I attended a rather pious little Catholic primary school where a spooky caricature of a priest presided over our Christian indoctrination.
If you can stay clear of the paedophiles priests and the violent nuns, a Catholic upbringing can be very entertaining for a child. Catholicism is full of drama & costumes, and of fear of the titillating kind children suck up. Father Gayley of Our Lady of Good Counsel (no one knew what that meant) was of the damnation school of teaching, but in a reasonably benign way. As far as I know nothing nasty happened, he just freaked us out with his oldness and weirdness and the way he shouted at you if you had nothing to say at the confessional. Both my sisters recall having to lie about sins they’d committed to avoid receiving penance for… lying.
The most thrilling of our Thursday afternoon catechism class was when Father Gayley pulled something out of his collection of 16mm films. Setting up the projector was fraught with problems and the projection results pretty dodgy which just added to the mystique of the films themselves and of religion lessons generally. If Jesus was in the movie, you never saw his face, and if god appeared the special effects went into overdrive. The sound was always bad too. All this created a baffling atmosphere in which it was impossible to determine what was fact or fiction.
Thus The Story of Fatima was taught to us. How exciting to find, as a grown up, that Fatima the location was a real place and the children really existed!
At this point I would cross to wikipedia to check the facts before regaling you with my version of events as I remember it. Except that in this case there are very few actual facts. We can rely on the idea that the event happened and the characters existed – a bit like Jesus Christ – but after that the story is tainted either by religious belief or by those with vested interests or indeed by both.
So, back to the story as I was told it then.
In 1917 three children – Jacinta, 7, Lucia, 10 and Francisco, 9 – were out in the fields of Cova da Iria, near Aljustrel, Fatima, Portugal shepherding sheep. An angel appeared to them out of the blue and asked them to repent, pray and come again next month. So this they did and the next month on the same day she appeared again with a few more messages, and told them if they came again every month she’ll eventually tell them who she was.
In between dates with the angel they told a few people and were forbidden by their mother to ever see the angel again (not hard to believe). The local “anticlerical administrator” person interrogated them but they stoically kept to their story. Word spread about the visions and on the next few visits by the angel they were joined by an increasing number of onlookers. The angel started showing them stuff like visions of hell and asking them to get the world to repent and said stayed tuned for next week’s episode. By the 6th visit, the angel had been replaced by the Virgin Mary herself and the crowd had swelled to 70 thousand people – a mixed gaggle of the pious, the curious, at least one journalist, one scientist and those with nothing else on that afternoon.
They all waited with great anticipation and watched the sky and the nice but mysterious patterns the clouds were making. They all looked at the sun a lot and when the Virgin appeared, although she could only be seen and heard by the children, most other people experienced some sort of solar event of significant colour and magic. This was considered a miracle, one that had been requested by the clergy, via the children, to prove that they weren’t bullshitting. The swirly sun thing satisfied everyone and the Virgin went away and was never seen again.
The following year Jacinta and Francisco died from the Spanish flu, (thanks for nothing Virgin Mary) leaving only Lucia to carry the whole story. The children had been told three secrets, it seems, which were of interest to the Catholic church as was the Fatima story of interest to Portugal. In the visions various predictions had been made about things I’m not convinced the children would’ve understood at the time. Take the prediction of another world war (when WW1 was still being played out), the conversion of Russia (where’s Russia, the kids must have asked, near Porto?) and the assassination attempt on the Pope, in 1983.
Whatever was said, the Fatima story hit a chord and became a huge success for the Catholics. Pilgrimages by the faithful to Cova da Iria started almost immediately and a chapel was built at the site. Lucia had become so famous that she though best to second herself in a nunnery where she wrote books about the experience.
Theories about what really happened at Fatima are as numerous as the variations on the story from a believer’s point of view. A UFO, magic mushrooms, gases which caused hallucinations, mass hysteria or religious zeal, whatever. The prominent scientific explanation for the “Miracle of the Sun” is that everyone simply stared at the sun too long.
But for me, there are bigger holes in the story. If you were an omnipotent being, would you choose three illiterate children to convey your message? If you were an omnipotent being and you had some predictions for the 20th century, would you really put the ‘conversion of Russia’ ahead of say, the holocaust? Is the attempted assassination of a Pope really more important than Hiroshima? Yugoslavia? Burundi & Rwanda? Just who is this omnipotent being anyway for failing to warn us about Hitler?
The Catholic church has a long history of visions and the 19th and 20th Centuries they were particularly in vogue. Other stories of seers may well have been told to the children of Fatima, as they are just the type of story that travels well by word of mouth. The most notable in their time was in 1858 in Lourdes, France where 14 yr old Bernadette saw visions. Unlike Lucia, she was not particularly religious beforehand and only initially identified the vision as being of a small young woman. In later appearances, the figure identified herself as the Immaculate Conception, a concept only recently invented by then Pope Pius IX. Bernadette’s family, extremely poor and illiterate, claimed that Bernadette could not have heard the term before. The story of Lourdes is even more curious than Fatima.
The success of the Fatima phenomenon needs to be seen in the context of the socio-political landscape of the time. Since the 19th century, religious participation had become more the domain of women rather than men. Catholicism had seen a feminisation in favour of the worship of Mary and female biblical stories and saints. Contemporary visions of Mary were almost always reported by women or children. Portugal’s monarchy had been abolished in 1910 and since then its government was in constant flux. The first republic was anti-clerical and the rural classes (traditionally monarchist) must have felt disenfranchised. Portugal was also fighting in the Great War. The children at Fatima had overcome the local authorities’ wish to suppress the story and Fatima’s followers continued to grow massively every year. This was a huge coup by the Catholics against the ruling classes. Lucia, along with the growing faithful, continued to keep the story alive long enough to have it recognised by the Pope. By this time Salazar had come to power. Catholic and ultra conservative, with an agenda to keep the Portuguese people quiet and ignorant (and thus retain power), the Fatima story complemented his ideals.
Fatima today receives about 4 million visitors a year, but if you come to experience a quaint story of shepherds and angels you’ll be disappointed. Surrounded by souvenir tack shops (nice sheep with halos though), the shrine of Fatima is a utilitarian worship factory housing two large and charmless (especially by Portuguese standards) basilica centred around one humongous concrete quadrangle. The latest one was finished in 2007 and is apparently the fourth largest church in the world. Built at a cost of 60 million euros, it’s another example of grotesque which begs the question, if the Catholic church never built a single cathedral would there still be poverty today?