In the centenary year of the apparitions of Our Lady to three Portuguese shepherd children in 1917, author Barry Pearlman has produced, as the subtitle of his new book puts it, “The Complete Story from Visionaries to Saints”. Fatima, the First Hundred Years (Angelico Press, £12) is well worth reading by those who are not yet acquainted with these events of such significance for the Church, which has long proclaimed them as authentic, and who require a book that is concise, readable and trustworthy.

Pearlman sees his task as explaining the profound and momentous message conveyed by Our Lady to Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco, at the same time as relating the particular histories of the seers themselves. He puts the apparitions within the context of the 1830 apparition by Our Lady in the Rue de Bac, Paris, to St Catherine Labouré and the subsequent promotion of the Miraculous Medal; her 1846 apparition at La Salette; and her apparitions at Lourdes in 1858 to St Bernadette. As he comments: “Throughout the history of the Church Mary has been solicitous in appearing at moments of historical urgency.”

The year 1917 was one such occasion. Europe was embroiled in World War I and Russia was on the brink of a revolution that would force atheistic communism on millions of people in eastern Europe as well as Russia. These world-shaking events were, of course, not known to the three children of Fatima, immersed in a rural peasant culture that was at the same time profoundly Catholic – “a world that had not learned to separate religion from everyday life” and in which “Jesus, Mary and the saints, Masses, festivals and devotions” were second nature.

Pearlman relates how the apparitions, first of the Angel of Portugal in 1916 and then of Our Lady a year later, transformed the lives of the little seers. Already humble and devout, they gave themselves up to an astonishingly edifying practice of prayer and self-sacrifice in response to Our Lady’s requests.

Her messages were in some ways traditional: the pleas for prayer and penance and to “pray the rosary every day in order to obtain peace for the world and the end of the war”. In others, they were unusual: her request for “the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart” and her warning that “If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world.”

Pearlman relates the whole history of how and when the consecration of Russia finally took place, in 1984 during the pontificate of John Paul II, and the extraordinary collapse of the Soviet empire which followed. In swift succession Leonid Brezhnev, Soviet leader for 18 years, died of a heart attack; his successor, Andropov, lasted a mere 15 months; and Andropov’s successor, Chernenko, only survived a year. On March 11, 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and “the unthinkable began to happen”. By 1989, 1,000 Orthodox dioceses were established, two new seminaries were opened and several monasteries were restored.

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