Our Lady of Fatima: Why Portugal?
1917 was not an easy year for the world. The nations were in the midst of the largest and most horrific conflict the world had yet seen: World War I. The present—and the future—looked bleak.
Portugal in 1917
Caught up in the drama was the nation of Portugal, a small country to the west of Spain. Portugal had been a major world power and boasted great significance in the Age of Exploration. But by World War I, Portugal had lost much of its territory and importance. It was no longer considered a great empire.
Around the same time, Catholicism was also losing significance in Portugal, which had historically been a very Catholic country. The Freemasons and others in political power in the Portuguese Republic took action to eliminate the influence of the Church in the nation, including passing laws and decrees to silence the Church. It was a challenging time to be a lay Catholic in Portugal, and even more challenging to be a priest or consecrated religious.
Both within the country of Portugal and outside it, the world seemed to be crashing down. Little did anyone know, the Blessed Virgin Mary was about to appear to offer fresh hope and change the world in a way no one could have predicted.
The Apparitions of Our Lady
On May 5, 1917, Pope Benedict XV wrote a pastoral letter asking for Mary’s intercession in ending the war that was plaguing the world. Days later, on May 13, 1917, she answered. As three Portuguese children—Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco—were tending their family’s sheep, Mary appeared to them. She would continue to appear once every month until October. Over the course of six months, she gave the children a message of prayer and repentance and revealed secrets about the fate of a world that would continue to sin. She urged them to pray, especially the Rosary, and make sacrifices to atone for sins. During Mary’s final apparition to the children on October 13, 1917, God worked the Miracle of the Sun through Mary. During this miracle, the sun shone brilliant colors and whirled through the sky in the sight of believers and nonbelievers alike.
But why did Mary come to a small village in Portugal, of all places, and to three small children?
From Israel to Fatima
At this point in history, we were clearly in need of a call to repentance and to return to God because of the extent to which we had fallen. This concept, however, was not a new one. Even in the Old Testament, God sent His prophets to the Israelites, His chosen people, to turn their hearts back to Him. Time after time, they rebelled, but God never ceased calling them back.
Now, we live in the reality of the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. We don’t have prophets in the same way the Israelites did. But we do have the Body of Christ, the Church, which is alive—and which we do not always care for as we should. Just as God called the Israelites back to Himself through the prophets, God sent us a beautiful message of mercy and renewed love through our Blessed Mother. It is only fitting that He would choose a nation historically rooted in the faith that would understand His message and return to its faith. In the context of the New Covenant, we can receive Our Lady’s message not with fear, but only and necessarily with the confidence in our salvation in Christ. We should indeed be sorrowful over our present state of sin, but we can ultimately take comfort in the assurance of salvation if we decide to participate in it through prayer and devotion to Christ.
Today, although there continued to be political unrest in Portugal for much of the twentieth century, devotion to Our Lady of Fatima is an essential piece of the identity of Portugal. Its people have tried to answer the call to repentance and encourage the rest of the world to do the same. God chose Portugal as one of the means to call us to return to Him, and the nation responded faithfully.
In addition to the particular choice of Fatima, Portugal, it is also significant that Our Lady appeared to young children with no significant wealth or social status. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14). By entrusting God’s important message to children, Mary reminded us how important children are and encouraged us to once again become childlike. When the children first received the apparitions, some people thought that they were simply making everything up as a children’s game. But God wants us to recognize the full humanity of children by listening earnestly to them. Now, thanks to the witness of Jacinta and Francisco in particular (who died as children), we as a Church have a more nuanced understanding of children. Jacinta and Francisco will be the youngest non-martyr children to be canonized, proving that people of young ages are capable of heroic virtue. If ordinary children can answer Our Lady’s message with great faith, then surely we are all capable of responding in the same way.
During the time of conflict that we face today, 100 years later, Our Lady’s message from Fatima continues to speak to our hearts. Following the example of the three child visionaries, the best thing we can do in response to this message is to turn to God in all that we do, atone for our sins, and pray always.
Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us!