Archbishop Bernardito Auza
Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the
“The Centenary of Fatima and the
Enduring Relevance of Its Message of Peace”
United Nations, New York, May 12, 2017
Ambassador Mendonça e Moura, Permanent Representative of Porugal to the United Nations, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Speakers, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great joy for me personally and for the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to be collaborating with the Permanent Mission of Portugal to the UN to host this commemorative event in anticipation of tomorrow’s 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Fatima apparitions.
At this very moment, Pope Francis is arriving at the Monte Real air base in Leiria, Portugal, and will meet within minutes with Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. During the time our event is being held, he will be taking a helicopter to Fatima stadium and will transfer to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima where just as our event is finishing, he will enter the Capelinha, the little chapel of the Apparitions, to pray and get ready for a candlelight prayer service and the prayer of the Rosary tonight.
For those of us who could not be in Fatima with him to mark the centenary, I think this is the next best place to be, here at the United Nations, talking about the Enduring Relevance of the Message of Peace the three shepherd children credibly testified that 100 years ago tomorrow, a lady in white who said she was from heaven first announced to them.
And while we cannot be there in the Cova da Iria, a part of Fatima has come here to the headquarters of the United Nations. This statue we have with us was blessed by Pope Pius XII in the Vatican 70 years ago tomorrow, in 1947, on the thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of the Fatima apparitions and blessed again by the Bishop of Fatima on October 13, 1952, the 35th anniversary of the last of the Fatima apparitions. After that blessing in Fatima, the Statue was transported to the United States, where on December 8, 1952, it was brought into the United Nations by Msgr. Harold Colgan, a New Jersey priest who had founded six years earlier the organization that became the Blue Army and World Apostolate of Fatima. With a friend, Msgr. Colgan took the statue into the Meditation Room off of the Visitors’ Lobby where they prayed the Rosary for peace in the world and for the end of the Korean War.
Today after almost 65 years, this replica of the statue that rests in the Little Chapel of the Apparitions in Fatima, returns to the United Nations. We hope that the prayers for peace that have been made before this statue in the intervening six-and-a-half decades, by literally millions of people throughout the United States, Canada and various other countries, might be heard in a particular way for peace in the world today where violence is raging. We pray with her help in particular for an end to the war in Syria, for an end to the growing threat of war on the Korean peninsula, for the cessation of violence in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Eastern Ukraine and other places of conflict. We pray as well for an end of terrorism, religious, ethnic and racial persecution, totalitarian crackdowns, murderous drug cartels and organized crime, trafficking in persons and other forms of modern slavery, and various national insurgencies that have stained the world with blood and hatred. .
When we examine the message that the three shepherd children of Fatima, Lucia dos Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto testify that woman represented by this statue said to them, we can say that Mary essentially came as an Ambassador of Peace with a summons for them to be key staff members, to use UN jargon, of her Permanent Mission to all the nations. And that mission is just as relevant today, with over 50 active violent conflicts across the globe in what Pope Francis has called a “third World War fought piecemeal,” as it was a century ago during the first World War.
Before I get, however, to the “peace plan” the pastorinhos said that this maternal Ambassador of Peace announced to them, I would like to address head on the credibility of the Fatima apparitions. How can we know that what the shepherd children testify that the Lady in Fatima allegedly revealed to them is true? To those who don’t believe in the existence of God or the supernatural, what supposedly happened in Fatima a century ago would be seem more the realm of fairy tale than fact. To those who do believe in God but whose notion is of a Deity who is detached from earthly existence, such an intervention of a lady supposedly coming from heaven to shepherd children would similarly defy credence. For non-Christian believers, for Christians who have difficulty with Catholic or Orthodox devotion to the Mother of Jesus, or even for Catholics who struggle with the idea of miraculous apparitions, what happened in Fatima might seem to be the superstition of the well-meaning but gullible.
Most non-Catholics and even many Catholics are surprised when they learn that Catholics don’t have to believe in what supposedly occurred in Fatima a century ago. They don’t have to believe that Mary appeared at all, or in anything she asked the shepherd children. In Catholic theology, what happened in Fatima is called a “private revelation,” which refers to visions and apparitions, approved by the Church as worthy of belief, that have taken place since the completion of the New Testament. When the Church recognizes a private revelation, Catholics are not called to believe in it the way they believe in the contents of Bible or the contents of the Tradition passed by the first followers of Jesus. Rather it is be accepted as credible and probable with what we might call human faith, prudence, or purified common sense.
In other words, the Church finds on examining Lucia’s, Francisco’s and Jacinta’s testimony that they are highly credible witnesses, that the message they have related does not contain anything contrary to what the Church considers the truths of faith or reason, and that people can be authorized prudently to accept it. The purpose of such private revelations, according to the theology of the Church, is to help people understand and live Jesus’ teachings better at a particular moment of time, but people are not obliged to use that help, even if the Church says it should not be blithely disregarded.
Let’s apply these principles to the way we understand the public miracle that seems to have taken place on October 13, 1917, during the last apparition. Two months earlier, the children say that Mary promised that there would be a miracle to help people believe in what the shepherd children were saying. Seventy thousand people showed up, in the midst of severe downpours, and not just believers. There were also people who could be described as curious but also strident secularists and anticlerical forces, journalists and skeptics, who wanted to be eyewitnesses of the fraud when no miracle took place. At a certain time when the children were supposedly hearing and seeing the Lady who was unable to be perceived by others, the children pointed upward, the dark clouds parted, and the sun appeared as an opaque, spinning disk in the sky that eventually careened toward the earth before zig-zagging back to its normal position.
People screamed for their lives. Journalists from the Lisbon newspaper O Dia described what they and others observed:
“At one o’clock in the afternoon, midday by the sun, the rain stopped. The sky, pearly grey in color, illuminated the vast arid landscape with a strange light. The sun had a transparent gauzy veil so that eyes could easily be fixed upon it. The grey mother-of-pearl tone turned into a sheet of silver which broke up as the clouds were torn apart and the silver sun, enveloped in the same gauzy grey light, was seen to whirl and turn in the circle of broken clouds. A cry went up from every mouth and people fell on their knees on the muddy ground. The light turned a beautiful blue as if it had come through the stained-glass windows of a cathedral and spread itself over the people who knelt with outstretched hands. The blue faded slowly and then the light seemed to pass through yellow glass. Yellow stains fell against white handkerchiefs, against the dark skirts of women. They were reported on trees, on stones and on the sierra. People wept and prayed with uncovered heads in the presence of the miracle they had awaited.”
Avelino de Almeida, the editor of O Seculo, another major Lisbon newspaper, who had come originally to mock the apparitions, nevertheless was compelled by what he observed to write, “From the road, where the vehicles were parked and where hundred of people who had not dared to brave the mud were congregated, one could see the immense multitude turn toward the sun, which appeared free from clouds and in its zenith. It looked like a plaque of dull silver and it was possible to look at it without the least discomfort. It might have been an eclipse that was taking place. But at that moment a great shout went up and one could hear the spectators nearest at hand shouting: ‘A miracle! A miracle!’ 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 any cosmic laws – the sun ‘danced’ according to the typical expression of the people.” At the end of it all, the ground and everyone’s clothes were dry, despite the downpour.
How is something like this to be evaluated by us nearly a century later? Is it likely that 70,000 people, including many anti-clerical people, skeptical journalists, and opposed public officials, and Church authorities all experienced a Mass hallucination with regard to the sun? Even if that were the case, what happened to the clothes that went, within an instant, from soaked to completely dry?
Atheist Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, admitted, “It is not easy to explain how seventy thousand people could share the same hallucination,” but then he went on nevertheless to assert that they all had to be hallucinating collectively because it would be “even harder to accept that it really happened without the rest of the world, outside Fatima, seeing it too — and not just seeing it, but feeling it as the catastrophic destruction of the solar system.” But it’s not scientific or even reasonable to dismiss out of hand the data to which 70,000 all attest and pretend as if they were all simply deceived.
The acceptance of the general trustworthiness of that enormous and diverse crowd, not all of whom were there disposed for a miracle, the recognition that they were there in such huge numbers because the children had said that the Lady had promised two months earlier that there would be a miracle on October 13, the physical evidence of the immediately dried clothes, have led many over the course of the previous century to conclude — on the basis of human prudence or what we would call natural faith, the type of faith with which we accept as facts what we did not observe ourselves on the basis of the reliability of those giving witness— that the Fatima apparitions seem credible.
And that, we could say, is what makes what happened in Fatima open to everyone, because even Catholics evaluate the veracity Fatima, like every private revelation, mainly on the basis of human faith or the exercise of reason, namely, whether it seems likely based on the evidence that what is claimed to have occurred actually did happen. The facts that need to be considered are able to be found in the anti-Catholic newspapers of a century ago testifying that something scientifically inexplicable really seemed to have occurred, adding greater credibility to what the children testified to in toto.
With that as important background, I’d like to turn finally to the “peace plan” the shepherd children said that the woman who had promised the miracle of the sun communicated to them. It involved several elements that certainly have a deep meaning and specific summons for those of the Catholic faith, but I would like to focus on what I would call the universal lessons for all people with regard to the pursuit of peace.
The first is about the need for conversion. To convert means to turn around, to change one’s way of thinking and living, to examine one’s thoughts, words, actions and inactions and see how, rather than building peace, fraternity and solidarity, they are dividing, or harming, or destroying. So much of the lack of peace in the world comes from the fact that people do not convert from bellicose ways, from objectifying, dehumanizing or maltreating others. So much of the lack of peace comes from focusing obsessively on the wrong others have done rather than pondering the damage one’s own conduct, or one’s own country’s policies, have caused that have led others to seek remedy by any means. Pope Francis has been seeking to call the international community to this type of universal conversion, summoning us to convert from the idolatry of money that can lead whole nations to neglect and aggrieve the poor, from the burgeoning arms trade that just adds to the carnage that totalitarian actors and terrorists can carry out, from the lack of hospitality when people are fleeing situations of war, poverty or natural disaster. Without conversion, peace will always remain merely an illusion. Conversion is a precondition for peace.
The second universal lesson is about where peace begins. The shepherd children say that after Mary had shown the visions of the horrors of hell, of the destruction that would be wrought by atheistic communism, and of the persecution of the Church to the point of the assassination of a bishop dressed in white — all caused by sins from which the world needs to convert — she described for them a remedy, namely consecration to her Immaculate Heart. What this means is a commitment to seek to imitate the heart of Mary, which Christians believe is pure and undivided, wise and obedient, faithful and watchful, one that loves God with all it has and loves others with the love of God. Such a heart, the future Pope Benedict would write in 2000, five years before his election, “is stronger than guns and weapons of every kind” and is capable of changing history. Peace begins in the heart. If the heart has no peace, it’s going to be very hard to be a peacemaker, builder and keeper. The person must be transformed. And it’s from that transformation that the revolution of peace flows, as we see in the efforts and success of the great peacemakers in recent centuries.
The third universal lesson is about prayer. Prayer is an instrument of peace. The shepherd children say that Mary asked them to pray and sacrifice for the conversion of others so that peace to return to their souls. She asked them to pray specific prayers, like the Rosary itself or another between decades of the Rosary, or on the first Saturday of the month. But there are two general lessons about prayer. The first is about the subjective value of prayer, that prayer transforms the one praying, especially when one prays humbly and with mercy. Even non-believers recognize that prayer has a positive impact on the person, something attested by many psychological and medical studies. But the message of Fatima contains a lesson about the objective value of prayer, that prayer can change not just the world inside the one praying but the world outside. And beyond any other peacemaking action, Mary summoned the shepherd children to prayer, prayers for others’ conversion, prayers for the conversion of Russia from the incipient Bolshevik atheistic communism that she predicted would visit great harm on the world, prayer for the bishop in white who would be shot. These prayers seemed to have been consequential, as St. John Paul II said in Fatima in 1982 and 2000, when he thanked our Lady and thanked Jacinta for the prayers that saved his life and in 1991, after the momentous events of 1989, when he credited Mary through prayers “having guided with maternal tenderness peoples to freedom. Mary is saying that in peace work, before action, as indispensable as that is, prayer and sacrifice must come first.
And the fourth and final lesson is about the need for the involvement of all in the work of peacemaking. It’s astonishing that Mary would preferentially come, not to heads of state or diplomats or religious leaders directly to enlist them in the cause of peace but to three simple children without much education and entrust them with a message, secrets and a special task for the cause of peace and the good of souls and the world. The selection criteria shown by Mary reveals that everyone has a role, even those whom the world considers insignificant, or incapable or too young. If the shepherd children could be chosen, and they could respond as wholeheartedly as they did, it’s a sign of what is possible for everyone.
And so, as we mark the centenary of Fatima, we grasp that we’re not celebrating merely a series of events from the past, but something, I believe, quite actual, with enduring relevance, for our present and our future. The message of peace that the shepherd children said the Lady from heaven brought, and the practices of conversion, transformation of heart, prayer and commitment she indicated, are as important today for peace in the world as they were a century ago.
As Pope Francis in Fatima tonight and tomorrow seeks to lead all Catholics throughout the world in prayer for peace and in gratitude for the living legacy given by the maternal Ambassador of Peace, we, too, assembled here at the United Nations, commit ourselves to do our part, like Francisco, Jacinta and Lucia, in responding to the noble calling and urgent cause of peacemaking.
Thank you very much.