The Saint and the Lady Who Saved Him: John Paul II and Fatima
In 1982, the Marian shrine that St. John Paul II wanted to visit was the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, the Queen of Poland. Instead, he went to Fatima.
Being saved from death linked him more with Fatima than his Polish birth linked him with Czestochowa. In 1982, the shrine of the Black Madonna was marking its 600th anniversary. St. John Paul II dearly wanted to be present, but his 1979 visit to Poland for the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Stanislaus had so destabilized the communist regime that they would not permit the Holy Father to visit for an even more significant anniversary. (The visit would eventually be permitted in 1983.)
Growing up in Poland, Karol Wojtyla was aware of the Fatima apparitions and knew about their anti-communist dimension, as Our Lady spoke about the “conversion of Russia.” Yet it did not figure prominently in his piety.
“The Holy Father wasn’t especially interested in these apparitions until the assassination attempt on his life in 1981,” his longtime personal secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, told the Register. “The Fatima devotion was present in the Krakow Archdiocese, and he supported it, but they [the apparitions] weren’t a priority in his ministry. Fatima became very close to him on May 13, 1981, when he realized the significance of these apparitions, which he then started to link to the attempt on his life, when he realized that it took place on the anniversary of the first apparitions. He was so close to death that he was convinced that the Holy Mother had saved his life.”
St. John Paul II visited Fatima three times — on the first anniversary of the assassination attempt, May 13, 1982; on the 10th anniversary, May 13, 1991; and finally during the Great Jubilee of 2000, when he beatified the child visionaries, Jacinta and Francisco, on May 13. (They will be canonized by Pope Francis this May 13 in Fatima.)
The final Fatima visit was most significant for John Paul. During the Great Jubilee, to accommodate all the special events in Rome, the Holy Father did not schedule any foreign trips, save for a great biblical pilgrimage, first to Egypt and then to the Holy Land. The only other trip was to Fatima, an indication that what happened there was decisive for understanding the history of our time.
At the end of the beatification Mass, it was announced that the “Third Secret” of Fatima would be revealed, which spoke of a “bishop in white” being killed upon a great mountain of martyrs. St. John Paul II interpreted the secret as referring to his assassination attempt of 1981, at which point Our Lady intervened to prevent his killing.
A patriotic Pole, Wojtyla read history in a Providential way, from the improbable survival of the Czestochowa shrine against Swedish invaders in 1655 to the “Miracle of the Vistula” in 1920, when a newly independent Poland defeated the Soviet Red Army.
“It is impossible to understand the history of Poland, from Stanislaus in Skalka to Maximilian Kolbe in Oswiecim, if one does not apply to them, also, that unique and fundamental criterion which bears the name of Jesus Christ,” preached St. John Paul II on that epic first visit to Poland in 1979.
After the 1981 shooting, the Holy Father began to read the history of the 20th century through the lens of Fatima. The apparitions there were unusually historical, emphasizing the maternal dimension of Providence in history.
The Blessed Mother spoke to the shepherd children about world events of which they had no understanding — the Great War then raging, the rise of communism in Russia, the coming Second World War and the eventual triumph of her Immaculate Heart over communism.
On the same day as Mary first appeared at Fatima — May 13, 1917 — Eugenio Pacelli was consecrated a bishop in the Sistine Chapel. He would become Pope Pius XII and consecrate the world to the Immaculate Heart, as Mary asked at Fatima. After seeing that his own survival was linked to the mystery of Fatima, St. John Paul II took up that same cause and formally consecrated the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on March 25, 1984. Sister Lucia, the surviving Fatima visionary, confirmed that the consecration fulfilled the request of Our Lady of Fatima in 1917.
History accelerated. Within a year of the consecration, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union, and within five years of that, communism had been vanquished by free elections in Poland, and the Berlin Wall was breached.
St. John Paul II always resisted the more apocalyptic — even superstitious — elements associated with devotion to Fatima. So his decision to insert the mystery of Fatima directly into the Great Jubilee — similar to what he did when he canonized St. Faustina Kowalska and instituted Divine Mercy Sunday also in the year 2000 — reflected his conclusion that the history of our times could not be read in its full Providential depth without reference to Fatima.
Devotion to Divine Mercy and to the Immaculate Heart of Mary are the Church’s fundamental response to the 20th century, the slaughterhouse of history.
“I seemed to recognize in the coincidence of the dates a special call to come to this place,” St. John Paul II said during his Fatima pilgrimage in 1982. “And so, today, I am here. I have come in order to thank Divine Providence in this place which the Mother of God seems to have chosen in a particular way. … The mystery of the spiritual motherhood of Mary has been actualized boundlessly in history. The Lady of the message [of Fatima] seems to have read with special insight the ‘signs of the times,’ the signs of our time.”
One of the most quoted lines of St. John Paul II is that “in the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.” He said it at Fatima in 1982, convinced that to really understand what happened the year previous in the shooting, the message of Fatima had to be fully appreciated. History is not made only in places like Washington and Moscow, or at conferences of great powers like at Yalta.
God, too, writes in history, in obscure places like Nazareth and Fatima — places where the Mother of God listens to the Word of God and makes him visible in history.
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