Personal Reflections on a First Trip to Fatima
The Angelus (September-October, 2017)
It is rather ironic that after forty-five years of traveling to innumerable places intimately connected to the Catholic Faith and Church History I only first paid a visit to Fatima this past June, with a group of pilgrims of Remnant Tours who had just finished the Chartres Pilgrimage. What I found there really ought not to have surprised me, but I have to confess that it actually did.
There was certainly nothing surprising about the presence of the many hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops that are so often pointed to by cynics and anti-Catholics as though they were proof positive that supposedly holy sites are “all too human” in character to reflect a dignified Faith. Of course such shrines are filled with things that are “all too human”. This is because the Catholic Church, with her immense respect for the body as well as the soul, and her recognition of the need to deal with an incredible variety of men of highly different backgrounds and education, finds a way to nurture everything that is in some way capable of aiming the heart and spirit upwards. Because she is so supernatural nothing human is alien to her. Her democratic enemies are pompous elitists.
Alas, there was also nothing surprising about the outright ugliness of some of the modern art and architecture added to what was first built at the Cova da Iria. These intrusions upon the beautiful are the all too predictable products of a contemporary religious sense that has lost touch with solid supernatural truth. Such a religious sense and the crippled theology seeking to express it find themselves inevitably attracted to and approving of art and architecture that is kitchy at best and tyrannically unnatural at worst. Moreover, they seem to be diabolically committed to the construction of distorted objects, and evangelical in their determination to spread the message of ugliness by placing their graceless buildings right next to undeniably tasteful ones.
No, the “surprise” for me was not the humanity or the presence of the distorted next to the ordered. Rather, it was simply the spiritual “feel” of the place; a sense of it being “different” in a quiet but unmistakable manner. This is an experience I have had in a quite joyful fashion in towns like Assisi or in the quarter around the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua. And it is one that has taken on a light, subtle, feminine, maternal air in spots like Lourdes and Ephesus---the latter town possessing a shrine associated with the Blessed Mother because of her relationship with its bishop, St. John, in whose care Christ had placed her at the end of His earthly mission. That same light air seemed to drift about everywhere that I wandered in Fatima and the little village where the seers lived as well.
But, once again, how could this possibly have been a surprise for a believing Catholic? What other place boasting of a Marian apparition was accompanied by anything as extraordinary as the Miracle of the Sun? Who could deny the confirmation the Church herself swiftly gave to this now century old event? And yet I must admit that while I never for a moment have doubted either the official or the popular believing Catholic judgment regarding Fatima, I personally felt less willingness to come here in the past than to undertake the more awkward journey to the much less important and much less recognized shrine of Mary at Ephesus. Filled with great regret for this long delayed pilgrimage, it may still be of some value to Angelus readers for me to revisit the reasons behind it.
Three obstacles stood in the path of my fully appreciating the Fatima apparitions, the first of which was connected with a sense of childhood disappointment. Although only eight at the time, I very much remember the autumn of 1959 and Catholic expectation that the Third Secret of Fatima would be released in the coming year. The tension and outright fear that this involved was even followed and encouraged by the mainstream media. I cannot forget how the announcement that the faithful were not to hear the long awaited message left an impression of deep betrayal in my young and unformed mind. Somehow, I began to associate Fatima with disillusionment.
A second obstacle presented itself from my late teenage years onwards. It was from that moment that I began to encounter Catholics who interpreted Fatima almost totally in conjunction with political questions. Admittedly, there is no denying that the 1917 apparitions involved the clear but at that time strange warning that a seemingly collapsing Russia was somehow going to spread her errors throughout the world. This warning did not seem baffling to young children like myself in 1959, when everyone was terrified of the nuclear power of the Soviet Union. The problem that began to bother me ten years later was that many of the believers whom I encountered were using the obvious anti-communism of the Fatima message as a tool for asserting the Blessed Mother’s support for their own inaccurate and even ultimately dangerously anti Catholic visions of what was needed to be done to counter Marxism-Leninism and guide the modern world down a proper pathway.
I may be wrong in saying this, since I have not had the time to look through all my notes on the subject, but I do not remember Antonio Salazar, the long time ruler of Portugal, exploiting the Fatima visions on behalf of his own political vision, which was, however, very seriously Catholic in its inspiration. In contrast, many Catholic supporters of Americanism have not been the slightest bit squeamish in this regard, and without possessing the potential right that a Salazar might have had to associate himself with a substantive defense of Catholic Christendom.
This is not the time or the place to discuss in detail the manifold problems of what amounts to being our own special national heresy, the dangers of which I had just begun to appreciate in those late teenage years. It is enough to note here that Americanism, which has its roots in the Moderate Enlightenment of the Britain of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, promotes an individualist doctrine seeking to reduce the legitimate authorities of religion and government to a state of dangerous impotence. Under the definition of freedom that it favors, and the conditions that it thereby creates, society gradually falls under the control of the strongest economic, libertine, and criminal wills, all of them in one way or another anti-Christian. Worse still, supporters of Americanism speak in such a way as to make one feel as though the definitive dates for the Redemption of Mankind were not those of the Incarnation and Sacrifice of Christ but 1776 and 1787, with the publication of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. They tend to give the Founding Fathers precedence over the Church Fathers, with their Enlightenment shaped “will” exalted over the teachings of the Bible, the Papacy, and the Ecumenical Councils.
The idea that Catholic promoters of Americanism could claim that anything of this sort would be the definitive Christian answer to communism, and then associate the national heresy with the message of the Blessed Mother at Fatima seemed to be me to be an absurdity. Nevertheless, they appeared to take it for granted that this association was an obvious one. And wrong-headed as my judgment was, their confusion helped stimulate me to neglect the most important Marian apparition of our age.
A third obstacle to my appreciation of Fatima was a fear of encouraging millenarianism. Just as with anti-communism, there is no denying that the promise of a possible period of peace is an integral part of the message of Fatima, and this promise obviously did not play a role in causing my blindness. What troubled me was the way in which many Catholics with whom I spoke seemed to interpret such a period of peace as that concept of a thousand year enjoyment of a land of milk and honey that the Church has regularly condemned as erroneous. Even on the rational level, the idea that such a flowering of Christian civilization could unfold without the requisite hard, long, work of re-evangelization of individuals and nations appeared to me to be tantamount to tempting providence. This kind of mentality has been an obstacle to building Christendom since apostolic times, leaving the labor that we know lay behind the glories of the High Middle Ages to God alone without man’s collaboration. And strangely enough, the emergence of this millennial era regularly was tied together with an expectation of imminent apocalyptic disaster that I viewed to be equally paralyzing to any substantive Christian endeavors on the part of believers.
In any case, not a single one of these obstacles stood in the way of my being surprised by the obvious on my first visit to Fatima: the fact that every intervention of the supernatural in our earthly lives brings with it an awareness of the victory of Christ over wickedness and the joy that comes from the hope this engenders. Yes, the emphasis at the Cova da Ira was on the penitence that the message of Mary in 1917 demanded, as well as the evils that failure to undertake that penance make inevitable. Still, I found this message borne by the mass of pilgrims around me with expressions of Christian hope and joy on their faces and not those of political ideology or apocalyptic fear. For one brief moment I forgot the ravages wrought by conciliar reforms and felt as though we were all one Catholic family again, with one Faith, one Savior, and one mother. That those ravages have indeed taken place and that we are not so united is all too true. But Fatima gave me the joyful hope that my own acts of penitence might mitigate those sad truths and give us the period of peace that the Church so desperately needs to free herself from false ideological friends and seek the transformation of all things in Christ that alone can save the world.
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