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Must Catholics Believe in Fatima?

by Rev. Eamon R. Carroll, O. Carm., S.T.D.


Rev. Eamon Carroll, a strong believer in the apparitions at Fatima, explains the teaching of the Church on belief in private revelations.

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Our Lady's Digest, Fall 1990

Must Catholics Believe in Fatima?
The Place of Private Revelation In The Church

Rev. Eamon R. Carroll, O. Carm., S.T.D. Professor of Theology Loyola University of Chicago and Associate Editor

The following talk was given at the National Fatima Symposium sponsored by the World Apostolate of Fatima (The Blue Army) at Marymount University Conference Center, Arlington, VA, July 7-9, 1989.

Before I plunge into my assigned topic, permit me to state my own strong belief that our Lady did indeed appear to the children at Fatima in 1917. I have been a pilgrim there on occasion. My Carmelite religious family built a monastery there in 1947 and in the early fifties an international centre for lay Carmelites, Casa Beato Nuno, named for the national hero of Portugal who ended his life as a Carmelite brother (d, 1431). I rejoice in the fact that the Mother of Jesus appeared to the children as Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in the final extraordinary meeting of October 13, 1917. Father Miller graciously invited me as a theologian to offer these reflections on the 'place of private revelation in the Church,' and to attempt an answer to the compelling question 'must Catholics believe in Fatima?'

I have inverted the order of the title in the printed program, so as to consider first the more general aspect, that is, the place of private revelation in the Church, before continuing on to the question about Fatima. The reason for taking up the more general question first is to give us sufficient context to examine the place of Fatima, specifically the revelations associated with our Lady's appearances.

Private revelations and apparitions of our Lady go back almost to the beginning of Christianity. St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) tells of an appearance of our Lady and St. John the Apostle to St. Gregory the Wonderworker a century earlier ( 270). Our lady spoke to St. John, asking him to make known to Gregory 'the mystery of true piety,' and St. John replied that he would gladly do so in order to give pleasure to the Mother of Jesus. There are some extraordinary correspondences between this third century event and our Lady's appearance at Knock in the west of Ireland on August 21, 1879, which the Holy Father visited for its centenary in 1979. At Knock there was no verbal message but a group of people saw our Lady and St. John, and also St. Joseph and the figure of a lamb on an altar.

We recall the appearance to Juan Diego in Mexico of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531, which led to millions of conversions. In the past century and a half we know of a number of famous manifestations, beginning with the appearances to St. Catherine Laboure in 1830 which led to the miraculous medal, then LaSalette in 1846 to two shepherd children, Lourdes above all in 1858, and also, if less known, at Pontmain, France, 1871, and two in Belgium in our century, Beauraing, 1932-3, and Banneux, 1933 (Our Lady of the Poor). And, of course, Fatima in 1917, with the preliminary appearances of the angel in 1916 and the subsequent explanations granted Lucy in the twenties, thirties and forties.

Some Ground Rules about 'Private Revelation'

Here are some ground rules about 'private revelation'; each point will be further developed and applied to Fatima. The phrase 'private revelation' is a technical term, it means revelations that are distinct from 'public revelation,' and the words 'public revelation' are also technical terminology for the revelation given to the apostles, which closed with the death of the last apostle in such a way that nothing can be added to it.

At the Second Vatican Council it was said that the full revelation of the supreme God was brought to completion in Jesus Christ (Dei verbum, n. 7). What is known as 'the deposit of the faith' was complete with the death of the last apostle and is enshrined as a living inheritance in the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church, confided to the Church for its transmission, preservation and interpretation. The Council put it: "This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers (we may note that believers include theologians in their prayer and research), who treasure these things in their hearts (cf. Lk. 2:19, 51) through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth" (the conciliar constitution on divine revelation, Dei verbum, n. 8).

The Council expanded on the teaching role of the pope and the bishops: they are to "strive painstakingly and by appropriate means to inquire properly into that revelation and to give apt expression to its contents. But they do not accept any new public revelation as part of the divine deposit of faith" (Lumen gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the Church, n.25). At the same time the conciliar Fathers spoke also of the prophetic office of the holy people of God, noting that the Holy Spirit distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank: "...these charismatic gifts are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation, for they are exceedingly suitable and useful for the needs of the Church" (n. 12). Though extraordinary gifts are not to be rashly sought — one is reminded of the advice of St. John of the Cross (d. 1591) — Church authorities are reminded at the same time not to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to that which is good (1 Thes. 5,12 and 19-21). Apparitions and private revelations can be counted among the charismatic gifts thus meant for the building up of the Church.

Some 'private' revelations remain totally hidden and are intended only for the recipients; we have no idea how many these are, or how often they occur; they may well be fairly common, known only to the persons thus favored and to spiritual directors or confessors. Other 'private' revelations become public, known to a wide circle of the faithful, or even, as the case of both Lourdes and Fatima, to the whole world, or for Guadalupe throughout the Americas.

A particular or 'prophetic' revelation that reaches beyond the immediate recipients is judged by the Church in terms of its correspondence to public revelation, i.e., to the Scriptures and constant traditional teaching. A first need is to establish the genuineness of the claims; here there come into play the norms of critical history as well as the rules of normal and abnormal psychology. After such investigations — if the results are favorable — the Church gives permission for common acts associated with the events, as pilgrimages and special prayers at the sacred site, normally leaving the approval to the local bishop. At times a pattern of veneration and public worship, in which the bishop himself takes part, amounts to the same sort of approval, as seems to have been the case largely at Knock in Ireland, sealed by the papal visit in 1979.

With respect to Fatima we may note the papal visit of Paul VI in 1967, the fiftieth anniversary, as also the publication on that occasion of one of his major Marian letters, Signum magnum (Latin words for 'the great sign', title taken from the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse, 'the great sign that appeared in the sky, the woman clothed with the sun.') Pope John Paul II went to Fatima on May 12/13, 1982, in thanksgiving for deliverance from the assassination attempt just one year before. On that occasion the Holy Father renewed the dedication of the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and he was to ask all the bishops to join him in renewing this act on the weekend of the feast of the Annunciation, 1984, to conclude the jubilee year of Redemption. (The World Apostolate of Fatima has published an attractive pamphlet with the Holy Father's Fatima homily of May 13, 1982: And from that hour...opening words taken from St. John's Calvary account.)

Even with such strong signs of papal support the Church still stands by the rules set down in the eighteenth century by Pope Benedict XIV that "assent to apparitions is of human faith, following the rules of prudence." We give divine faith to public revelation, where the Church teaches infallibly; for private revelations, as in apparitions, only human faith is involved. The recipient of the extraordinary experience may be bound in conscience by divine faith because of the immediacy of the happening, though even here, as we know from St. Teresa of Jesus, the visionary must submit his or her judgement to the authority of the Church, by way of a confessor or spiritual advisor, or by way of the bishop.

In a document of 1907 Pope St. Pius X reiterated the rules of Benedict XIV as they had also been renewed in statements from the Congregation of Rites in 1875 and 1877 with respect to Lourdes and LaSalette. Pius X said: "such apparitions or revelations have neither been approved nor condemned by the Apostolic See, but it has been permitted piously to believe them merely with human faith, with due regard to the tradition they bear."

Some Seers Have Been Canonized

In some cases the privileged recipients of revelation have been canonized, we think of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (d. 1690), who was God's instrument in promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart. In the sadly neglected great letter of Pius XII, Haurietis aquas (1956) on the doctrine and devotion of the Sacred Heart, is as noted that what was revealed to St. Margaret Mary was nothing new in Catholic doctrine, also that under the symbol of the heart of Jesus his love is recalled. The two saints we think of in terms of the appearances of our Lady are St. Bernadette (d. 1879) and St. Catherine Laboure (d. 1876). St. Catherine (canonized 1947) was the secret recipient of appearances of our Lady which led to the 'miraculous medal' of the Immaculate Conception. Pius XI said of her: "Hidden with Christ in God, Sister Catherine knew how to guard the secret of her Queen."

St. Bernadette Soubirous as a girl of fourteen was favored with eighteen appearances of our Lady at the grotto of Massabielle by the swift-flowing Gave in 1858; she was beatified in 1925, canonized in 1933. Lourdes has been an inexhaustible place of grace, healings of body and soul, ever since our Lady's gracious visit in 1858. It has been well said that the greatest proof of Lourdes was St. Bernadette. She said of herself: "The holy Virgin made use of me. Then she put me back in my place. I am content with that and there I remain."

In the canonization of both saints, as also of St. Margaret Mary, the focus was on their heroic virtue, although popular interest was strongly stimulated by the apparitions. In the liturgical celebrations associated with these saints, or even with the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes in our calendar for February II, the emphasis is on the Marian mystery that is being commemorated, i.e., the Immaculate Conception, rather than the events of the apparitions. In the current calendar February II is titled simply 'the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lourdes,' whereas the previous title (up to 1969) was 'the apparition of the Immaculate B.V.M.' This reason was given for the change of title: "that it may be more clearly seen that the object of the celebration is the Blessed Virgin herself, not the historical fact of her appearances."

Appearances of our Lady are frequent phenomena in the lives of the saints, but they are not necessary requirements, and some saints well remembered for their great devotion to the Blessed Virgin we're not favored with apparitions or special revelations. Obviously, Christian sanctity does not include the requirement of apparitions. The main requirement is heroic virtue in union with Christ. In the cases we do know about, such apparitions favored the holiness of the recipients. A short list would include such names as St. Dominic, St. Ignatius Loyola, the Carmelites St. Teresa of Jesus, St. Mary Magdalen de'Pazzi, St. Therese of the Child Jesus.

In their enormous variety the saints serve the Church as summaries of Catholic doctrine. This is one reason the Church is so careful — even ultra-cautious — about claims of private revelation and apparitions. At the time of the appearances to Bernadette, between February 11 and July 16, there were fifty false visionaries reported. As the second preface for the saints from the Missal puts it, holy men and holy women are living witnesses of God's unchanging love. We are called to imitate them for 'they inspire us by their heroic lives,' we count on their intercession, for 'they help us by their constant prayers,' and assist us also to be living signs of God's saving power. All their holy activity is at the service of the Church, for through these holy people God renews the Church in every age.

All three elements are verified in authentic apparitions: example, intercession and the ecclesial service of the saints. The seer who lives in accordance with the message of the revelation emphasizes in actual life neglected aspects of Christian commitment, as prayer, penance, the Sacraments, charity. In the saints who have been beatified and canonized we find four qualities in their apparitions of our Lady: The first quality is that their experience is in complete accord with the Gospels; the second that it is at the service of the Church. The third characteristic is the witness value of the apparition, and the fourth the centrality of charity, so abundantly documented in the lives, for example, of St. Catherine, St. Bernadette, St. Therese.

Additional light on the place of private revelation in the life of the Church can be found in the liturgy. We have noted how guardedly the Church incorporates revelations and apparitions into liturgical celebrations, not imposing on believers the initial events which gave rise to popular pilgrimages, to special prayers, even to commemorative Masses. For the votive Masses of our Lady at Marian Shrines, or in the universal calendar of the Church (the single example of our Lady of Lourdes, Feb. II) the devotion is to the person of the Blessed Virgin, whatever the occasion that led to the choice of date or place.

For the liturgies associated with apparitions and their attendant revelations three factors enter in. The first is approval by Church authorities, in the first place the local bishop. Above all, the Marian mystery commemorated must be part of the Church's teaching. In the appearances to St. Catherine LaBoure the Immaculate Conception was already a common belief and by the time of Lourdes in 1858 the Church had solemnly defined our Lady's freedom from original sin as a dogma of the faith. When the Holy Father gives his approval to the feast, the liturgies involved can be regarded as practically immune from error. In assessing the bond between the liturgy and apparitions a second factor is the degree of the Church's proposal and acceptance. The resurrection of Jesus is a dogma of the faith; our Lady's assumption was generally accepted before 1950, as it had been for many centuries, but only with its definition on November 1, 1950, did it become a matter of divine and Catholic faith, clearly belonging to public revelation. The Presentation of Mary on November 21, an ancient Eastern feast, is regarded by the Church as a pious legend, although its deeper meaning of Mary's holiness and life-long dedication to God is a matter of faith. A third factor is liturgical commemoration of apparitions is that the liturgy reflects a true development of doctrine in the Church. This was true of the long slow history of the Immaculate Conception. 'Praying shapes believing' is an ancient axiom of Christian experience.

Must Catholics Believe in Fatima?

Now to the question: must Catholics believe in Fatima? What has been said so far can help us formulate a carefully nuanced answer to that question, because a simple 'yes' or 'no' is neither a sufficient nor a fair reply. We take in order the reaction of Church authorities, second, prayers associated with Fatima in both liturgy and devotions, third, the message of Fatima. I have not proposed the holiness of the seers, not out of any doubt about their holiness, but Lucy is still alive, and the causes of Francisco and Jacinta have just begun (they were declared 'venerable' on May 13 of this year, 1989), so it would be premature to comment on this aspect here.

How have Church authorities reacted to Fatima? Initially, the local pastor was far from convinced by the reports of the children, though he had the wisdom to write down carefully his conversations with them. The local bishop and then the Cardinal of Lisbon soon set up a board of inquiry to take testimony from all concerned. The canonical inquiry led to a decision of May 13, 1930, that the claims were worthy of human faith, and official devotion to our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima was approved. By then Portuguese pilgrims had come in ever-increasing numbers and the fame of Fatima had gone beyond the borders of Portugal. Bishop DaSilva began the construction of a basilica at the site. The bishops issued a joint pastoral on May 12, 1942. A million pilgrims came on October 13, 1942, and Pope Pious XII took the occasion to send a radio-message in which he consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, with a veiled reference also to Russia. He renewed that consecration in Rome the following feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1942, to chose to close the Holy Year at Fatima on October 13, 1951, sending Cardinal Tedeschini as his legate, renewing the consecration, and again addressing by radio the million people there assembled.

Pope Paul VI went to Fatima in 1967. Pope John Paul II was there in 1982; in his homily of May 13 he said: "If the Church has accepted the message of Fatima, it is above all because that message contains a truth and a call whose basic content is the truth and the call of the Gospel itself." Tireless pilgrim to Marian shrines in every one of the many countries he visits, the Holy Father has written and spoken inspiringly of the presence of Mary at these privileged places where we "seek to meet the Mother of the Lord, the one who is blessed because she believed, first among believers and therefore the Mother of Emmanuel (God-with-us)...This is the message of centers like Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima... Among them how could I fail to mention the one in my own native land, Jasna Gora (Czestochowa)? One could perhaps speak of a specific 'geography' of faith and Marian devotion [who with better right than the great traveler Pope John Paul II?!], which includes all these special places of pilgrimage where the People of God seek to meet the Mother of God in order to find, within the radius of the maternal presence of her 'who believed,' a strengthening of their own faith," (n. 28 Redemptoris mater, the letter for the Marian Year). In the general calendar of the Church three of our Lady's days are associated with sacred places, all commemorating a blessed presence of the Mother of Jesus. One is our Lady of Lourdes, the second comes from the homeland of Jesus and his Mother, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and the third is the dedication of the basilica of St. Mary Major, principal Roman Church in her honor.

With respect to prayers associated with Fatima, the local liturgy does not specifically mention the apparitions — we have seen that even for Lourdes the current liturgy is silent about the apparitions to St. Bernadette — but the main ingredients of the Fatima message — prayer, penance, reparation, the Immaculate Heart of Mary — are woven into the approved prayers, as in the prayer said after the decades of the Rosary: "Oh my Jesus save us from our sins, deliver us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls into heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy."

There is no doubt that Fatima has encouraged great devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, from the initial six appearances of 1917 through subsequent revelations that Sister Lucy has told us about. It may be said that the theme of the Immaculate Heart, with its constellation of associated doctrines, is the most original and most specific element of the Fatima Message. When the Sacred Congregation of Rites approved the new Mass of the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1945, extending it to the entire Church (kept on the Saturday after the Second Sunday after Pentecost) it gave this explanation: "Under the symbol of the Heart of the Mother of God, her eminent holiness and especially her most ardent love for God and her Son Jesus are venerated with piety, as well as her maternal devotion to men ransomed by the divine blood."

When Pope John Paul was at Fatima in 1982 he renewed the dedication to our Lady his predecessors had made. It is worth noting that in the strict sense 'consecration' is an act of religion that can only be properly made to God himself. This clarification was made most carefully by the Holy Father at Fatima and in subsequent explanations, especially for the formula he asked all the bishops of the world to make in 1984, March 24/25, which he called 'an act of entrusting' to our Lady and her Immaculate Heart. The core consecration is a consecration to God, as Jesus consecrated himself at the Last Supper with the Mother of Jesus as the perfect exemplar of consecration to God in intimate association to her Son.

The formula of entrusting of the world to the Blessed Virgin for the Annunciation, 1984, read: "Behold, as we stand before you, Mother of Christ, before your Immaculate Heart, we desire, together with the whole Church, to unite ourselves with the consecration which, for love of us, your Son made of Himself to the Father. 'For this sake,' He said, I consecrate myself that they also may be consecrated in the truth' (John 17, 19). We wish to unite ourselves with our Redeemer in this his consecration for the world and for the human race, which in his divine heart has the power to obtain pardon and to secure reparation."

Again we put the question: must Catholics believe in Fatima? The answer is two-fold. So far as the heart of the Fatima message goes, meaning prayer, penance, reparation and the compassionate Immaculate Heart of Mary — the Church's approval here is absolute. No Catholic is free to reject these key aspects of Christian belief and practise. The Church's judgment here is infallible because these are matters that affect the very core of our Christian and Catholic life. So far as the particular circumstances that gave rise to the Fatima message are concerned the Church has warmly recommended acceptance of the apparitions, but only as a matter of human faith, so that a Catholic is not obliged to accept the initial accounts, whether of 1917, or the appearances of the angel in 1916 or subsequent revelations communicated to Lucy since 1917. This may seem strange, but we cannot make obligations where the Church does not command us, and especially we must not impose on others the obligation of accepting private revelations. Very instructive in this regard is the advice of Pope Paul VI in his greatest Marian letter (February 2, 1974, Marialis Cultus, on the promotion of devotion to Mary). The letter explains the strong place of our Lady in the revised liturgy and then has a further section on the Rosary and the Angelus. We recall the role of the Rosary at Lourdes, LaSalette and Fatima. At the end of his warm pages about the Rosary Pope Paul wrote — it is surely applicable also to Fatima and other apparitions, that they must not be used to restrict the legitimate freedom of loyal sons and daughters of the Church: "In concluding these observations, which give proof of the concern and esteem which the Apostolic See has for the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin, we desire at the same time that this very worthy devotion should not be propagated in a way that is too one-sided or exclusive. The Rosary is an excellent prayer, but the faithful should feel serenely free in its regard. They should be drawn to its calm recitation by its intrinsic appeal" (n.55).

U. S. Bishops Advice

The advice of the bishops of the United States is similar, from their joint pastoral, Behold Your Mother: Woman of Faith (November 21, 1973). "These providential happenings serve as reminders to us of basic Christian themes: prayer, penance, and the necessity of the sacraments. After due investigation, the Church has approved the pilgrimages and other devotions associated with certain private revelations. She has also at times certified the holiness of their recipients by beatification and canonization, for example, St. Bernadette of Lourdes and St. Catherine Laboure. The Church judges the devotions that have sprung from these extraordinary events in terms of its own traditional standards. Catholics are encouraged to practise such devotions when they are in conformity with authentic devotion to Mary. Even when a 'private revelation' has spread to the entire world, as in the case of Our Lady of Lourdes, and has been recognized in the liturgical calendar, the Church does not make mandatory the acceptance either of the original story or of particular forms of piety springing from it. With the Vatican Council we remind true lovers of Our Lady of the danger of superficial sentiment and vain credulity. Our faith does not seek new gospels, but leads us to a filial love toward our Mother and to the imitation of her virtues" (n. 100, and in the conciliar constitution on the Church, n.67).

A Final Word:

For a personal closing testimony: I am a son of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel; it has been my privilege since 1949 to study the theology about the Blessed Virgin Mary, holy Mother of God and our most loving spiritual mother. I regard her appearances as privileged illustrations of divine condescension, as private manifestations for the public good of God's designs at precise historical moments. I see Fatima as a sign in our time of God's merciful concerns for us — a loving lesson by means of the Mother of Jesus, now in glory with her Risen Son, of our final destiny and our present dignity, with the reminder of prayer and penance, and the promise of peace and joy through our union with Christ now and forever.

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