On May 13, 1917, three Portuguese children in the town of Fátima, a small village seventy miles north of Lisbon, claimed to have witnessed a vision of the Virgin Mary. According to the account given by Lúcia Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto, Mary had appeared to them, clad in luminous white, above a holmoak tree in a pasture known as Cova da Iria. She urged the children to say the Rosary every day to bring peace to the world, and promised she would return on the 13th day of each of the next five months.
According to the legend, the children returned to the site in the following months, where the apparitions of Mary appeared on schedule as promised. Reports of the vision begans circulating in the community, drawing pilgrims to the site, although no one except the three children ever saw Mary. On July 13, the apparition granted Lúcia three prophetic visions. She also told the children that when she returned in October, she would perform a miracle so that all who were there would believe.
Prophetic fever swelled the countryside, and on the appointed day, contemporary accounts record a crowd of around 70,000 people at Fátima. What allegedly happened next has passed into Catholic legend:
“Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was Biblical as they stood bareheaded, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws – the sun ‘danced’ according to the typical expression of the people…”
I’ll discuss this tale in a moment, but first, the three prophecies. The first one contains no content other than the usual gruesome fantasizing about the torments of the damned. The second is more specific:
The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night illuminated by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes… If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church… In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.
Although most of this is vague, conditional or simply false, it’s true that World War II did break out during the pontificate of Pius XI. (Actually, to be precise, Pius XI died in February, while Germany invaded Poland in September of that year.) Catholic apologists have hailed this as a miraculous prediction. And yet, all are agreed that this prophecy was not revealed to the world until 1941, after the events it claimed to foretell. The mention of a future pope by name is suspicious, since prophecies hardly ever commit themselves to such specific, verifiable details. The most likely scenario is that this prediction was, in whole or in part, fabricated after the fact.
And what of the third? After being kept secret for decades, it was finally revealed to the world in 2000:
And we saw in an immense light that is God… a bishop dressed in white… we had the impression that it was the Holy Father. Other bishops, priests, religious men and women 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, religious men and women, and various lay people of different ranks and positions.
No doubt you’re wondering what all the fuss was about. That seems to have been the general reaction, and Catholics have struggled to find an event which fits this foretelling. Some claim this was a prophecy of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, although most of the specific details don’t fit that scenario (the pope in the vision dies, which John Paul did not; he is assaulted by a small army, not by a lone gunman; and his death is accompanied by the deaths of many other clergy). Interestingly, there’s a cottage industry of Catholics who claim that this isn’t the real third vision, that the Church is still holding back the real prophecy in whole or in part – a tacit recognition of the fact that the prophetic content of this one is disappointingly generic.
Finally, consider the miracle of the sun. What’s interesting is that, although many witnesses claimed to have witnessed a miracle, they did not all agree on what it was. Some said that the sun changed color repeatedly; some said it spun and moved around the sky; some said it became possible to look directly at the sun without harm to the eyes; some said to have seen visions of Mary’s face. Some people claimed to see various combinations of these. Importantly, some people who were present at the site claimed to have seen nothing out of the ordinary at all. Most apologetic reports claim that 70,000 people witnessed the miracle, but every Catholic site I’ve seen reprints the same six to eight testimonies. Most likely, these apologists are simply assuming that everyone who was present saw it.
Some skeptics have suggested that some unusual weather phenomenon, such as a sundog, took place there and gave rise to the miracle claims, but I don’t think any such explanation is necessary. I think human psychology alone can account for what happened. EWTN unintentionally provides a key piece of the answer, in its excerpt from the testimony of Alfredo da Silva Santo:
When Lúcia called out: “Look at the sun!” the whole multitude repeated: “Attention to the sun!” It was a day of incessant drizzle but a few moments before the miracle it stopped raining.
Consider: Who would have made the pilgrimage to a rural village of Portugal, to stand in a muddy field all day in the rain, all because three peasant children claimed there would be a miracle? Clearly, this situation would only attract the most fervent of the faithful, the people who were already strongly predisposed to believe in Marian apparitions and other miracles. To judge from similar cases, the pilgrims present that day probably worked themselves into a highly emotional state, praying, singing hymns, perhaps starving or flagellating themselves as the vision had previously suggested. And then, when the crowd had worked itself into a frenzy of expectation, one of the children dramatically points upward and cries out, “Look at the sun!”
To a crowd of eager believers in a suggestible state, this suggestion is all it would have taken. Pilgrims in a state of religious ecstasy, dazzled by looking at the sun, may have convinced themselves that they saw it move or that it changed color, or that they saw a vision of Mary’s face. Any such report would have spread like wildfire among the crowd, and as is human nature, once one person reported a miracle, dozens of others would doubtless have agreed that they saw it as well. From that point, all it takes is the normal process of drift and mutation that always occurs when a rumor spreads, resulting in exaggeration of the most salient details, the addition of others that fit with the tale, and suppression of the ones that don’t. Human suggestibility and eagerness to believe are the best explanation of the tale of Fátima; and lacking any tangible evidence that anything unusual occurred there, Catholic believers have no firm ground on which to claim otherwise.