The Bizarre True Story Of The 1917 Prophecies Of Fatima

We use the term "miracle" a lot. We say that it's a miracle the soft serve machine at McDonald's is actually working, or that we made it home before it rained, or that the dog actually made it outside this time, instead of pooping on the carpet. Again. But those aren't really miracles, not in the religious sense. Real miracles are something entirely different.

While it seems like divine miracles and the Catholic Church might go hand in hand, there's actually a long process that events need to go through before they're officially recognized by the Church. Even one of the most famous — the prophecies given to the children at Fatima — took years before the Catholic Church declared, "Yep, that's actually a message from the Virgin Mary!" 

The rules about what makes a miracle might always be changing, says LiveScience, but the repeat occurrences, prophecies, and visions seen on hills in Portugal remain one of the most famous. Many have heard of Fatima, many know that the Virgin Mary appeared to three children and told them some top-secret information, but... what did she really say? And what happened to those children?

The miracle at Fatima began with an Angel of Peace

The miracle at Fatima was most closely associated with the Virgin Mary, but she wasn't the first to appear to the children. In the spring of 1916, Lucia Dos Santos (then 9-years-old) and her cousins, Francisco (then 8-years-old) and Jacinta (then 6-years-old) Marto, were keeping a watchful eye on their sheep as they grazed on a hill called the Cabeço. The Fatima Center says that it was after a brief rainstorm had passed that the winds picked up, and the children saw a young man approaching. They later described him as looking to be around 14-years-old, and noted that his entire form was white. When the sun struck him, he appeared to be made from crystal, and they were stunned into silence.

He introduced himself as the Angel of Peace, and taught them a prayer for those who didn't believe. Telling them to keep praying, he disappeared.

The angel returned several times: in the summer of 1916, he told them to sacrifice everything they could to God, and added that he was the Angel of Portugal, the country's guardian angel. And in the autumn, they saw him again, holding a chalice that slowly filled with blood. He gave them Holy Communion, they reported, and it was all to prepare them for the visions to come.

Who are the children?

The world was chaos in the years up to and around the visions at Fatima. World War I raged across the continent, and while Portuguese revolutionaries worked to separate church and state, little Lucia and her cousins were born in the parish of Fatima, where the village priest was their authority.

From birth, EWTN says they were taught their scripture and their catechism, and it wasn't long before Lucia (center) — with help from her cousins — was tasked with an important job: tending the family's sheep. Those who knew her described her as "a plain child with sparkling eyes," and she was always the leader.

Francisco (right) was just a year younger, and was a little unique among the trio: he would see the apparitions, but was never able to hear her words. Still, he was described as a courageous peacemaker who loved animals, once giving all the money he had — a single penny — to buy a bird that a friend had caught. He set the bird free. 

Jacinta (left) was two years younger than her brother, and loved to dance (although the village priest forbid dancing in public), gathering flowers, and tending her sheep. Those who knew them said that she was the one most affected by the visions, and as the most talkative one, it was Jacinta who let it slip that they'd seen something miraculous... in spite of a pact they'd made to keep the whole thing quiet.

The first appearances of the Virgin Mary at Fatima

About eight months after the last appearance of the angel, the three children were once again watching over their sheep in an area called Cova da Iria (via EWTN). On May 13, 1917 — just past lunchtime — a flash lit up the sky. The three, thinking that there was a storm on the way, decided to take their sheep home when they saw "a lady dressed in white, shining brighter than the sun, giving out rays of clear and intense light, just like a crystal goblet full of pure water when the fiery sun passes through it."

They approached within just a few feet of the apparition, and Lucia spoke to the figure. "The Lady" told her that she came from heaven, and instructed the children to return to the same spot on the 13th day of each month for the next six months. During the following visits, she promised to reveal who she was and what she wanted. Lucia asked about friends who had died, and then was instructed to "Say the Rosary every day, to bring peace to the world and an end to the war."

In spite of their agreement to keep the entire thing a secret, Jacinta told — and the children were met with, well, to say "disbelief" would be putting it mildly. Even their parents viewed the whole thing with a healthy dose of skepticism, but still, the crowds started to come.

The first secret of Fatima

The apparition appeared again in June, and promised that all the children would be taken to heaven... Francisco and Jacinta soon, Lucia later. It wasn't until the third visit — on July 13, 1917 — that EWTN says the children were shown the promised secrets. And the first? It was a pretty terrifying glimpse into hell.

Lucia would keep the first two parts of the secret to herself until 1941, when she finally wrote of the moment the apparition opened her hands, and "The rays of light seemed to penetrate the earth, and we saw as it were a sea of fire. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, [...] amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear."

According to Aleteia, the vision of hell that the children described is very similar to the one that was described in the Council of Trent's Roman Catechism, which says sinners are headed right to a place of "eternal and inextinguishable fire." It has another name, too: Gehenna, which Jesus calls "the unquenchable fire" in Mark 9:43. That term appears elsewhere, too — it's a Greek word for the valley just southwest of Jerusalem. The fire connection is very real, as it was once the location of pagan sacrifices that included burning children.

The second secret of Fatima

The second secret came right on the heels of the first, and they're kind of connected. The apparition revealed (via EWTN) that yes, that had been a vision of hell and yes, that's where sinners are going to go... and the world? It had a lot of sinners in it. The children were cautioned that while the war that currently raged would end, mankind really needed to stop making God angry or there would be another one, "by the persecution of the Church and the Holy Father."

At the heart of it, The Lady said, was Russia. In order to prevent another war, Russia would need to "be consecrated to my Immaculate Heart," and if it didn't happen, "Russia will spread her errors throughout the world..." This new war would come "during the pontificate of Pius XI," who — says Britannica — was pope from 1922 to 1939 and who, in spite of his position on world peace, would see the rise of Mussolini in his own country and Hitler not too far away. 

Mankind would get a warning if war was on the horizon, in the form of "a night that is lit by a strange and unknown light." And arguably, that did happen: in late January of 1938, a geomagnetic storm lit up the skies in the northern hemisphere with a red aurora that was so bright that The New York Times says fire departments across North America were dispatched to fires that didn't exist.

The third secret of Fatima

According to the Society of Pius X, the first two secrets were revealed with the publication of Lucia's memoirs, and the third was written down in the 1940s. It was sealed and given to her bishop, who gave it to Pope Pius XII with instructions that it was to be made public before 1960. But 1960 came and went, and Pope John XXIII decided that it wasn't going to be made public after all.

And here's where things get complicated. In 2000, the Vatican finally revealed the secret. According to The New York Times, it was a prophesied assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II (pictured, with the secret). And it did happen — on May 13, 1981 (the anniversary of the apparition), Mehmet Ali Agca shot the pope, and later said it had everything to do with the third secret of Fatima. Although the pope thanked the Virgin Mary specifically for saving his life, it wasn't until decades later that the church decided to reveal the secret... or, did they?

There's plenty of people who think the Vatican's still hiding a good part of the secret. Lucia supposedly wrote on four pieces of paper, while what the Vatican made public was just a single page's worth. Rumor has it that the rest of the secret has to do with the apocalypse and Satan's infiltration of the church, and it's said the Vatican declined to release that part of the statement for obvious reasons.

The Miracle of the Sun

The apparition continued to appear to the children in the coming months... except for August. That, says EWTN, is when the mayor of the district of Fatima had the children arrested, and while they tried to get the three to recant what they were seeing, the apparition came and went. The kids were held for two days before being dropped off at their local rectory.

The September visit was brief, and included a promise that there would be a miracle performed in October. Around 70,000 that gathered on the designated day, and... something happened. According to The Washington Post, it was around two in the afternoon when witnesses claimed to see the sun doing some insane things. Some claimed to see it dance in the sky, others claimed it turned everything to the color of amethyst, while others said (via LiveScience) that they saw the sun zigzag across the sky. Some feared that it was going to crash, and some witnesses were up to 25 miles away. Others? Some didn't see anything at all.

So, what does the scientific world have to say about the event that became known as the Miracle of the Sun? A sundog — a patch of light that sometimes appears near the sun — is one possible explanation, but more likely? Thousands of people spent a long time staring at the sun, waiting for something to happen... and what happened was their eyes started to hurt from, well, staring at the sun.

No, the Church wasn't automatically on board

The apparition of the Virgin Mary at Fatima seems like exactly the sort of thing the Catholic Church would love, but it wasn't declared an official miracle for a long time. According to the University of Dayton, there's been a ton of sightings and apparitions of the Virgin Mary that get reported every year, and before the Church says that yes, they're legit, they first do a thorough investigation to make sure there's not a natural explanation for what people saw... or, they note, a fraudulent one.

Fatima is one of only a handful of "Marian Apparitions" that the Church has given its approval to, but it took a while. According to The Fatima Center, it wasn't until 1930 that the Bishop of Leiria-Fatima declared the events of 1917 "worthy of belief." Along with that declaration was an approval to establish the "cult of Our Lady of Fatima," but they also stress that others within the Church had continued to argue that it absolutely wasn't as real as the children believed. 

Then, fast forward a bit. According to the National Catholic Reporter, it wasn't until 2017 that Pope Francis approved the visions of Fatima as a bona fide miracle that involved not just Lucia, but Francisco and Jacinta as well. That's a big deal: saints can't be raised to sainthood without confirmed miracles under their belts.

Lucia's other visions

In 1946, Lucia (right, with Jacinta) sat down with author and historian William Thomas Walsh, for an interview later published in a book called Our Lady of Fatima (via the World Apostolate of Fatima, USA). During the interview, she dropped some interesting hints about what she claimed was an ongoing relationship with the divine. When Walsh asked, "Did you see Our Lord in the year 1927?" her answer was a definite "Yes." But unfortunately, she was mum on the details, and Walsh says he wasn't allowed to ask her more about that vision, or others. 

Lucia had previously reported that the Virgin Mary had appeared to her again in 1925, when she had complained about her "Heart, surrounded by thorns with which ungrateful men wound it by their blasphemies and iniquities."

Also included in the 1946 conversation? Lucia's belief that every country would fall to Communism, "without exception," and that the Virgin Mary's wishes wouldn't be fulfilled until every person in the world said the Rosary, prayed for the Holy Father, made the first five Saturday Communions, and made it a point to "perform sacrifices." When asked if she had seen or heard any revelations regarding the end of the world, though, she simply replied, "I cannot answer that question."

The man who hijacked a plane to get the release of the third secret

People have gone a long way to get the entirety of the full story of what was said by the apparitions at Fatima, and in 1981, a man made headlines when he hijacked a plane and demanded the Vatican release the third secret. (Pictured is the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary at Fatima.) The story? It's a weird one, starring a defrocked Australian monk named Larry Downey.

Downey, says The Journal, hijacked an Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to London in 1981. They were only about five minutes from landing when he got up, went into the bathrooms, doused himself in gasoline, and forced his way into the cockpit. There, he demanded they take the plane to Tehran, while waving a lighter and making it very clear what was going to happen if he didn't get his way.

They ended up rerouting the plane to France, and that's when Irish Transport Minister Albert Reynolds told the media what was at the heart of Downey's demands: the publication of the third secret of Fatima, in its entirety, along with his own 9-page manifesto. What followed was a 10-hour standoff between Downey and police, and it ended with Downey's arrest, the release of hostages, and the continued silence from the Vatican.

Fatima had an iffy connection to Nazi gold

Portugal says that today, Fatima remains a popular pilgrimage site. There's a basilica there now, and construction on that began — appropriately — on May 13, 1928. But there's at least one chapter in Fatima's history that's a little... uncomfortable, whether you're a believer or not.

The country had remained neutral throughout World War II, and thanks to that status — and their widespread practice of selling materials like tungsten to Nazi Germany — they made a pretty penny. According to The New York Times, they were paid with gold looted from conquered countries and Holocaust victims. In 1997, a massive campaign kicked off to try to trace some of the gold, but it wasn't until 2000 that Fatima and its shrine publicly confirmed (via the BBC) that yes, they held Nazi gold. They said that in 1970, the Portuguese bank holding the gold for them had discovered the Nazi insignia on the bars, and still, they sat there for a good long time... until they were sold sometime between 1982 and 1986. The profits were used to finance construction being done at the shrine.

Fatima's rector, Luciano Guerra, denied any wrongdoing, but said they would do their best to determine the original source of the gold they still had left.

What happened to the children?

Fatima, says The Irish Times, has remained incredibly controversial. There are plenty of believers, but there's plenty of others that chalk the whole thing up to overactive imaginations and a little mass delusion. It's even been pointed out that the number of visitors to the shrine who are killed in car accidents are greater than the number of those who claimed they were healed, so there's some food for thought.

So, what happened to the children that started this whole thing? Lucia claimed that the Virgin Mary had told her that she would take Francisco and Jacinta soon — and she did. According to the National Catholic Register, Francisco and Jacinta both died from influenza, on April 4, 1919 and February 20, 1920, respectively. On May 13, 2017, the two became the church's youngest, non-martyred saints (via America, The Jesuit Review).

Lucia became a Discalced Carmelite nun, and passed away on February 13, 2005. She was 97-years-old. All three were laid to rest at Fatima, and continue to be credited with performing miracles of healing for those who pray to them.