Nine-year-old Lucia dos Santos looked into the angry face of her mother and wondered if this was what the Beautiful Lady meant when she said Lucia would suffer. Little Lucia had never experienced such fury from her mother, nor had her mother ever called her a liar before. Indeed, her heart was deeply saddened. Yet a warm glow filled her whenever she thought about the Lady from Heaven who had visited her and her younger cousins, Jacinta and Francisco.
The three children had been tending their sheep the day before in the Cova da Iria, a portion of the land owned by Antonio dos Santos, Lucia’s father. Suddenly, something like lightning flashed in the blue sky and frightened them. The children ran for cover. Another flash, very close, and they ran again. When they stopped, there on top of a small evergreen tree was a large ball of light engulfing a beautiful woman, “a Lady of all white, more brilliant than the sun dispensing light…”
Tenderly, the beautiful woman told the children not to be afraid; she would not hurt them. Lucia assumed the role of spokesperson. “Where do you come from?” she asked.
“I am from heaven,” came the Lady’s answer.
“And what is it you want of me?” Lucia continued. The lovely Lady told her that she wanted the children to return at the same time on the thirteenth day for the following six months. At the last visit, she would identify herself and tell the children what she wanted. Lucia then asked if she would go to heaven, to which the Woman said, “Yes.”
“And Jacinta?” asked Lucia.
“Also,” replied the Lady.
“Also,” said the Lady, “But he will have to say many rosaries!” Then the Beautiful Lady asked the children this question: “Are you willing to offer yourselves to God and bear all the sufferings He wills to send you, as an act of reparation for the sins by which He is offended, and of supplication for the conversion of sinners?”
Lucia thought for a moment about another heavenly being who had visited her and her cousins. An angel who identified himself as the “Angel of Peace” had appeared to them three times. He had given them Holy Communion and exhorted them to pray and make sacrifices. It seemed as if the Angel of Peace had prepared the children for their response to the Lady’s question. Lucia answered for all three of them, “Yes,” she said.
“Then you are going to have much to suffer, but the grace of God will be your comfort,” the Lady replied.
At that moment, the children were infused with a heavenly light. They felt the presence of God, and offered prayers of adoration. When they were finished, the Lady said, “Say the rosary, to obtain peace for the world, and the end of the war.” With that, the beautiful woman rose from the bush and glided away into the sky. That was Sunday, May 13th, 1917, eighteen months before the end of World War I, which at that time had been the bloodiest and most violent war to date.
Lucia continued to suffer the wrath of her mother, Maria Rosa, and her sisters. When the day arrived for the second apparition, several people came to accompany the children to the Cova. Maria Rosa was outraged by the show of support, which made things all the more difficult for Lucia. The entourage arrived at the Cova around 11:00 AM. As the children prayed the rosary, the crowd recited the Litany of Our Lady. Just about noon, the sun dimmed and the tip of the small evergreen tree bent ever so slightly. The Lady had appeared again.
Lucia remained the spokesperson for the group. Our Lady reminded her that she and the children were to come on the same day at the same time the following month. She also asked them to recite five decades of the rosary each day, and she told them they were to learn to read. Lucia asked again if the Lady would take the three of them to heaven. The Lady said that Jacinta and Francisco would go to heaven soon but Lucia would remain on earth for some time to help establish devotion to her Immaculate Heart.
Lucia was sad at the thought of being left alone, but Our Lady said that her Immaculate Heart would be Lucia’s refuge. Then Our Lady extended her hands, and great shafts of light poured upon the children. All three of them saw a vision of the Immaculate Heart, and they were filled with indescribable joy and peace.
Following the apparition, the three little shepherds made their way home. Jacinta and Francisco were met with a neutral response, while Lucia received a reception even more hostile than before. The very next morning, Maria Rosa took Lucia to see the parish priest, who warned them that the visions could be coming from a diabolical source. Lucia was frightened and spent the whole month worried that she might be encountering the devil himself. Tormented with fear and beaten down by Maria Rosa’s bitter comments, Lucia decided she would not go to the Cova for any more apparitions. However, when Jacinta and Francisco tearfully told her they wouldn’t go without her, she changed her mind.
Nearly three thousand people were at the Cova da Iria on July 13th, waiting for the young visionaries to arrive. When the Blessed Mother appeared to the children, she once again asked them to return the following month and reminded them to pray the rosary for peace. And then something remarkable occurred. Shafts of light flowed from Our Lady’s hands through the children to the earth below them. Suddenly, the ground seemed to roll back and the three visionaries were staring into the pit of hell. Years later, Lucia wrote of what they saw: “A sea of fire; and plunged in this fire the demons and the souls, as if they were red-hot coals.” Our Lady explained to the children:
“You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war (World War I) is going to end, but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given to you by God that He is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father.
“To prevent this I will come to ask for the Consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart and the Communion of Reparation on the First Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted and there will be peace. If not, she 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, and various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she will be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.”
This prophetic word was astonishing for a number of reasons. First of all, the Blessed Mother accurately predicted the elevation of Pope Pius XI, who would not become pontiff until 1922. Secondly, at the time of this apparition the Russian Revolution had not occurred; the Bolsheviks would not take over until the following October. Thirdly, as Our Lady predicted, communism subsequently spread its errors and atheistic philosophy all over the world. Fourthly, another world war followed the first Great War, erupting during the pontificate of Pope Pius XI and ending during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. That war introduced the atom bomb and caused even more destruction than World War I.
The following month was particularly difficult for the visionaries. The children were besieged by visitors and curiosity seekers daily. In addition, an anticlerical republic had come into power in Portugal, and the local authorities were keen on putting an end to the Fatima piety. Things came to a political head when the government administrator carted the children away under false pretenses on August 13th, the day scheduled for the fourth apparition. The children were threatened with death unless they revealed the secrets Our Lady had entrusted to them. When Francisco said it didn’t matter if they were killed since they would go straight to heaven, they were released. Our Lady then appeared to them and once again asked the children to pray and make sacrifices for sinners. She said, “…many souls go to hell because there are none to sacrifice themselves and to pray for them.”
Thousands of people greeted the children at the Cova on September 13th. The apparition was very short in duration but the Blessed Mother promised that the children would see the Lord, Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and St. Joseph with the Child Jesus at the next one.
More than 70,000 people gathered at the Cova da Iria on October 13th. It was a rainy and windy day and the parents feared the children would be killed if no miracle took place. Though she still did not believe in the veracity of the apparitions, Maria Rosa accompanied Lucia to the Cova for the child’s protection. Umbrellas dotted the landscape as the children knelt to pray. For a reason she does not know, Lucia encouraged the crowd to close them.
When the Blessed Mother appeared, Lucia asked her one last time, “What do you want of me?”
Our Lady responded, “I want to tell you to have them build a chapel here in my honor. I am the Lady of the Rosary. Let them continue to say the rosary every day. The war is going to end, and the soldiers will soon return to their homes.” Many people had come to the Cova seeking to be healed. The Blessed Mother assured them that some would receive a healing but others would first need to amend their lives and ask pardon for their sins. She said, “Let them offend Our Lord God no more, for He is already much offended.” These would be Our Lady’s last words at Fatima. She opened her hands again, and light shot to the sky.
“Look at the sky!” shouted Lucia. The miracle had begun. As the crowd looked up into the sky, the clouds rolled back to reveal the sun. Suddenly, it was a white disc of light, its brilliance shrouded, so that all could gaze upon it. While this was happening, the children saw a tableau in the heavens, with one scene after the other depicting the mysteries of the rosary. They saw the Holy Family with the Christ Child in the arms of St. Joseph, who blessed the crowd three times. Lucia saw Our Lady of Sorrows and then Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The sun began to dance in the sky, twirling and whirling, shooting rainbow-colored rays all over the earth. The crowd and the landscape were bathed in green, then violet, then red as the sun continued its spinning dance. Shouts of praise and worship rose up to the heavens as the crowd delighted in the light show they were seeing.
Then suddenly, the movement of the sun began to change. It plunged toward the earth, falling ever closer to the panic-stricken people. They dropped to their knees to beg God’s mercy. Just as the sun seemed about to touch the earth, it began to recede, eventually assuming its normal position in the sky. To the astonishment of every one gathered at the Cova, their rain-drenched clothing as well as everything about them was bone dry. Truly, it was a “Miracle of the Sun.” The children were carried home on the shoulders of some strong men, who made certain they would be protected from the crowd.
Soon after the apparitions ended, Maria Rosa and Jacinta’s mother sent their girls to school so they could learn to read. Francisco declined the opportunity, knowing that his life would be a short one. He spent most of his time praying at the Church of St. Anthony at Fatima. On April 4th, 1919, he died of bronchial pneumonia. He was almost eleven years old. Jacinta was already sick by the time her brother died. She had developed pleurisy the summer after Francisco’s death and she died on February 20, 1920. Lucia stayed at home with her family until she was fourteen years old.
In June 1921, she left to go to a school run by the Sisters of St. Dorothy at Porto. She joined that order in 1925, eventually leaving it to become a cloistered Carmelite in Coimbra. She took the name Sister Mary of the Immaculate Heart.
The apparitions at Fatima were recognized as “worthy of belief” in 1930. The Blessed Mother had given three secrets to the children. Two of them were shared immediately and the third was not to be revealed until 1960 or upon the death of Lucia, whichever came first. Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI both read the third secret. Pope John Paul II read it as well following the assassination attempt on his life on May 13th, 1981. He visited Sister Lucia the following year to the day. Afterward, he consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in collegial union with the bishops of the Church. Pope Pius XII had done something similar in 1942.
On June 26, 2000, The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released the third secret in its entirety. The shrine at Fatima, Portugal remains one of the most visited apparition sites in the world with millions of visitors every year. On February 13, 2005, Sister Lucia Marto died at the age of 97. One can only surmise that she is now united with her beloved Jacinta and Francisco, enjoying the company of the Beautiful Lady who had visited them in time so many years ago.
Note: The Third Secret can be read on the Vatican website.
This is an excerpt from the Women of Grace® Foundational Study Guide, “Full of Grace: Women and the Abundant Life" and the Young Women of Grace Study Guide, "Embrace Your Femininity."