Between May 13 and October 13, 1917, three Portuguese children received apparitions of Our Lady at Cova da Iria, near Fátima, a city 110 miles north of Lisbon. Mary asked the children to pray the rosary for world peace, for the end of World War I, for sinners, and for the conversion of Russia.
Mary gave the children three secrets. Since Francisco died in 1919 and Jacinta the following year, Lúcia revealed the first secret in 1927, concerning devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The second secret was a vision of hell.
Pope John Paul II directed the Holy See’s secretary of state to reveal the third secret in 2000; it spoke of a “bishop in white” who was shot by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows into him. Many people linked this to the assassination attempt against Saint John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981.
The third secret was revealed to the children at the Cova on July 13, 1917. It was to be kept in the greatest confidence. When Sister Lúcia was with the Dorothean Sisters in Tuy, Spain, she fell ill in mid-1943. Because it was feared that she could die before the third secret was revealed by her, the bishop of Leiria requested that she write down the remainder of the secret (or third secret) told to the children in 1917. Obediently, and in the midst of her painful sickness, Sister Lúcia wrote it down on a single sheet of paper. She placed it in an envelope and sealed it.
Before we look at Sister Lúcia’s testimony, I offer the words of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who gives some context to the revelations of Lúcia. There was great speculation and controversy over the third secret of Fátima because it was kept under wraps for many years. In his theological commentary The Message of Fátima, Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out that the contents of the envelope that held the third secret for so long might be “disappointing” to some.
“A careful reading of the text of the so-called third secret of Fátima, published here in its entirety long after the fact and by decision of the Holy Father, will probably prove disappointing or surprising after all the speculation it has stirred. No great mystery is revealed; nor is the future unveiled. We see the Church of the martyrs of the century which has just passed represented in a scene described in a language which is symbolic and not easy to decipher. Is this what the Mother of the Lord wished to communicate to Christianity and to humanity at a time of great difficulty and distress? Is it of any help to us at the beginning of the new millennium? Or are these only projections of the inner world of children, brought up in a climate of profound piety but shaken at the same time by the tempests which threatened their own time? How should we understand the vision? What are we to make of it?”
Cardinal Ratzinger discussed the secret of Fátima in depth in The Message of Fátima, the full text of which is available online on the Vatican website (vatican.va). For now, we focus on his words:
“And so we come to the final question: What is the meaning of the ‘secret’ of Fátima as a whole (in its three parts)? What does it say to us? First of all, we must affirm with Cardinal Sodano: ‘. . . the events to which the third part of the “secret” of Fátima refers now seem part of the past.’ Insofar as individual events are described, they belong to the past. Those who expected exciting apocalyptic revelations about the end of the world or the future course of history are bound to be disappointed. Fátima does not satisfy our curiosity in this way, just as Christian faith in general cannot be reduced to an object of mere curiosity. What remains was already evident when we began our reflections on the text of the secret: the exhortation to prayer as the path of ‘salvation for souls’ and, likewise, the summons to penance and conversion.”
Now let us look at what happened and what the three young shepherds witnessed. As discussed above, in 1943, Sister Lúcia, under obedience to God, the bishop of Leiria, and the Blessed Mother, wrote the following description of the third part of the secret revealed to her and her two cousins on July 13, 1917:
“J.M.J. The third part of the secret revealed at the Cova da Iria-Fátima, on 13 July 1917.
“I write in obedience to you, my God, who command me to do so through his Excellency the bishop of Leiria and through your Most Holy Mother and mine.
“After the two parts which I have already explained, at the left of Our Lady and a little above, we saw an angel with a flaming sword in his left hand; flashing, it gave out flames that looked as though they would set the world on fire; but they died out in contact with the splendor that Our Lady radiated toward him from her right hand: pointing to the earth with his right hand, the angel cried out in a loud voice: ‘Penance, Penance, Penance!’
And we saw in an immense light that is God: ‘something similar to how people appear in a mirror when they pass in front of it’ a bishop dressed in white ‘we had the impression that it was the Holy Father.’
“Other bishops, priests, men and women religious going up a steep mountain, at the top of which there was a big cross of roughhewn trunks as of a cork tree with the bark; before reaching there the Holy Father passed through a big city half in ruins and half trembling with halting step, afflicted with pain and sorrow, he prayed for the souls of the corpses he met on his way; having reached the top of the mountain, on his knees at the foot of the big cross he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him, and in the same way there died one after another the other bishops, priests, men and women religious, and various lay people of different ranks and positions. Beneath the two arms of the cross there were two angels each with a crystal aspersorium in his hand, in which they gathered up the blood of the martyrs and with it sprinkled the souls that were making their way to God.”
The scenes that Sister Lúcia recalled are intense and wildly descriptive. We can only imagine what the three young visionaries experienced and thought upon receiving the great prophetic secrets of Fátima that day. The words and visions given by God and the Blessed Mother are meant for all of us.
Sister Lúcia’s Interpretation of the Third Secret
Almost 40 years later, in a May 1982 letter to Pope John Paul II, Sister Lúcia gave an interpretation of the third secret. She wrote: “The third part of the secret refers to Our Lady’s words: ‘If not, [Russia] will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated.’ The third part of the secret is a symbolic revelation, referring to this part of the message, conditioned by whether we accept or not what the message itself asks of us: ‘If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world.’”
At long last the third secret of Fátima was revealed. We learn from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “The decision of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to make public the third part of the ‘secret’ of Fátima brings to an end a period of history marked by tragic human lust for power and evil, yet pervaded by the merciful love of God and the watchful care of the Mother of Jesus and of the Church. The action of God, the Lord of history, and the co-responsibility of man in the drama of his creative freedom, are the two pillars upon which human history is built. Our Lady, who appeared at Fátima, recalls these forgotten values. She reminds us that man’s future is in God, and we are active and responsible partners in creating that future.”
Pope John Paul II and the Third Secret
The envelope containing the third secret was not to be opened before 1960. Sister Lúcia had asked her bishop of Leiria to read it but he refused. Instead, it was given to him for safekeeping, and later, to ensure better protection, it was placed in the Secret Archives of the Holy Office on April 4, 1957.
On August 17, 1959, Father Pierre Paul Philippe, OP, the commissary of the Holy Office, with the agreement of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, brought the envelope that contained the third secret of Fátima to Pope John XXIII. According to the Message of Fátima, Pope John XXIII hesitated and said, “We shall wait. I shall pray. I shall let you know what I decide.”
Pope John XXIII decided not to reveal the secret and returned the envelope to the Holy Office. Almost six years later, on March 27, 1965, Pope Paul VI read the contents and decided not to publish it. The envelope was then returned to the Archives of the Holy Office.
Not long after he was seriously wounded in a burst of gunfire in St. Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul II requested the envelope containing the third part of the secret. The pontiff had written a message to be read to pilgrims in Fátima to commemorate the anniversary of the apparitions. Astonishingly, this message was being read aloud on May 13, 1981, at the moment Mehmet Ali Agca fired shots at the pope, who was standing in an open car moving slowly into St. Peter’s Square, which was filled with more than 10,000 people.
Pope John Paul II was shot four times and suffered severe blood loss. He was near death when he arrived at Gemelli Hospital. His very first thoughts were on Fátima when he regained consciousness. He began to read Sister Lúcia’s memoirs and her letters during his months of recuperation at the hospital. The recovery was slow going, but the pontiff knew what he needed to read next. On July 18, Pope John Paul II asked for the envelope containing the third secret of Fátima.
Cardinal Franjo Seper, prefect of the Congregation, gave two envelopes to Archbishop Eduardo Martínez Somalo, substitute of the secretariat of state, to be delivered to the pontiff. One was a white envelope that contained Sister Lúcia’s original writing in Portuguese. The other envelope was orange and contained the Italian translation of the secret. The two envelopes were returned to the Archives of the Holy Office on August 11, 1981, after a thorough review by Pope John Paul II.
The pope was very moved upon reading the contents of the envelope as the reality of the secret sunk deeper into his heart. He immediately thought of consecrating the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
He believed that on May 13, 1981, which was the 64th anniversary of the first apparition in Fátima, the Blessed Mother guided the bullets that shot him to protect him from death. The third secret of Fátima was so much about him, the “bishop dressed in white.” Pope John Paul II recognized himself as the pope (or bishop) who, in the third part of the secret, was killed. However, Pope John Paul II was not killed, but was miraculously saved by the Blessed Mother.
Some would later say that Pope John Paul II couldn’t possibly be the “bishop in white” in the vision because he did not die. To that, Pope John Paul II answered that he should have died, but the Blessed Mother brought him back from the brink of death. He even went so far as to say that the Blessed Mother gave him back his life. There was no question in his mind.
Controversy over the Third Secret
The third secret of Our Lady of Fátima was made public on May 13, 2000, at the beatification Mass of Francisco and Jacinta Marto. The Mass was held in the Cova da Iria, where Our Lady told the young shepherds the three secrets.
As soon as the third secret was revealed, controversies spread like wildfire. Many questioned whether the Vatican was holding back the full secret. Was the Church revealing the authentic text? Where were the words about an impending great apostasy, a warning of a nuclear holocaust, or about Satan entering the Church? People wanted to believe that the third secret was about impending disasters. As Cardinal Ratzinger predicted, many were disappointed once the secret was revealed, and for some, disappointment led to suspicion.
Many conspiracy theories surfaced.
In the document The Message of Fátima, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Bertone stated: “There is only one manuscript, which is here reproduced photostatically.” Sister Lúcia also confirmed the Vatican text. She met with Archbishop Bertone and Bishop Seraphim de Sousa of Leiria at her Carmelite convent in Coimbra, Portugal, on April 27, 2000. Two envelopes were presented to her by the archbishop. The first envelope was the outer envelope containing the second envelope, which held the third secret.
Sister Lúcia touched the letter and stated, “This is my letter.” She then read it and said, “This is my writing.” She was asked if it was the only third secret. She said, “Yes, this is the third secret, and I never wrote another.”
On November 17, 2001, Sister Lúcia met again with Archbishop Bertone. A Vatican Secret Service communiqué about their meeting, dated December 20, 2001, and titled “Sister Lucy: Secret of Fátima Contains No More Mysteries,” states:
“With reference to the third part of the secret of Fátima, [Sister Lúcia] affirmed that she had attentively read and meditated upon the booklet published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [The Message of Fátima] and confirmed everything that was written there. To whoever imagines that some part of the secret has been hidden, she replied: ‘Everything has been published; no secret remains.’ To those who speak and write of new revelations, she said: ‘There is no truth in this. If I received new revelations, I would have told no one, but I would have communicated them directly to the Holy Father.’”
Our minds and hearts should be at complete ease knowing that before her 2005 death, Sister Lúcia made absolutely sure that Our Lady’s words and messages were revealed to the world at the proper time, and that the consecration of the world—including Russia to Mary’s Immaculate Heart—was fully made appropriately to satisfy the Blessed Mother.