My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
Having just returned from our diocesan pilgrimage to Fatima and Lourdes, I would like to recall some insights from our journey. The occasion for the pilgrimage was the 100th anniversary of the appearance of Our Lady at Fatima, but we also traveled over Spain to the Pyrenees Mountains to visit Lourdes, the site of our 2008 diocesan pilgrimage for the 150th anniversary of those apparitions of Our Lady.
These are two of the most well known apparitions of Mary, and their similarities are striking. In Lourdes in 1858, Mary identified herself as the Immaculate Conception, speaking to 14-year old Bernadette Soubirous in the local dialect. Bernadette did not understand the term “Immaculate Conception” – that Mary was conceived without Original Sin. The doctrine was only defined four years earlier, in 1854. This helped Pope Pius IX determine the authenticity of the apparitions. In Fatima, Mary appeared as Our Lady of the Rosary and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
The message of Mary at both Lourdes and Fatima was almost the same: penance, prayer, and recitation of the Rosary. Mary at Fatima revealed three so-called secrets to the children, which I will discuss later. Both apparitions aimed at the conversion of sinners and unbelievers.
The recipients of the messages of Mary were all illiterate children. In Lourdes, it was the impoverished Bernadette, a shepherdess. In Fatima, it was to Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco, the latter two who were canonized this past May by Pope Francis. Mary used the most humble and unlikely recipients of the message of Jesus of whom she was the messenger.
Lourdes was declared worthy of belief because of the miracles worked there with the waters Mary identified to be used as a sign of faith. Miracles are not magic and can only occur when people believe. The experience of the baths at Lourdes can be like a baptism of immersion as you may recite the Creed and renew your Baptismal promises after being lowered into the water. Although I have visited Lourdes four times, I only went into the bath the first time when I was 14 years old on a Boy Scout pilgrimage in 1958. It was for me a confirmation of my vocational call to the priesthood.
Fatima, on the other hand, being more recent in the history of Marian apparitions, has been in some ways more controverted. It was especially because of the so-called “secrets,” or really private revelations, to the three children that devotion to Our Lady of Fatima has sometimes been distorted. The first “secret” was that the children had a vision of the sufferings of Hell and heard a call for prayer and penance. The second “secret” was that prayer is needed for the conversion of Communistic Russia and that World War I would soon end. The children had never heard of Russia, although they had a cousin who was away fighting in the war.
The third “secret” was kept undisclosed for decades, by Sister Lucia, who died on Feb. 13, 2005 at the age of 98. In 1943, she wrote it down, and placed it in a sealed envelope. She told her local bishop and the Holy Father not to read it until 1960, since she believed it would not be understood. The “secret,” not revealed to the public until 2000, was a vision of a bishop dressed in white with blood on his robes as well as the martyrdom of many others for the faith. Saint John Paul II believed this vision was a foreshadowing of the assassination attempt on his life in 1981. The bullet that struck him is now in the crown of the statue of the Blessed Virgin in Fatima. The ongoing martyrdom of Christians around the world continues to our present day.
Another complication in the Fatima devotion,which has led some to break with the Church, was the request of Our Lady that Russia be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart. On March 25, 1984, the Feast of the Annunciation, Pope John Paul II consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which included Russia. Sister Lucia told the Holy Father that this satisfied Our Lady’s request since all of the Bishops of the world joined the Holy Father in this consecration.
Perhaps the last and most pressing similarity between the two apparitions of Lourdes and Fatima was the attention given to the conversion of unbelievers and sinners. We live in an age of unbelief, which has grown over these last several centuries. Jesus sent Mary as His messenger to a world in need of conversion, to return them to believing. Mary, whom we venerate as Star of the Sea and the Morning Star, lights our way into the deep waters of belief and unbelief. Mary’s intercession for the “spiritual, but not religious” present generation is needed to shed the true light of Christ.