The “October Revolution” of 1917 (which actually took place in November) brought the Bolsheviks to power and communism to the Russian empire. Communism was spectacularly defeated some 70 years later, but the battle may well have started a few weeks before the “October Revolution” in the little Portuguese town of Fatima, where on October 13, 1917, the “miracle of the sun” confirmed the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to three illiterate, peasant children: Lucia Santos and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto.

Our Lady appeared to the three shepherd children on the 13th of every month from May 13 until Oct. 13, 1917. The “beautiful lady,” as the children referred to her, encouraged the praying of the Rosary and doing penance so that souls may be prevented from going to hell.

The lady gave the children a vision of hell, and the many souls there, during the summer of apparitions, before promising a sign to confirm her presence. On Oct. 13, she revealed herself to the children as “the Lady of the Rosary", and provided the promised sign.

The 70,000 people who had come with the children — out of curiosity, or devotion, or skepticism — could not see the apparition, of course. But after our Lady took her leave, they were able to see a startling display, in which the sun became a pale disc that “danced.” in the sky. It was possible to look at the sun for an extended period of time and thousands of eyewitnesses did. Nothing like this solar phenomenon had ever been reported in history — except perhaps for the “miracle of the sun” that ensured Joshua's armies their victory at Jericho.

Much mischief has been made about the phenomenon of Fatima by those who wish to use it to reveal “secrets” that are considered lacking in the Gospels. But there is no need for “secrets” concerning Fatima — its message for the 20th century is earthshaking enough as it is. Its message was powerful enough, for instance, to bring down the Berlin Wall, not unlike the trumpet blasts of Joshua's priests outside the walls of Jericho.

Our Lady of Fatima spoke to the children about future calamities, wars, sufferings for the Church and the pope, and above all, of the need for repentance lest sinners be condemned to hell. She specifically asked for prayers that Russia might be converted. And she promised that in the end her Immaculate Heart would triumph. It is not necessary for any Catholic to believe anything about Fatima, but the Church has recognized the message as authentic, and the current Holy Father looks to Our Lady of Fatima to discern the “finger of God” at work.

“In the fall of communism the action of God has become almost visible in the history of our century,” writes Pope John Paul II in Crossing the Threshold of Hope:

“We must be wary of oversimplification … [but] what are we to say of the three children from Fatima who suddenly, on the eve of the October Revolution, heard: ‘Russia will convert’ and ‘In the end my Heart will triumph’ …? They could not have invented those predictions. They did not know enough about history or geography, much less the social movements and ideological developments. And nevertheless it happened just as they had said.”

“Perhaps this is also why the Pope was called from ‘a faraway country;’ perhaps this is why it was necessary for the assassination attempt to be made in St. Peter's Square precisely on May 13, 1981, the anniversary of the first apparition at Fatima — so that all could become more transparent and comprehensible, so that the voice of God which speaks in human history could be more easily heard and understood.”

This eruption of the supernatural in our world can be disturbing, as talk about visions and promises and miracles can easily slide into a kind of magical superstition. Fatima is not about that at all — our Lady came simply to remind us of what we already had been told. She came to those who would listen to her, and told us what we needed to hear.

The children of Fatima suffered a great deal from the skeptics — even in their own families — during the apparitions and afterward, but they remained steadfast witnesses to what they had seen and were docile to our Lady's request to do penance, which they obeyed to a heroic degree.

Even at a tender age, they suffered greatly in reparation for the horror of sin. Francisco and Jacinta died after prolonged illnesses in 1919 — Lucia is still alive and a Carmelite nun — and both of them offered their last agonies for the conversion of sinners. Francisco and Jacinta are expected to be beatified within the next year or two (see Register, May 16-22, 1999).

The three Fatima children were prepared to offer heroic sacrifices for the conversion of others because they understood the terrible consequence of unrepented sin: eventual separation from God in hell.

Hell has largely disappeared from contemporary Christian discourse. Yet, it cannot be dismissed as insignificant that the Mother of God would appear in Fatima to remind the world that Hell is very real and that many people go there. And if we are attentive, our Lady's warning is never far from our ears.

Our Lady of Fatima taught the children a short prayer to say after every mystery of the Rosary. That prayer is now said thousands of times every day in every part of the world:

O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of thy mercy!