This edited article about miraculous visions originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 967 published on 20 September 1980.
The morning of 13th May, 1917, was peaceful and sunny and the three children quietly herding sheep enjoyed their task. Suddenly, however, the plateau near the village of Fatima, in central Portugal, was struck by two brilliant flashes of light. The startled youngsters gazed around them in alarm.
The illumination came from a gnarled oak tree a short distance away. In the centre of a great ball of light, stood the figure of a calm and beautiful woman. The frightened children – ten-year-old Lucia dos Santos and her cousins, Fransisco, aged nine, and Jacito, seven – cowered back.
But the woman, a halo over her head, held out her arms and spoke gently but firmly. “Do not be afraid,” she said. “I will not harm you. You know who I am. Come to this place on the 13th of each month until October. Then I shall reveal a terrible secret to you.”
The vision began to fade and soon there was no sphere of light and no beautiful stranger. Lucia and her cousins hurried down to the village and told their parents of their weird experience. “We saw the Virgin Mary and she spoke to us as if we were her children,” said Lucia. “She is coming to talk to us again.”
Lucia’s story split the village into two conflicting groups. The first group thought that the three children were telling blasphemous lies. The shocked villagers advised the youngsters’ parents to punish them for taking the Holy Mother’s name in vain.
But the second group – which consisted of 50 equally pious men and women – believed the children’s seemingly incredible story. Exactly four weeks later, at noon on 13th June, they accompanied the three cousins up to the plateau and waited to see if the vision would return.
The children knelt and said their rosaries and, as they did so, the Virgin Mary appeared to them. “She came from the east like a glowing messenger from God,” Lucia said afterwards. “Only Fransisco, Jacito and myself could see her, for she had chosen us to reveal her secrets of the future.”
But this time the message was a gloomy one. According to Lucia, the Virgin Mary said that the First World War – then in its fourth year – was only the first of several disasters which were going to afflict humanity in the 20th century.
Soon after the war ended, forecast the Virgin, a terrible illness would rage through Europe and thousands of people would lose their lives. Among them would be Fransisco and Jacito. The two boys later became victims of the influenza epidemic which swept Europe in the winter of 1918-1919,
By then, Lucia had experienced four more encounters with the Virgin Mary. On the final occasion – on 13th October, 1917 – some 70,000 people, all intrigued and some sceptical, gathered on the plateau to see if they would also come in contact with “the visitor from God”.
The Holy Mother duly appeared – although, once again, she only made herself known to Lucia and the two boys. However, many of the onlookers said that they had seen something strange. In most cases it was a dazzling sheet of light, “as if the sun was falling towards the earth,” said a villager afterwards.
Only the three children heard the Virgin’s message. Before disappearing the Holy Mother told Lucia that a special chapel must be built there. “Then people can come and pay homage to God, and to the fact that he allowed me to appear here,” she declared.
Ten years later just such a chapel was in existence. The first national pilgrimage was paid to it, and Lucia dos Santos was praised for the part she had played in the now famous miracle.
But she was no longer known by her old name. The previous year, 1926, she had entered a convent. She took the name of Sister Mary of the Sorrows, and she later said that Christ Himself had visited her and warned her of a coming Second World War.
In October, 1930 – after an official, eight-year investigation into the Miracle of Fatima – the Bishop of Leiria, in Portugal, accepted Sister Mary’s statements. Pilgrims to the shrine had their sins forgiven by special orders from the Pope, and there were numerous reports of people seeing “holy apparitions” in the chapel.
Fatima became world renowned as a sanctuary, and hospitals and retreats were built beside the shrine. Between 1936 and 1942, Sister Mary of the Sorrows wrote four accounts of her visions for the Catholic church, and each time described them in greater depth and detail.
In 1948 she entered the Carmelite convent at Coimbra, Portugal. On 13th May, 1967 – the 50th anniversary of her first vision – a million pilgrims from all over the globe converged on Fatima and heard Pope Paul VI say a mass and give prayers for world peace.
Sister Mary was then aged 60, and at last she privately told the Pope what the Virgin Mary had forecast would befall the earth before the century was out. It was later reported that the Pope swayed and turned white when he heard Sister Mary’s words.
Some people believe that she spoke of a Third World War, which would bring death and destruction on an unsurpassed scale. This was the prophesy which the Virgin Mary had been building up to ever since that spring day in 1917. But there are others, including many devout Catholics, who feel that Sister Mary was misled into believing that she had conversed with the Holy Mother.
They think that, from childhood, she suffered from religious delusions, and that the Miracles of Fatima were no more than tricks of light and the product of her sincere but over-fertile mind.
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