May 14, 2017
Archbishop Paul S. Coakley
There are dates and events that are forever linked in our memories. If we are old enough, we remember precisely where we were when we heard or perhaps even felt the rumblings from the Murrah bombing on April 19, 1995. Similarly, I remember the moment when I heard that Saint John Paul II had been shot in Saint Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981. I recall vividly my shock and disbelief.
The assassination attempt on Saint John Paul II sent shock waves throughout the world. As a young seminarian, it certainly rocked my world. It didn’t take long before someone pointed out that the attempt was made on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, exactly 64 years to the day after Mary’s first apparition to the three shepherd children of Portugal. The significance of that apparent coincidence was not lost on Saint John Paul II. He should had been killed. His assailant was a trained assassin firing from just a few feet away. As he was recovering from his wounds, Saint John Paul remarked, “One hand fired and another guided the bullet.” He credited Mary with saving his life that day. Today, that bullet is embedded like a jewel in the crown of the image of Our Lady of Fatima at her shrine in Portugal.
In her message for the world in 1917, Mary urged the three shepherd children to pray the Rosary and offer sacrifices for the conversion of sinners. Among the “secrets” entrusted to the children, she prophetically warned of the rise of atheistic Soviet communism and its spread throughout the world. She warned of a resultant widespread loss of faith in the world. The rest of the 20th century clearly verified the accuracy of Mary’s urgent admonitions at Fatima.
Saint John Paul clearly saw God’s providence at work in his unexpected election to the papacy as a young cardinal from Poland, a Catholic country that had been brutally oppressed throughout the century, first by Hitler’s Naziism and then by Soviet communism. Among the truly remarkable stories of the 20th century is the pivotal role that Saint John Paul II played in bringing down Soviet communism, first in Poland and then throughout the Soviet bloc. From first to last, it was a spiritual, not merely a geopolitical, battle. He saw himself as an instrument of the Virgin Mary whose devoted servant he had made himself, as evident in his motto “Totus Tuus,” totally yours.
This year, Sunday, May 13, marks the 100th anniversary of the first of the series of Marian apparitions that began in Fatima, Portugal, on May 13 and continued through Oct. 13, 1917.
Fatima has become one of the most beloved and popular Catholic pilgrimage destinations in the world. It has been visited by faithful from all over the planet and by several popes, including Saint John Paul II who returned the year after he survived his assassination attempt to thank the Virgin Mary for preserving his life.
This year, Pope Francis visits Fatima on the centenary of the first apparition to preside over the centennial events and to canonize two of the three shepherd children, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, to whom Mary appeared in 1917. Francisco, 11, and Jacinta, 10, at the time of their deaths, are the youngest non-martyr children ever beatified by the Church.
One hundred years later, the Fatima message is as relevant today as ever. Though the Soviet bloc has fallen, atheistic communism still poses a global threat through the rising tensions along the DMZ, separating North and South Korea. Other dangerous ideologies, such as radical Islamic extremism, self-serving materialistic consumerism, and fear-mongering racism continue to threaten human dignity and human flourishing in our world today.
Mary summons us to prayer and to sacrifice. She summons us all to deeper conversion and to pray for the conversion of those who are paralyzed by indifference, blinded by hatred and by the lies proposed by the evil one. The battlefield is not primarily a geopolitical one, but a spiritual one. It is being waged in every human heart. Mary points us always to Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life.