Much like Flannery O’Connor, I have a distrust for stories of pious children. But in my quirky and occasionally pious childhood, I did have a great liking for two cinematic stories of our Blessed Mother and her appearance to some implausibly pious children. I have already made mention of the impression that “The Song of Bernadette” made on me in my childhood. There is another film that had equal impact, “The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima.” Both of these films were perennial TV favorites among the “spiritual” selections played on TV around Easter. In my formative years, religious holidays brought out an array of film classics meant to inspire and appeal to the Christian demographic rather than to mock and revel in the presentation of ‘new, shocking’ discoveries of dubious scholarship.
Those two films about approved Marian apparitions and the pious children fascinated me. There was the appeal of the supernatural and, frankly, just the fascination with the Catholicism. Already drawn in by the Catholicism of my young friends, these movies highlighted some of what I found most appealing in their faith: the importance of Mary as more than just the mother of the baby Jesus, to be placed in the crèche at Christmas time and packed away as the new year began. Yes, Mary was our mother, too. And in these movies I saw the instances in which she would actually appear to some of the most humble (albeit possessed of Hollywood-style piety) of her children.
The feast of Our Lady of Fatima celebrates the first of Mary’s appearances to three rural Portuguese children in 1917. Ten year old Lucia dos Santos and her cousins, Francisco, 9, and Jacinta Marto, 7. “The Lady”, who would later reveal herself as Our Lady of the Rosary, came with a message of warning and a call for repentance. Our Lady obviously thought these three barely literate and unsophisticated children could handle her message and entrusted them to share three ‘Secrets.’ (Pretty scary stuff…revealing a view of hell that most of today’s parents would be afraid to even mention to a child.)
Volumes have been written and loads of discussion, chatter, and religious gossip have taken place regarding the Secrets, especially the Third Secret. I have nothing to add to that debate. What comes to my mind when contemplating Our Lady of Fatima is her place as my personal patroness of blessed coincidences, from those associated with her appearance in Portugal all the way to the coincidences in my own life.
There are many sayings about coincidence: from studies of Jungian synchronicity to simple platitudes stating that there is no such thing as coincidence and that it is God’s anonymity at play. There are so many events that, from a surface appraisal, appear to be coincidence but actually point to moments of offers of the Lord’s Grace at work in our lives. (How I ever decided to write at all and then to write for Fr. Barron’s blog could be an entire chapter chronicling blessed coincidences!)
Those who are very familiar with the apparitions of Fatima and those whose only knowledge is a fleeting memory from a long ago viewing of the 1952 movie are both familiar with the “Miracle of the Sun.” This miracle took place on October 13, 1917, five months after Our Lady first appeared to the three young visionaries. Our Lady had promised the children that a miracle would occur and approximately 40,000 of the devout and/or curious stood in a field outside of Fatima to await it. The sun changed colors, whirled about and at times appeared to be zooming toward the earth. A few people in the crowd claimed to have seen nothing, but most were awestruck by the supernatural event that took place.
There were enough doubters who saw what took place that the crafting of a ‘reasonable’ explanation of the event was needed beyond a simple pronouncement of mass hysteria. Among a the variety of ‘natural’ explanations I have read, the most profound is the explanation given by the late Benedictine priest and professor Rev. Stanley Jaki. Fr. Jaki was a learned man; a man of science and theology. His explanation of the Miracle of the Sun is a fine example of the blessed coincidences of which miracles may be comprised; what happened was “natural and meteorological in nature”—but the miracle was that it happened at the exact time that Our Lady had promised.
We should remember that just as St. Bernadette at Lourdes was not promised happiness in this world, those associated with the miraculous visits of Our Lady at Fatima did not find that life afterward was all sunshine and lollipops. The government of Portugal was hard on the Church and the three children were subjected to harsh treatment and interrogation. Though Lucia went on to live a long life as a cloistered Carmelite sister, Jacinta and Francisco, beatified in 2000, did not survive the influenza pandemic of 1918.
And then there is St. John Paul II the Great. Possessed of a great devotion to Our Lady, he was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt on—of all days—May 13, 1981. This is the sort of ironic coincidence that might lead me to quote St. Teresa of Avila, and say if this is the way God treats his friends, no wonder he has so few. As dreadful as the Pope’s wounds were, he survived. He not only survived—he thrived. And among the many inspiring moments of his papacy, this saint forgave his attacker. This was not forgiveness at a distance; the Pope made a visit to the prison to meet with him. With his great Marian devotion, he credited Our Lady of Fatima’s intercession with saving his life. The date of the attempt on his life is but another blessed ‘coincidence.’
St. John Paul II visited Fatima one year later, offering Mass in thanksgiving for Our Lady’s lifesaving intercession. Using this convergence of blessed coincidences of Fatima he took the opportunity to instruct the faithful in the most compelling truth to be learned from Our Lady’s appearance at Fatima: that “the message of Fatima is a call to conversion and repentance, the nucleus of the message of the Gospel.”
So what about my own life and its many strange and blessed coincidences? Why my fascination with the Catholic hospital in which I was born? The fascination with my friends Catholicism? The way I would hang on every word of an old movie about the Virgin Mary appearing to three children in Portugal? While I’m at it, what about the book we found in the attic of mother’s family homestead, hidden for so many decades; a book authored by a priest who was the founding pastor of the parish in which I made my profession of faith?
Rather than dwell on the possibility of secrets not thoroughly revealed or consecrations not properly done and other hot items of Catholic ‘gossip’, this May 13 is a good day to dwell on the coincidences that lead us to repentance and conversion. The coincidences which point directly to that nucleus of the Gospel message. And do remember the words of Paul’s letter to the Romans: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Our Lady of Fatima, ora pro nobis!