100 years ago unbelievers flocked to Fatima, hoping to see the Church humiliated. They were in for disappointment

The Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, which took place exactly a century ago, on October 13, 1917, was one of the most stupendous, if not the most stupendous event of the 20th century. And yet it is hardly known outside the Church, and not well enough known within it.

The people who braved the terrible rainstorm which struck Fatima that day had gone there because of the promise of a miracle. Exactly what sort of miracle they didn’t know, but they knew that something exceptional was going to happen. Many sceptics and unbelievers were also drawn there in the expectation of a fiasco in which the Church would be turned into a laughing stock.

The previous July, Our Lady had told the three Fatima children that she would perform a miracle in October, and this sensational report spread throughout Portugal, ensuring that a huge crowd was present on October 13, despite the appalling weather.

At noon, Our Lady appeared to the children, and after repeating her requests for the daily rosary, and promising that World War I would soon end, she said to them plaintively and sadly: “Do not offend the Lord our God any more, because He is already so much offended.”

Then, while the three seers saw visions of the Holy Family, the crowd of at least 70,000 people were mesmerised as the Miracle of the Sun unfolded. What happened was so incredible that even non-believers couldn’t deny it, as this report, which appeared in the secular Lisbon paper O Dia, indicates:

The silver sun … was seen to whirl and turn in the circle of broken clouds. A cry went up from every mouth and the people fell on their knees on the muddy ground. … The light turned a beautiful blue as if it had come through the stained-glass windows of a cathedral and spread itself over the people who knelt with outstretched hands. The blue faded slowly and then the light seemed to pass through yellow glass. … People wept and prayed with uncovered heads in the presence of the miracle they had awaited. The seconds seemed like hours, so vivid were they.

This wasn’t the only unexpected response from a secular source. The journalist Avelino de Almeida had previously published a satirical article about Fatima in the anti-religious newspaper O Seculo, which had succeeded in drawing great attention to the apparitions. But when he witnessed the miracle first hand he adopted a very different tone and truthfully reported what he saw, even though he was violently criticised for this by fellow journalists.

Meanwhile, José Almeida Garrett, a young lawyer, reported that “The sun’s disc did not remain immobile. This was not the sparkling of a heavenly body for it spun round on itself in a mad whirl. Then, suddenly, one heard a clamour, a cry of anguish breaking from all the people. The sun, whirling wildly, seemed to loosen itself from the firmament and advance threateningly upon the earth as if to crush us with its huge and fiery weight.”

Eyewitnesses to the miracle said that the sun danced in the sky, the colour of the whole landscape changed successively, and the sun seemed to come down towards them, so that many of the crowd thought it was the end of the world. It was also seen at a distance by various people, undercutting the idea that it was simply a collective hallucination. Something else that suggests that the miracle was genuine is that the people at the Cova felt the heat of the sun as it approached them. Their clothes and the ground – which had been soaked by the torrential rain – were dry at the end of the miracle.

Still, “freethinkers” continued to oppose what they regarded as a “despicable reactionary superstition”, fostered by the devotion of the ordinary Portuguese people at Fatima. Their opposition included an attempt to blow up the little chapel which had been built at the site of the apparitions in March 1922. Although the roof of the chapel was blown off, the tree where Our Lady appeared was undamaged.

A point worth focusing on is that many of the witnesses thought it was the end of the world, so terrifying was their experience. So we can also see the Miracle of the Sun as a foreshadowing of what will actually happen at the end of the world, and also as an indication that we are living in a time of crisis, of judgment, when we are called to stand up for the Church and for the truth.

Our Lady’s apparitions at Fatima have also been linked with the Book of Revelation by authorities such as Pope Paul VI and respected writers such as Fr Louis Kondor, the now deceased postulator for the Causes of the seers Jacinta and Francisco Marto.

Paul VI said that the Miracle of the Sun was “eschatological in the sense that it was like … an annunciation of a scene at the end of time for all humanity assembled together”. He also identified Our Lady with the “great sign” of Chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation, in which “a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of 12 stars”.

In short, Fatima, and the Miracle of the Sun in particular, are great “signs of the times” that have been given to the Church and the world by God through the Blessed Virgin. Within the Church, especially in this centenary year, we really ought to be taking both the great miracle and message of Fatima much more seriously.

Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian apparitions, and maintains a related website at theotokos.org.uk. He has also a written two time travel/adventure books for young people (see glaston-chronicles.co.uk)

This article first appeared in the October 13 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here