Pilgrims walk on their knees to fulfil their vows at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima in Fátima, Portugal, on May 8, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Rafael Marchante

The ’Splainer: Who is Our Lady of Fatima and what is the ‘Third Secret’?

(RNS) The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which the RNS staff gives you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

Pope Francis heads to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in northern Portugal on Friday (May 12) to celebrate the centenary of the first appearances of the Virgin Mary as described by three shepherd children on May 13, 1917.

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What were those apparitions and why have they played such a central role in Catholicism over the past 100 years? And what are the so-called "secrets of Fatima," only some of which have been "revealed" by the Catholic Church? Let us Splain ...

What is Fatima?

Fatima is a small city in central Portugal where the landscape is dry and rocky. For centuries, the local people made their living raising sheep and other animals. Then, in May 1917, three shepherd children — two girls and a boy — claimed they saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The children described Mary as “a lady dressed all in white, more brilliant than the sun.” Mary told the children that praying the rosary would end what was then called The Great War — World War I to us — which by its end a year later left 17 million dead and 20 million wounded.

Part of the crowd looking at the sun during the “Miracle of the Sun” event on Oct. 13, 1917, near Fátima, Portugal. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

According to the children, Mary appeared to them six times that year. In one appearance, Mary said a miracle would occur on Oct. 13, 1917. Initially the children were scolded and even threatened with death for spreading what were considered baseless stories. But pilgrims from all over the world gathered in Fatima on that date and awaited Mary's appearance. In what came to be called the "Miracle of the Sun," many reported seeing visions in the sky while others reported miracles of healing. A newspaper of the day reported, “Before their dazzled eyes the sun trembled, the sun made unusual and brusque movements, defying all the laws of the cosmos, and according to the typical expression of the peasants, ‘the sun danced’.”

In 1930, the Catholic Church declared the events at Fatima "worthy of belief," and chapels, sanctuaries, shrines and other memorials to the events popped up.

Some people wonder about a connection to Islam because the village has the same name as the Prophet Muhammad's favorite daughter. Legend has it that the village was named after a Moorish princess who converted to Christianity as Muslim rulers were driven from Portugal during the Reconquista.

Why do Catholics travel there?

When the church declared the Fatima apparitions worthy of belief, it said pilgrims who travel there may obtain a special blessing as well as pray for healing or other special intentions. Today, Fatima attracts between 5 million and 6 million pilgrims a year, making it one of the most popular shrines in the world. The largest numbers come on May 13 — the anniversary of the first apparitions. Pope Francis' visit will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the apparitions.

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Francis will be the fourth pontiff to visit Fatima; Pope Paul VI marked the 50th anniversary in 1967, John Paul II went three times and Benedict XVI visited once, in 2010, according to The Associated Press.

While there, Francis will canonize two of the shepherd children — Jacinta and Francisco, who first had the visions. Jacinta was 7 years old and Francisco 9 on May 13, 1917, and their cousin Lucia dos Santos was 10. Jacinta and Francisco died a year later in the Spanish flu epidemic.

What are the 'Secrets of Fatima' and why are they secret?

Lúcia dos Santos, left, with her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto, who all claimed to have a vision in 1917. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Joshua Benoliel

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Lucia dos Santos became a Carmelite nun and, in 1941, wrote her memoirs. In them, she said Mary gave the children three secrets, or prophecies, two of which she revealed at that time. The first secret was a vision of hell that Mary showed to the children, full of lakes of fire with screaming souls in torment. The second was that World War I would end — it did, a little more than a year after the children saw their first apparition — and that another great war would come if the people of Russia were not converted to Catholicism. They weren't, and World War II began in 1939. There was also a prediction that Russia would "spread her errors throughout the world," which many believe is a reference to Soviet communism.

Sister Lucia wasn't eager to share the third prophecy, but was compelled to write it down in the case of her untimely death. She told Rome the secret  could be revealed in 1960, but the Vatican decided to keep it sealed to avoid inflaming the wild speculation that was already connected with the so-called Third Secret of Fatima. Sister Lucia died in 2005 at age 97.

Prophecy fulfilled?

In 2000, then-Pope John Paul II — now St. John Paul — ordered the secret published. The prophecy turned out to be an apocalyptic vision of a terrible persecution of Christians, including priests and bishops and in particular "a Bishop dressed in White" who was killed by soldiers as he knelt before a cross at the top of a hill.

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The publication hardly dampened the fervor over the Third Secret since the assassination attempt against John Paul took place on May 13, 1981 — the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima — as he rode around St. Peter's Square wearing his white cassock, the traditional vestment of the Bishop of Rome. It seemed like a near-fulfillment of the prophecy and John Paul said that he believed the Virgin Mary saved his life by guiding the bullet past a major artery. He later sent the bullet to Fatima where it was placed in the crown of the original image of Our Lady of Fatima, fitting perfectly into the only empty space left available when the crown was made 40 years earlier.

A view of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary visited by many Catholic pilgrims and tourists at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima in Fátima, Portugal, in 2008. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Therese C

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Never-ending story?

Even now, however, there are conspiracy theorists who believe that the Third Secret has not been published in full, or that there is in fact a Fourth Secret of Fatima. Pope Francis is expected to try to tamp down such ideas and focus on his trip as a simple spiritual "pilgrimage" focused on personal conversion.

That's a message that Vatican has been trying to connect to the Fatima apparitions for years in an effort to shift attention away from the more sensational claims and interpretations.

"Insofar as individual events are described, they belong to the past," Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — later Pope Benedict XVI — wrote in an authoritative text accompanying the publication of the Third Secret. "Those who expected exciting apocalyptic revelations about the end of the world or the future course of history are bound to be disappointed. Fatima 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."

(Filipe Avillez, writing from Portugal, contributed to this article)


  1. I’m curious to know what the biblical basis is for believing the Virgin Mary has ghostly psychic powers.

  2. Whoever said that the Virgin Mary has “ghostly psychic powers”? And more to the point, who even believes such a thing?

  3. There is no biblical basis for believing that only things with a “biblical basis” are worthy of belief. That would be Christian fundamentalism—something not taught or shared by the Roman Catholic Church.

  4. She had as many as the disciples who followed Jesus, as well as the women who joined them. The “problem” of control and a clear history of Jesus has not been “cleared up” with Fatima.
    We need more Jesus and less of everyone else. Take what little we can determine that is the
    actual words and works of Jesus, think for yourself and when the church contradicts HIM then
    simply disregard the latter.

  5. “In Portugal, the Dogma of The Faith will always be preserved”; but we know that only by a remnant.

    To deny the sanctity of the marital act, which is Life-affirming, and Life-sustaining, and can only be consummated between a man and woman, united in marriage as husband and wife, is to deny that God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Is The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage, and thus deny Salvational Love, God’s Gift of Grace and Mercy.

    The denial of The Unity Of The Holy Ghost (Filioque), is the source of all heresy; There Is only One Word of God, One Truth of Love Made Flesh, One Lamb of God Who Taketh Away The Sins of The World, Our Savior, Jesus The Christ, thus there can only be One Spirit of Perfect Love Between The Father and The Son, Who Proceeds from both The Father and The Son, in The Ordered Communion of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity.

    It is Through, With, and In Christ, in the Unity of The Holy Ghost, that Holy Mother Church exists.

    One bridegroom, one bride, on earth.

    One Bridegroom, One Bride, (One Holy Mother Church), in Heaven.

    “3You ask, and receive not; because you ask amiss: that you may consume it on your concupiscences. 4Adulterers, know you not that the friendship of this world is the enemy of God?”

    “And he said to me: Write: Blessed are they that are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith to me: These words of God are true.”

  6. https://www.ewtn.com/library/papaldoc/consecra.htm#Pius%20XII,%201952

    Right before our very eyes,The Church of The Sacred, and the reformed church of false ecumenism which denies The Sacred, sit side by side at Fatima.


    Our Lady appeared at Fatima to warn us; The Truth of Love Was In The Beginning, Is Now, And Forever Will Be. Truth does not evolve. “IAm The Way, The Truth, and The Life (Light).”


    No Creator, No Creation, No Original sin, no Redemption.
    No BrideGroom, no Bride, no Holy Mother Church
    No marriage in Heaven or on Earth.
    The atheist materialist continue to spread thier error.

    Why not do the Consecration exactly as Our Lady requested? We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain-


    interpret the data…..he is jusr another shill working for RCP and the
    already failed media industry.

  8. By the way, RCP SAYS they block me because I was banned from Breitbart…. Politico…. AND The Hill …. to witch I replie… It takes a real mental patient to hit THAT trifecta. Fear me!

  9. What in the world are you on about? Are you drunk?

  10. Hmm. I went and read 2 Tim 3:16. It says: 

    All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness … 

    That all sounds well and good, except … what is “scripture”? In the early 2nd century when that epistle was written, “scripture” (in the original Greek, γραφη or grafé, “writings”) didn’t refer to any particular work or works, aside from (in all likelihood) the Old Testament. Different works of Christian origin were viewed as authoritative by different people, even if some of them went on to be formally included in the Christian Bible. 

    The author of 2 Tim didn’t provide us with his list of authoritative books. Among the works which were venerated among 2nd century Christians, was the Shepherd of Hermas, the epistles of Barnabas and Clement, and several variant gospels, including one by Peter. None of them are venerated these days, and in fact aren’t often read by Christians at all. Yet, the author of 2 Tim might conceivably had thought of one or more of them as grafé which he found “useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” We simply have no way to know. 

    What we also don’t have any way to know, is if subsequent Christians’ writings — written after all the canon books — might not also be grafé that are “useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Perhaps the canons of all the Church councils fit that bill? Or maybe they don’t. Maybe one or more of the works of the Church Fathers are grafé. Perhaps even-later authors have composed grafé. Heck, maybe Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” are grafé

    Honestly, I don’t know. All I can do is toss out speculation. But, you see, that’s all anyone can do at this point! We have nothing to go on and no way to be certain of any of it. 

    So this appeal to 2 Tim 3:16 — a very common fundamentalist trope — is noted, but dismissed as too vague to be helpful. I say that as someone who used to be a fundamentalist and threw it around myself, once upon a time. 

  11. This whole thing has always reeked of fabrication. Three kids tell a lie, then the town realizes they can cash in. Voila! A miracle is born. What a load.

  12. Well that certainly is a lot of gibberish. All gods are imaginary. It’s 2017. Catch up.

  13. The Fatima kids and anyone who believes them.

  14. The bible itself says it’s true, therefore it is true? How convenient.

  15. you ignore the miracle of the sun seen on October 13, 1917 by over 60,000 people, including journalists and atheists, and reported in the newspapers of that day. Your opinion does not hold up to that fact.

  16. Theologians, scientists, and skeptics have responded to claims that conflict with established scientific knowledge regarding the behavior of the Sun. Science writer Benjamin Radford maintains that “the sun did not really dance in the sky. We know this because, of course, everyone on Earth is under the same sun, and if the closest dying star to us suddenly began doing celestial gymnastics a few billion other people would surely have reported it”. Radford wrote that psychological factors such as the power of suggestion and pareidolia can better explain the reported events. According to Radford, “No one suggests that those who reported seeing the Miracle of the Sun—or any other miracles at Fátima or elsewhere—are lying or hoaxing. Instead they very likely experienced what they claimed to, though that experience took place mostly in their minds.”[8]
    In The Evidence for Visions of the Virgin Mary Kevin McClure wrote that the crowd at Cova da Iria may have been expecting to see signs in the sun, since similar phenomena had been reported in the weeks leading up to the miracle. On this basis, he believes that the crowd saw what it wanted to see. McClure also stated that he had never seen such a collection of contradictory accounts of a case in any of the research that he had done in the previous ten years.[10]
    According to theologian Lisa J. Schwebel, claims of the miracle present a number of difficulties. Schwebel states, “not only did not all those present not see the phenomenon, but also there are considerable inconsistencies among witnesses as to what they did see”. Schwebel also observes that there is no authentic photo of the solar phenomena claimed, “despite the presence of hundreds of reporters and photographers at the field” and one photo often presented as authentic is actually “a solar eclipse in another part of the world taken sometime before 1917”.[42]
    Supernatural explanations, such as those by Father Pio Scatizzi who argues that observers in Fátima could not be collectively deceived, or that the effect was not seen by observatories in distant places because of divine intervention[43] have been dismissed by critics who say those taking part in the event could certainly be deceived by their senses, or they could have experienced a localized, natural phenomenon.[8]
    Others, such as professor of physics Auguste Meessen, suggest that optical effects created by the human eye can account for the reported phenomenon. Meessen presented his analysis of apparitions and “miracles of the sun” at the International Symposium “Science, Religion and Conscience” in 2003.[44][45] While Meessen felt those who claim to have experienced miracles were “honestly experiencing what they report”, he stated sun miracles cannot be taken at face value and that the reported observations were optical effects caused by prolonged staring at the sun.[7] Meessen contends that retinal after-images produced after brief periods of sun gazing are a likely cause of the observed dancing effects. Similarly Meessen concluded that the color changes witnessed were most likely caused by the bleaching of photosensitive retinal cells.[7] Meessen observes that Sun Miracles have been witnessed in many places where religiously charged pilgrims have been encouraged to stare at the sun. He cites the apparitions at Heroldsbach, Germany (1949) as an example, where many people within a crowd of over 10,000 testified to witnessing similar observations as at Fátima.[7] Meessen also cites a British Journal of Ophthalmology article that discusses some modern examples of Sun Miracles.[46] Prof. Dr. Stöckl, a meteorologist from Regensburg, also proposed a similar theory and made similar observations.[47]
    Critics also suggest that a combination of clouds, atmospheric effects and natural sunlight could have created the reported visual phenomena. Steuart Campbell, writing for the edition of Journal of Meteorology in 1989, postulated that a cloud of stratospheric dust changed the appearance of the sun on 13 October, making it easy to look at, and causing it to appear to be yellow, blue, and violet, and to spin. In support of his hypothesis, Mr. Campbell reported that a blue and reddened sun was reported in China as documented in 1983.[12] Paul Simons, in an article entitled “Weather Secrets of Miracle at Fátima”, stated that it is possible that some of the optical effects at Fátima may have been caused by a cloud of dust from the Sahara.[48]
    Skeptical investigator Joe Nickell wrote that the “dancing sun” effects reported at Fátima were “a combination of factors, including optical effects and meteorological phenomena, such as the sun being seen through thin clouds, causing it to appear as a silver disc. Other possibilities include an alteration in the density of the passing clouds, causing the sun’s image to alternately brighten and dim and so seem to advance and recede, and dust or moisture droplets in the atmosphere refracting the sunlight and thus imparting a variety of colors”. Nickell also suggests that unusual visual effects could have resulted from temporary retinal distortion caused by staring at the intense light of the Sun,[6] or have been caused by a sundog, a relatively common atmospheric optical phenomenon.[49][13] Nickell also highlights the psychological suggestibility of the witnesses, noting that devout spectators often come to locations where Marian apparitions have been reported “fully expecting some miraculous event”, such as Lubbock, Texas, in 1989, the Mother Cabrini Shrine near Denver, Colorado in 1992, and Conyers, Georgia in the early to mid-1990s.[6]

    Miracles are not real.

  17. Samuel appeared to Saul in order to predict his end and the rise of David. The idea God might send another one of his faithful to act in his stead is thus Biblical.

  18. Eh, that’s what we call in science as a telelogical argument. “The sun didn’t appear to dance in the sky and it wasn’t a miracle because that would be supernatural and the supernatural doesn’t exist.” It’s an alternative explanation but not one there’s actual evidence for other than the bias of the scientists.

  19. Eh, Jesus was mentioned in the writings of Titus Flavius Josephus. People have tried to say it wasn’t actually him but there’s no reason to doubt it other than it doesn’t fit the narrative he’s fictional.

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