The centenary of the apparitions at Fatima invites us to look back at 1917, a year in which an old world order gave way to a new, more lethal one.
The apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima are well known to be linked to St. John Paul II and the peaceful defeat of communism. That, combined with Our Lady’s prophecies about the First and Second World Wars, gave Fatima an unusual focus on the events of our time.
What might be called the “Fatima century” has been dramatic for more than just Soviet communism. The year 1917 shifted the religious landscape of the global order in ways that are still shaping global affairs.
The Fatima apparitions do not address all of those shifts, but it is noteworthy that Our Lady would appear at a moment of enormous religious upheaval in the affairs of nations.
Our Lady appeared to the shepherd children in the same year that the Bolshevik Revolution toppled the tsar in Russia. The Blessed Mother spoke to the children of the conversion of Russia, and thus became linked with the struggle against communism. With the assassination attempt of May 13, 1981, on St. John Paul II, the protagonist of the defeat of communism, the “triumph of my Immaculate Heart” of which Our Lady of Fatima spoke is usually understood in those historic terms.
Yet there was much more that was going on in 1917. Consider the impact on the place of world religions in global affairs.
In a trend that continues to the present day, 1917 marked the beginning of a catastrophic century for Orthodoxy. The Russian Revolution and the introduction of totalitarian atheism meant a dark night descended on the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest by far of the Orthodox Churches.
In 1917, the Moscow Patriarchate had some 300 bishops. Twenty-five years later, after liquidation under Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, there were just a handful.
After Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941, Stalin would reconstitute the Russian Orthodox Church, but as a branch of the communist state. Communism is gone from Russia, but the Orthodox Church in its most important country still has to untangle itself from the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, the First World War also meant the end of the Ottoman Empire, the great Islamic caliphate with its capital in Istanbul — Constantinople, the primary see of Orthodoxy. With the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and the rise of the secular Turkish state, Orthodoxy in its historic capital began to be squeezed.
The liberty of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to govern itself, control its properties, operate its seminary and regulate its own succession is restricted. The number of Orthodox Christians in Constantinople is a few thousand, fewer than in a moderately sized suburban American parish.
Between state pressure on Moscow and Constantinople, Orthodoxy has had to fight for survival for most of the century since Fatima. The “conversion of Russia” spoken of there related principally to Soviet communism, but the full conversion of Russia will only be accomplished when the Russian Orthodox Church is able to return to its proper identity as the largest of the “Eastern lungs” of the Church universal.
The messages of Fatima did not address what was called in 1917 the “Zionist question,” but the Fatima century has been the most dramatic for the Jewish people since biblical times. And to the extent that Fatima spoke about the causes of peace, the redrawing of the Middle East is highly relevant.
As the Ottoman Empire was tottering, Great Britain and France concluded the “Sykes-Picot” agreement in 1916, which redrew the boundaries of the Middle East, creating various new Arab states. That arrangement is now unraveling, as four of those are no longer states in any functioning sense — Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen — and they will not be put back together again.
In the context of a post-Ottoman Middle East, in 1917 the British “Balfour Declaration” raised the possibility of a homeland for Jews in the land of Israel — the return to Zion, or “Zionism.”
After 18 centuries of diaspora existence, the return of Jews to a Jewish state in the ancient land of Israel cannot be regarded as only a geopolitical maneuver; it is a religious phenomenon.
The state of Israel would take another 30 years to be established by the United Nations, on the other side of the darkest hour for the Jewish people, the Shoah. Their attempted extermination in Europe and subsequent return to the land promised to Abraham meant that ancient biblical texts of exile and restoration were read as contemporary news. Fifty years after the Balfour Declaration, the Six-Day War in 1967 meant that Jews were free to pray again at the Western Wall.
The Arab-Israeli question has been at the forefront of the search for world peace for most of the Fatima century. It requires careful and difficult discernment, but the finger of Providence has been writing a new book in the history of the Jewish people.
The end of the Ottoman Empire meant the disappearance of the geopolitical expression of Islam on the world stage. It has been a tough century for global Islam, now roiling with the rise of a jihadism that plagues not only the Islamic countries, but the whole world.
As the recent visit of Pope Francis to Egypt made clear, the question of Islam is now at the top of the global agenda.
“I believe that the Blessed Virgin chose to be known as ‘Our Lady of Fatima’ as a pledge and a sign of hope to the Muslim people, and as an assurance that they, who show her so much respect, will one day accept her Divine Son, too,” said Archbishop Fulton Sheen.
“Archbishop Sheen held that Our Lady did not appear in the only place in Portugal with a Muslim name (Fatima was named after a Muslim princess who converted to the Catholic faith) simply to convert Russia. She came also for the conversion of the Muslim people because, he believed, unless a great number of Muslims were converted, there would never be peace in the world,” explains Father Andrew Apostoli, postulator of the Fulton Sheen cause.
He is quoted in Our Lady of Fatima: 100 Years of Stories, Prayers and Devotions, a good introductory book by Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle.
The Fatima centenary will be celebrated as a Catholic event, and it provides an interpretative key to the life of the Church in the 20th century.
Just as Pope Leo XIII organized the Jubilee Year of 1900 around devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. John Paul II put Fatima at the heart of the Great Jubilee of 2000. He traveled to Fatima that year in the only foreign trip, aside from visits to the biblical lands, and beatified there Francisco and Jacinta. In October 2000, he had the statue of Our Lady of Fatima brought to Rome, where he entrusted the third millennium to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a renewal of the consecration of the whole world to the Immaculate Heart he had completed in 1984, in accord with the request of Our Lady of Fatima.
Contemporary Catholic piety has been marked by the return of the saints to a place of prominence, with the new saints of our time leading the way. The three most important saints of the 20th century are linked to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, long before his martyrdom at Auschwitz, put the Immaculate Heart of Mary at the center of his piety. He also dedicated to Mary the Franciscan friary he founded (the largest in the world at the time) and his million-circulation magazine, Knight of the Immaculate.
St. John Paul II, the Totus Tuus (“Totally Yours,” in relation to his Marian devotion) Pope, understood his life and pontificate to be delivered from violent death by Our Lady of Fatima.
St. Teresa of Calcutta, while awaiting approval of her plans for the Missionaries of Charity, wrote that she would “do the work of Our Lady of Fatima in the slums.”
When Mother Teresa died in 1997, she was laid beneath a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, a devotion she had promoted since the days when she created a little shrine to Our Lady of Fatima as a Loreto Sister more than 50 years previous.
Indeed, the beatification (and May 13 canonization) of Francisco and Jacinta Marto is a sign of the Church’s new generosity in recognizing the saints God is sending to the Church.
The Fatima visionaries are the youngest saints ever canonized who are not martyrs.
One hundred years on, the Catholic Church is living in a Fatima age.
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