridicule and the charge of incredulity and superstition. Such a public event as what the people in Fatima witnessed that October day is an open contradiction of this and therefore many pretend it did not happen.
The Church and the Miraculous
This may be compounded by the fact that the Church is extremely cautious in labeling something as a miracle. Every conceivable natural explanation must be eliminated before declaring an event to be miraculous. In the case of the so called Miracle of the Sun, the Church, even though she has deemed the message of Fatima as worthy of belief, has never declared that a miracle occurred that day.
This leads to confusion among those in the Church, especially because many take this as an indication that the Church is drinking scientism’s Cool-Aid. Instead, it shows her access to Divine Wisdom. She knows that if a natural explanation were to be found for what she had previously called a miracle, then it would shatter the confidence of many believers and destroy her own credibility. Those steeped in a solely scientific worldview are always on the lookout for a the capital offense of placing “God in the gaps.”
What was witnessed that day may have a natural explanation. To be sure, the Sun did not move that day. For the sun to approach the earth (ignoring the problems of size, gravity, etc.) it would have been a global event and not something localized to Fatima. In other words it would have been witnessed throughout the world. God can do anything, but even He cannot make something that is a contradiction occur. Contradictions are not things but nonsense. A wholly material thing cannot be in two places at once. The sun could not both be in the sky over Spain and approaching the earth in Portugal. It will not do to say that God somehow played tricks on the minds of the pilgrims to make it seem as if they were seeing the sun.
Rather than placing God in the gaps, scientism’s adherents like to put Mesmer (the inventor of hypnosis) in the gaps. Many have said that those present that day all were victims of mass suggestion. Some people were not in the Cova that day and there were witnesses as many as 9 miles away that saw the event.
Certainly, whatever happened that day was unique. But the meteorological conditions themselves were unique as well. The atmospheric conditions may have been such that there is a wholly natural explanation for what happened. Fr. Stanley Jaki in his book God and the Sun at Fatima offers one such possibility.
The point however is that even if we came up with a natural explanation tomorrow, it would not change the supernatural character of the event. The “Miracle of the Sun” is not a miracle just because of what the people saw that day, but because three barely literate sheepherding children predicted the exact date and time that it would occur. The children had told the people that Our Lady would provide proof of her appearance at Fatima on that day. That is why most of the people were there—the children had called the shot. They were given knowledge that goes beyond what could be known naturally—the definition of supernatural. In that sense it was a wholly supernatural event, whether we find a natural explanation for the event itself.
We should not be surprised because Our Lord performed miracles like this in the Gospel. He tells Peter that the fish he will catch will have a coin in it that can pay their tax. As any fisherman knows, fish can often have some strange things in their mouths. Even if you think that the fish at some point swallowed the coin, Jesus knew something that only God could know. Likewise, with the prior identification of the man who would provide the lodging of the Upper Room to the Apostles. No natural human knowledge could know that. The miracle can be in the ability to know something that human reason could not have otherwise known.
“Not because you saw signs…”
Whether there is a natural explanation or not, does not mean it was not God Who did it. He can act directly or He can use secondary causes. Either way, it is God Who has manifested Himself. The star over Bethlehem may have a natural explanation, but it is an explanation that falls under the power of Divine Providence. It is the same God Who set the heavens in motion such that in the “fullness of time” they would declare the birth of the Messiah that also arranged things such that the “Miracle of the Sun” would occur. It does not detract from His power to attribute it to a natural cause but instead shows Him to be more powerful in that He is able to use secondary causes (even those who are free) to bring about His plan of making Himself known.
This may be why the events of 13 October have not been well understood inside the Church. In the haste to explain the miracle and defend it, we have forgotten that miracles are not just events, but signs. In other words, we should not be so quick to look for explanations but for the meaning. Our Lord invited those who had witnessed the multiplication of the loaves to see the meaning of what He had done and not so much the event itself— “Amen, amen, I say to you, your seek Me, not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of loaves” (Jn 6:26).
The Miracle of the Sun was not just a sign that the apparitions were true, but fit into the overall message of Fatima itself. Our Lady appeared to the children with a sense of urgency, inviting them (and us) to do penance. It is a time of mercy, although that time is running is short. Divine Justice will manifest itself. The Miracle of the Sun portrayed the sun as rushing towards the earth three times, but there was something kept it from hitting the earth. It was the thin silver disc, the same thing that allowed the pilgrims to look at it without hurting their eyes, that kept the sun from being fully exposed. One of the visionaries, Lucia, saw Our Lady with her hands on the sun as if she was holding it back.
The message seems obvious, it is Our Lady of Mercy, that has obtained for us the reprieve from God’s Justice. But even He grows tired of allowing her to do so because of the blasphemies against her Immaculate Heart. If the time of Mercy is to last, then her Immaculate Heart must reign. So then on this feast day of Our Lady of Fatima, let us rededicate ourselves to doing all that we can to make this a reality by following her commands.
Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!