The month of May stirs feelings most in lands where it follows dismal winters. In the northern damps Chaucer chanted: “And after winter folweth grene May.” By understandable instinct, it is the month specially dedicated to our Lord’s “Mother of Fair Love.” This May 13 will have a special elegance of symmetry, marking the hundredth anniversary of the day three children in the remote village of Fatima north of Lisbon said they had seen the Virgin Mary.
That was a “private revelation” which, since it is not part of the essential deposit of faith, is not like a doctrine that Catholics must acknowledge as true. But what happened at Fatima in 1917 is one of twelve apparitions which the Church considers “worthy of belief.”
Lucia Santos and her two young cousins claimed to have received heavenly messages and visions on the thirteenth of each month from May to October. Jacinta Marto died shortly after that at the age of nine, and her brother Francisco died at ten. This week Pope Francis will go to Fatima and declare both of them saints. The beatification process began a few years ago for Lucia, who died in 2005 at the age of 97.
The ways that some have tried to read their own ideas into the messages do not detract from the astonishing manner in which these untutored visionaries conveyed such powerful descriptions of things eternal, and even spoke of Russia and the Communist revolution, of which they had no earthly knowledge. Most riveting was the promise the Lady gave of a “sign” which then happened exactly on the appointed day on October 13 when over 60,000 people, including many who had come to scoff, saw the sun appear to spin and seem to plummet near the ground.
In 1981 as a student in Rome, I saw the chaos on May 13 when St. John Paul II was shot. A year later, he went to Fatima and presented one of the bullets to the shrine, saying that he had come “because, on this exact date last year in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, there was an attempt on the life of your Pope, which mysteriously coincided with the anniversary of the first vision at Fatima, that of 13 May 1917. The coincidence of these dates was so great that it seemed to be a special invitation for me to come here.” It has been said that coincidences are God’s way of remaining invisible.
In 2000, the future Pope Benedict XVI, having visited Sister Lucia, wrote: “The Evil One has power in this world, as we see and experience continually; he has power because our freedom continually lets itself be led away from God. But since God himself took a human heart and has thus steered human freedom towards what is good, the freedom to choose evil no longer has the last word.”