On May 12-13, the focus of the Catholic world will be on Portugal, as Pope Francis heads to Fatima to lead the celebration of the centenary of the apparitions of Our Lady to the three shepherd children.
It will be an opportunity for the Holy Father to reinforce the continued relevance and summons of Fatima and link it to four of his most prominent pastoral priorities: mercy and conversion, peace, Marian devotion and children.
First, mercy and conversion. From his papal motto Miserando Atque Eligendo (“With Mercy Chosen”), pointing to how God chooses through mercy, to the words of his inaugural Angelus meditation in 2013 — stressing that we should never tire of asking for the forgiveness that God never tires to give — to the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy he convoked, his 2016 apostolic letter Misericordia et Misera (“Mercy and Misery”), and more, Pope Francis’ priority for a pontifical theme has been the merciful love of God, our need to receive it and to pray for others to receive it, and our call to become merciful like the Father in sharing it.
Mary’s main message to the pastorinhos was a maternal echo of her Son’s call to conversion. She asked Lucia dos Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto if they were willing to offer themselves to God in reparation for sins and for the conversion of sinners.
She showed them three visions — one of hell, another about world wars, and the third about the persecution of the Church — indelibly illustrating for them the consequences of sin. She urged them to turn to her Son and beg, “Forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell and lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of your mercy.”
When St. John Paul II first went to Fatima in 1982, he summarized Mary’s entreaty as a reiteration of her Son’s call to repent and believe: “The message of Fatima is, in its basic nucleus, a call to conversion and repentance, as in the Gospel.”
For that reason, he said, her maternal reiteration “remains ever relevant” and is even “more relevant … and urgent” than it was in 1917. Writing in 2000, the future Pope Benedict likewise underlined, “Our Lady's call to conversion and penance, issued at the start of the twentieth century, remains timely and urgent today,” stressing that her “insistent invitation” to penance “is nothing but the manifestation of her maternal concern for the fate of the human family, in need of conversion and forgiveness.”
The second priority Pope Francis will be able to pray for and articulate in Fatima is the pressing need for peace.
Because of a failure of persons and peoples to convert and forgive, the world is exploding with conflicts, what Pope Francis has called a third world war “fought piecemeal.” Syria, Iraq, North Korea, South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are among the most noteworthy ones, but terrorist networks and attacks, murderous drug cartels and organized crime, totalitarian crackdowns and various national insurgencies have made most of the world a battlefield.
Our Lady appeared in Fatima to help lead the world on the path of peace. “If what I say to you is done,” she said to the three children, “many souls will be saved, and there will be peace. The war [World War I] will end, but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out.”
With prophetic prescience, she called us to pray for and consecrate Russia, because if it were not converted from the totalitarian communist atheistic path it had begun a few months earlier with the Bolshevik Revolution, it would “spread its errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions [and] … various nations will be annihilated.”
Twentieth-century history has verified her admonition. Even though the consecration was eventually done, prayer for peace in the world, and especially for countries that continue to seek to subjugate other lands under dehumanizing utopian lies, remains ever needed.
When Blessed Paul VI visited Fatima for the 50th anniversary of the apparitions in 1967, he said he had come to pray for peace in the world, so that through prayer and penance under Mary’s direction, we would see the triumph of love and the victory of peace. When St. John Paul II came in 1991, two years after the fall of the Soviet communist bloc, he thanked Mary for “having guided with maternal tenderness peoples to freedom” and said that Mary’s “palpable, penetrating call” for peace remains insistent.
The third pastoral priority Fatima gives Pope Francis is the opportunity to emphasize true devotion to Mary, especially through the Rosary and consecration. It’s noteworthy that before and after every foreign trip Pope Francis goes to St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome to beg for Mary’s prayers. He has repeatedly encouraged all people to pray the Rosary, calling it a “school of prayer” and “school of faith,” and exhorting us, “Please pray the Rosary. … Do not neglect it!”
During the Year of Consecrated Life, he spoke regularly about the meaning of Mary’s consecration and how we are called to imitate it and enter into it.
In Fatima, Mary taught the three children how to pray the Rosary properly, because they were used to saying just the first words of each prayer. She identified herself to them as “Our Lady of the Rosary,” and in every appearance, she asked them to “pray the Rosary every day.”
She revealed: “To save [poor sinners on the path to hell], God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart,” a heart that is pure and sees God, treasures his word, says fiat to what he asks, and loves both him and others.
The day Blessed Paul VI visited Fatima, he released an apostolic exhortation focused on the devotion we should all have to Mary as a spiritual mother, describing her as the model of how to enflesh and live by God’s word. In Rome and Fatima, St. John Paul II led the Church throughout the world in consecrating itself to Mary’s Immaculate Heart. And during his visit, Pope Benedict emphasized, “Fatima and the Rosary are practically synonymous,” urging us, in praying the Rosary, to imitate the entrustment of the shepherds to Mary and allowing her to help us fix the gaze of our hearts on the blessed Fruit of her womb.
The fourth pastoral priority is about young people and the call to spiritual greatness.
Whenever Pope Francis visits a parish, he always has a special meeting with young children to answer their questions, to inspire them in simple ways to say “Yes” to God, and to help them to grow in love of God, the Blessed Mother, their faith and others. With youth and young adults at World Youth Day, he has summoned them to the fullness of the Christian life. “God calls each of us to be holy, to live his life,” he said in Brazil at World Youth Day 2013. In Krakow in 2016, he challenged them, “Leave your mark on history” by following Jesus all the way.
When he reaches Fatima this week, Pope Francis will have a chance to illustrate these truths as he canonizes Francisco and Jacinta, who will become the youngest non-martyred canonized saints in history. When John Paul visited in 2000 to beatify Francisco and Jacinta in the presence of Lucia, he said that the means by which they were able to become “saints so quickly” was that they had enrolled in Mary’s “school” and had learned from her, through prayer and loving reparation, the way to holiness, happiness and heaven.
Pope Francis will have a chance to call all children of God, no matter how young, to learn from the same Mother and teacher and offer Sts. Francisco and Jacinta to the children of the world as heroes who truly left their mark on history.
During the last papal visit in 2010, Pope Benedict said that the message of Fatima “imposed itself on the Church.” Its centenary is not principally about looking backward, because “Fatima’s prophetic message” is, he said, not complete, but is something that all of us are meant to actualize.
Our Lady’s message doesn’t chiefly concern secrets or “particular devotions,” but, rather, he underlined, a “fundamental response” that involves persistent prayer, conversion, penance, forgiveness, Marian piety and consecration, faith, hope, justice and charity. For the years leading up to the centenary and beyond, he called all of us through those practices to help hasten the fulfillment of the prophecy of the triumph of Mary’s Immaculate Heart and to the peace, holiness and salvation it brings.
As Pope Francis visits Fatima, he will help the Church, through the example of the docility and devotion of the new saints, to enter Mary’s school and learn there not just the lessons of the past century and about the foundation for peace on earth, but, most important of all, the path to salvation and eternal happiness, where Our Lady and the shepherd children continue to pray for the bishop in white and for all of us.
Father Roger Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, and national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA.