Andrew Walker: Epistles of Straw

May 2000
Faith in Fatima
Previous Epistles

Vision of the Virgin Mary On May 13th the Vatican finally revealed the third secret of Fatima. It was exactly 84 years to the day when all three secrets were supposedly revealed to three Portuguese children in a vision "brighter than the sun" of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as they tended their sheep near Fatima.

The Catholic world had long expected an apocalyptic revelation, and the Vatican's refusal to reveal the details of the third secret fuelled speculation that it was too terrible for public consumption. Furthermore, as the first two secrets were "big" ones, it seemed plausible – and somehow dramatically appropriate – that number three would top them all.

In the event, now that the secret is out of the bag, it is difficult to know what all the fuss is about. Secret number one talked of the horrors of modern warfare and the need to repent, and secret number two warned of the spread of communism from Russia and the need to resist it with (Catholic) Christianity.

Now we hear from the Pope's secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, that the third secret was a personal warning that there would be martyrdom and suffering, where specifically the Pope – "a bishop clothed in white" – is seen falling to the ground, "apparently dead under a hail of gunfire."

None too comforting for successive pontiffs to contemplate, we might think, but hardly apocalypse. Perhaps the rational reason for withholding the secret was so that it did not become a self-fulfilling prophecy, encouraging every nut with a gun and a grudge to come after the Bishop of Rome.

Interestingly, Sister Lucia, a Carmelite nun of 93 years of age, and the only surviving recipient of the Fatima vision, did not inform the Vatican of the third secret until 1957. The reason that the secret has now been let out after these 40 years of silence is simply that it is believed by the Holy See that the prophetic warning of the third secret has been fulfilled.

For it was on the anniversary of Fatima, May 13th 1981, that Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca twice shot Pope John Paul II. Cardinal Sodano told us that it seemed evident to the Holy Father that he was protected by a "motherly hand", so that he did not die but was saved by divine intervention. Apparently, there are more details of the secret to come, but we will have to wait until appropriate preparations have been made for the faithful.

What are we to make of all this? It strikes me that there are three interesting areas to explore.

FIRST, LIKE THE NOTORIOUS quatrains of Nostradamus, all of the secrets of Fatima – even the big ones – are couched in enigmatic language. The secrets give rise to the same problems as Jewish apocalyptic or many a Pentecostal prophecy: they do not deliver a plain meaning, but provide ambiguous pictures. These are open to interpretation in the same way that a patient may see into or give a reading of a psychologist's Rorschach inkblot test.

Secret number one, for example, does not in fact predict the two World Wars (World War I was nearly over in 1917). It does indeed warn of the horrors of modern warfare, but we may wonder if a private visitation of "our Lady" was needed for such a self-evident truth. The second secret, hot on the heels of the Russian Revolution, gives vent to the dangers of atheistic communism, but sees Russia being liberated only by turning to Christ.

Now the Russian Orthodox Church, which itself invokes the protection of the "veil of the Mother of God", would no doubt echo these sentiments. However, as the majority faith in Russia is Orthodoxy, are we to take it that our lady of Fatima was encouraging the Orthodox faithful of Russia to resist communism and eventually to triumph, or was she urging a Catholic mission to Russia?

Given the notorious subversion of Russia by the Catholic Uniate Church since the Revolution, we may favour the latter interpretation. (How significant, we might wonder, was the second secret itself in fuelling the Uniate initiative in Russia and the Ukraine.)

And so at last to the third secret. It is no surprise, given the revelation, that Pope John Paul has a special reverence for Fatima and has announced the first details of the secret as the Church beatified the two dead peasant children from Portugal on the anniversary of the vision. It is understandable from the Pope's point of view that he should interpret his assassination attempt as the fulfilment of the prophecy of martyrdom of "the bishop in white".

Of course, cynics might say this is just setting himself up for his own beatification as martyr of the Church, and that the third secret of Fatima will help legitimate this process. Personally, I think this not in keeping with what we know of Pope John Paul II, but more intriguing is the fact that he did not die.

Until the full details of the secret are revealed we, the general public, are not in a position to know whether the Pope's cheating of death confirms or contradicts the prophecy. We will simply have to wait and see whether secret number three is in fact more specific than one or two, or equally ambiguous. Without faith in the Fatima vision as the visitation of Mary, the secrets – however heavenly – remain hermeneutical puzzles unlikely to be solved by historical evidence.

THE SECOND INTERESTING AVENUE to explore is whether the Fatima visitation can be dismissed out of hand. After all, as many Protestants claim, visions of the Virgin Mary are illegitimate and not warranted by the New Testament or Reformation teaching. This strikes me as an unwarranted assumption.

In the first case, the mother of Jesus is not recorded in the scriptures as having died, so the silence of scripture on this matter is not definitive. Secondly, if charismatics can record talking with unknown angels – Americans William Branham, Kenneth Hagin, and Paul Cain come to mind – I don't see why talking to our Lord's mother is so outrageous.

Indeed, I remember an occasion at Aberdeen University where my Anglican colleague Tom Smail told an aghast audience of (mainly) Scottish Reformed Evangelicals that he had received a visitation from Mary who told him, "You are not paying enough attention to my Son."

This story leads me to the third avenue of exploration. What it seems to me is interesting and legitimate about visions of the Virgin Mary is not her appearances in themselves, but what she reveals of the gospel when she visits. In Tom Smail's case, Mary points him to Jesus. Historically, many of the visions of Mary have reinforced and confirmed the teachings of the scriptures and the great councils of the Early Church.

What is more worrying, far more so than the revealed secrets of Fatima, is when Mary comes and tells us something of herself which is not predicated of the gospel. When the First Vatican Council of 1869-70 ratified the dogma that Mary was immaculately conceived (defined by the Pope in 1848) this took place in the wake of the vision of the 14 year-old country girl Bernadette of Lourdes in 1858, in which the Virgin Mary reportedly said that she was the Immaculate Conception. This in effect undermines the Christological uniqueness of Jesus and transfers his sinlessness and holiness back to his mother.

This is a quite different matter to the decision of the Council of Ephesus in AD431, when Mary was given the title theotokos, or "God-bearer". The issue at Ephesus was about the status of Jesus: Nestorius wanted to say that in Jesus there were two persons, the human and the divine (as if Mary's womb was so hermetically sealed from the divine life of the Spirit that there was no true human and divine fusion, or synergy, at conception).

In contrast, the mainline party in the Church wanted to insist that the baby born of Mary was both God and Man in one person. In other words, Nestorius's refusal to accept Mary as the theotokos was a denial of scriptural revelation about the true nature and salvation-bringing status of Jesus.

Significantly, however, while championing Mary as the theotokos in doctrine and practice, the Orthodox Churches totally rejected the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and particularly objected to the vision of Mary at Lourdes, on the grounds that it could not be authentic as the theology of the heavenly visitor was heretical. Mary was a sinful person under grace, not sinless by nature. She was no doubt purified and energised by the Spirit, but not made immaculate at conception by him.

It would seem then that visions of the Virgin Mary are trickier than they seem. But we cannot point the finger of doubt only at Mary, or Rome. All visions, whether of Jesus, the angels or saints, are subject to the reflective scrutiny of the Church and subject to the authority of scripture.

Ultimately, as Christians, our faith is in God and not in Fatima, or in the legitimacy of one sort of miracle over another. Personally, I find the religious role of Fatima, like the Turin Shroud, or tales of miraculous healing in the charismatic movement, to affirm the beliefs of the faithful. The question as to whether all, some, or none of these phenomena are true miracles is a much bigger issue.

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