The Pope Emeritus stating there is no unpublished secret has only fuelled the Fatima rumour machine

When I was in Rome at the end of May, Benedict XVI issued an important statement in response to scurrilous material published on the internet. An online story had suggested that he had, some years ago, told a friend in conversation that there was an unpublished secret about Fatima. This would have meant that he was untruthful when he announced in 2000 that all the Fatima secrets had been revealed. And he was rather more than just a liar: he would have colluded with fellow “liar” Pope St John Paul to the extent of not only working with him on the Fatima project but also of hastening his beatification and holding him up to the world as an example of moral probity.

Benedict XVI said, rather emphatically, that he had never spoken to his friend about Fatima and that the comments attributed to him were “pure inventions, absolutely untrue”. He stated categorically: “The publication of the Third Secret of Fatima is complete.”

Immediately, the Fatima conspiracy-mongers got to work. They seemed intent on trying to make everyone believe that both St John Paul II and Benedict XVI were rather sinister characters caught up, initially willingly, in a bizarre series of plots.

Following the Pope Emeritus’s statement, the lobbyists started to announce that when he used the word “publication” he didn’t really mean “publication” and that “complete” meant, er, not complete. Another, more popular, theme suggested that Benedict XVI had not made the statement at all: Vatican spokesmen had simply invented it.

Perhaps because I was in Rome, in contact with a great range of people, I became aware of just how absurd and rather horrible all this conspiracy-mongering was. None of these lobbyists seemed to make any attempt to check things out. It is, after all, possible to contact Vatican Radio and the press office. Indeed, the whole system is astonishingly open compared to that of many institutions (such as the many-layered EU). Instead, operating chiefly but not exclusively from America, the diffuse Fatimist rumour machinery whirred and fizzed into action.

There is almost nothing that Fatimists won’t concoct to fuel their fever, and the concocting tends to whirl around the odder reaches of the internet, especially in group emails or comment boxes on blogs.

The main group was formerly run by Fr Nicholas Gruner. He died last year, but the campaigns continue with great energy. In general their message is that St John Paul and the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger lied in 2000 when the Third Secret was published, and that a deep and ever-deepening conspiracy has been established to cover this up.

Part of the problem is a refusal to look at what was revealed in the famous Third Secret and to grasp its message. The vision showed a ruined city and a pope stumbling and being shot at with arrows and falling to the ground. As an image of the battered Church of the 20th century (and the battering continues) it was horribly vivid. From both within the Church and from outside, there have been savage attacks in recent history: we can think not only of Pope St John Paul (the assassination attempt in 1981 and a stabbing at Fatima a year later), but also of the passionate denunciation of Paul VI over Humanae Vitae, and the ongoing battles over things such as same-sex unions or what Pope Francis has correctly called “gender ideology”. Too often, the Church has seemed like a ruined city, and the arrows seem to have come from all directions.

The message of Fatima – affirmed from the very first revelations when the three children spoke of the visions and messages they had received – is about prayer and penance. The Church needs this: the 20th century saw ghastly persecutions and calamities, and the need for penitential prayer is real. If we pray humbly and trust in God, we can know that we are in his loving care. Mary came to assure us of this and call us to such prayer.

But of course this does seem rather dull. After all, prayer and penance are at the heart of the Christian life anyway, so what’s new? And that is just the point – the message of Fatima is, in one sense, hardly new at all. It is the message at the core of our faith: a loving God who yearns to reach our hearts.

Fatima isn’t about fortune telling or about deep dark mysteries that are suddenly blurted out years later in an interview. It is about prayer and penance – and anything that distracts us from that and urges us into internet gossip sessions, books detailing conspiracy theories, or speculation about cardinals hiding secret letters in Vatican wardrobes, is wrong.

Who would want to deflect us from prayer and penance, and why? There really is something horribly sulphurous about such deflection, and the often bullying tone in which it is done is worrying, too.

As Benedict XVI is a manifestly good and noble soul, people are loath to try to convince us that he is a liar. So recently they have switched from making the claim, and instead are now claiming that he is a virtual prisoner; a double is sometimes presented to the public in his place; he has been hypnotised; he is actually now talking in a sort of code; they are putting drugs in his tea … Only the last of those was invented by me; the others are a sample from things I’ve been sent.

Back in 2013, when there was an outbreak of lobbying by the Fatimists, I wrote to Cardinal Raymond Burke, then head of the Apostolic Signatura, expressing my concern. He wrote back: “You are correct that there is much confusion about the message of Our Lady of Fatima, caused especially by Fr Nicholas Gruner, a priest who is not in good standing in the Church, and that this confusion is harmful to many good people who are being led astray about the important message of Our Lady of Fatima.”

Just so. It is time to stop being led astray, and to get on with the prayer and penance.

This article first appeared in the July 29 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.