Viewpoints

Here’s how a 100-year-old miracle is relevant today

Pope Francis makes an offering in May at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima in Fatima, Portugal. The massive gathering in expectation of a miracle after three children reported seeing the Virgin Mary happened 100 years ago Oct. 13. (Jose Sena Goulad/Pool Photo via AP)
Pope Francis makes an offering in May at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima in Fatima, Portugal. The massive gathering in expectation of a miracle after three children reported seeing the Virgin Mary happened 100 years ago Oct. 13. (Jose Sena Goulad/Pool Photo via AP) AP

Fatima is a beautiful Arabic name for women, one also often given to women of Hispanic and Portuguese descent. That may seem to be because of the Moorish influences on the Iberian Peninsula, but it’s actually more a consequence of events in a small rural town in Portugal 100 years ago this coming week.

There, in the village called Fatima, it was widely believed that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to three young Portuguese children, Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco. She was said to have appeared and spoken to them six times over several months.

While we have experienced a sundering series of natural disasters, howling hurricanes and shattering earthquakes, it is the omens of our social and political tremors that should make believers as well as cynics quiver.

Those heavenly visitations culminated with a gathering of believers and skeptics on Oct. 13, 1917, a crowd estimated at somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 people, an extraordinary gathering given the times.

The message of these visitations was one common to popular Marian appearances around the world: Conversion, penance and prayer are necessary for peace. Putting aside scientific skepticism or pious interpretations, that message was what drew the crowd, frightened by the raging madness of World War I.

That yearning for peace is still achingly urgent, a century later. While we have experienced a sundering series of natural disasters, howling hurricanes and shattering earthquakes, it is the omens of our social and political tremors that should make believers as well as cynics quiver.

Over the shouting, boasting and bickering of nations and political parties, the quiet whispered message of Fatima still speaks to the human heart. The message does not need a heavenly envoy today. This tumultuous world of our own making compels us to consider peace, and the essentially human steps toward it.

The message of Fatima is about how we come to see and hear clearly. It is about becoming aware of the growing racial divides, the immigrant families cowering with anxiety, a fractured and vulnerable health system, people with mental illness left helpless and homeless, and leaders leaning heavily on the nuclear trigger.

What personal and structural conversions can build bridges, heal historical wounds, mend broken laws, and provide care for everyone from the unborn to the unhoused?

What sacrifices do we make to give everyone the tools for building a common home? How do we restrain our boasting and wash away the fear enough to see new initiatives for mutual understanding and reconciliation? What do I give up so that what is good for some can be a common good for all?

Scurrying for cover at the escalating duel in the global O.K. Corral is not the answer. In the mounting fear, still inconceivable conversions and untried risks must be made before a needless atonement for reckless leadership is exacted upon innocent populations.

Prayer is not the last resort for the helpless. It is not an abdication to divine intervention.

It is the courage to see beyond our own limitations, an opening for unexpected, amazing grace. Prayer roots us in the fount of true human freedom that defies threats and predictions of doom with an indomitable hope.

Prayer is the willing disposition to be an agent for change. Moses firmly stood up to Pharaoh. A poor Francis of Assisi went to meet the Saracens. Mother Teresa washed the wounds of the innumerable dying on the streets of Kolkata. These bold actions came from abandonment to an unexpected power, one that many of us choose to see as divine.

On the final day of the appearance in Fatima, a “Miracle of the Sun” was reported to have happened. Both secular and religious outlets carried the story, reporting unusual solar activity.

But miracles aren’t required for us to mark this centenary with meaning. A familiar hymn presents it well: Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.

Jaime Soto is bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento. He can be contacted at bishopsoto@scd.org.

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