October is a significant month for the Catholic Church and the world. October is the month Angelo Roncalli became Pope John XXIII, head of the Roman Catholic Church – you know, The Edifice, that centuries old institution that time cannot change and the years cannot improve.
October is also the month Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, the great turning point in the modern Roman Catholic world. And October 13 is the anniversary of the “Miracle of the Sun,” a dramatic celestial event witnessed by thousands in Fatima, Portugal. All these events converged to create the great Fatima conspiracy.
Pope John XXIII was declared a saint earlier this year, which indirectly sanctifies the Second Vatican Council he convened way back in 1962. By a papal sleight of hand, Vatican II replaced the third secret of Fatima as the light that would lead the church and the world into the 21st century. How “Good Pope John” accomplished this is a tale worth telling.
Prior to becoming pope, Angelo Roncalli was a lifelong diplomat and bureaucrat shuffled through France, Bulgaria, Istanbul and Venice by various popes during a long, undistinguished career. None of the popes Roncalli served under – Popes Pius X, Pius XI, and Pius XII - liked him or trusted him. He was suspected of heresy even before he was removed as a seminary professor for teaching modernism (a heresy). Exiled in Bulgaria, he was sent to France, then sacked for blocking the Vatican’s attempts to stop the worker priest movement.
Each time Roncalli was fired he was put somewhere he wouldn’t do as much harm, but a good face was put on things by promoting him. After the debacle in France, Pius XII promoted Roncalli to cardinal and stuck him in nearby Venice. Pius XII personally monitored the diocese and routinely usurped Roncalli’s authority by making the important decisions himself. Pius XII died in 1958. Since Roncalli was a cardinal, he was eligible to attend the conclave to elect the next pope.
Roncallil was seventy-seven years old when he emerged from the conclave as the new pope. Why Roncalli? England’s Cardinal Heenan explained:
"There was no great mystery about Pope John's election. He was chosen because he was a very old man. His chief duty was to make Msgr. Montini, the Archbishop of Milan, a cardinal so that he could be elected in the next conclave. That was the policy and it was carried out precisely." (From Crown of Thorns, a biography of Cardinal Heenan).
Shortly after becoming pope, on January 20, 1959, Roncalli claimed a normal conversation he was having was interrupted by the divine inspiration. Later he wrote:
“Suddenly my soul was illumined with a great idea, come to the fore just in that instant and taken up with indescribable faith in the Divine Leader, and there came to my lips a solemn and committed word. My voice uttered it for the first time: a Council!”(Peter Hebblethwaite, Pope John XXIII, pp 316-17).
What a painting it would have made: the pious pontiff casting his eyes heavenward as the divine beams pour down into his soul, his companion gazing on the scene with awe. Pope John also recalled that his companion at this event, Secretary of State Domenico Tardini, beheld the event with “an attitude of reverent respect.” In fact, Tardini was an old school conservative who held his boss in contempt and sincerely believed Good Pope John had gone temporarily insane.
He wasn’t alone. Some of the churchmen assigned to preparatory work on the Council grumbled, “We are paying for fifteen minutes’ insanity in the pope.” Others called the Council “a sickness of the Church.” This was unfair to Pope John, who was undisputedly a good hearted man. His wit and sense of humor were often delightful, and instructive. Although his charm, kindness, and love of people gave a sense of spontaneity to his personality, in reality he was prudent rather than impulsive, a fact attested to by his long and mostly unremarkable religious career. He tended to be a role player, to await orders and then carry them out. If the Council was in fact John's idea, it would be more characteristic of him to have thought the idea through thoroughly, rather than to rely on sudden inspirations.
Pope John’s version of his idea for a Council is appealing, especially to Catholics. Unfortunately, the tale is rubbish. For Pope Roncalli had been talking up a Council before his “vision.” In fact prior to becoming pope Angelo Roncalli was talking about a future Council - in 1944 he gave a sermon about a future council that would change the Catholic Church. Whether the cardinals who elected him pope knew about the new pope’s idea of a Council is an interesting question.
There was only one barrier to Pope John’s Council. That was the third secret of Fatima which was supposed to be read by the pope in 1960. Why three secrets? Well, that is what the Blessed Virgin Mary revealed to three illiterate Portuguese shepherd children in a field outside Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. Why was it a barrier to Pope John’s Council? Because Fatima was too “old school”, emphasizing sin and condemning it. Pope John’s Council was intended “to open the windows of the Church to the world,” to meet the world on its own terms instead of citing dogmas and doctrines to be obeyed.
Fatima, on the other hand, was hopelessly retro. The apparitions, which were officially approved by Pius XII in 1942, have the blessed Virgin Mary warning the three children of all the souls “falling like snowflakes” into the fires of hell (the first secret). To save them, a special devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary was given by heaven. The other request was for the pope to consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary (the second secret). If this was done, the Blessed Virgin promised a period of peace for the world.
Sister Lucia dos Santos was the last living visionary. She and her two cousins, Francesco and Jacinta Marto, witnessed the six appearances by the Virgin Mary when they were children. The last appearance, on October 13, ended with a spectacular “miracle of the Sun”: the Sun actually started spinning, then appeared to hurtle itself towards the earth at a frightening speed. This was witnessed by thousands of people and was written about in the secular newspapers. It was considered Heaven’s stamp of approval of the apparitions.
Jacinta and Francesco caught the influenza plague that swept through Europe after the end of World War I, and perished before becoming teenagers. Lucia survived and became a Carmelite nun. She was quiet, reticent to speak of Fatima, but very simple, eloquent, and consistent (over decades) in her expression of the Fatima message. The spirit of Fatima was stark and unyielding: sin, hell, reparation for sins, and the condemnation of Russian communism, so great an evil that heaven’s intervention was required to conquer it.
Pope John, on the other hand, wanted a Council to pronounce religious unity to the world. He was committed to having the Russian Eastern Orthodox hierarchy at his Council to symbolize unity. Condemning Communism (and indirectly, Russia) would have alienated the country’s religious hierarchy and contradicted the spirit of inclusiveness of Vatican II.
The other difficulty was the third Secret, which Sister Lucy had written down on a single sheet of paper and given to her bishop, who in turn gave the sheet of paper to the Vatican. Pope John read the secret on August 17, 1959, seven months after he announced there would be a Council.
The text was in Portuguese so the pope enlisted a translator. After reading the secret, the pope declared: “I make no judgment on this.” He folded the single sheet of paper, put it back into the envelope and never opened it again.
Pope John never spoke publicly about the third secret, or the message of Fatima. In 1960, the year the world expected him to reveal the third secret, the Vatican issued a clumsy, anonymous press release declaring the secret would never be read. Case closed. Onto the Council.
Pope John opened the Council in 1962 and died in 1963. His successor, Cardinal Montini, took the name Paul VI and continued the Council until its conclusion, as planned. Today, over fifty years later, it is difficult to understand how devastating Pope John’s decision was to many Catholics, and others (especially anti-Communists) who took it all very seriously.
There has been intense speculation about the contents of the secret. The first few words are known: “In Portugal the dogma of the faith will always remain…” The implication is that much of the world will not retain the Christian faith. It is true that after Vatican II there was a great falling away from Catholicism, and the open teaching of heresy, particularly among consecrated religious. Some Catholics see Vatican II and the sweeping changes in the Catholic Church as part of a great apostasy. Although they do not know the exact contents of the secret, they enlist it as support for their claims.
None of the popes after Pope John revealed the third secret. Subsequent popes took John’s name and Paul’s name, becoming John Paul I and John Paul II. None of the “post-conciliar” popes have spoken of “the great apostasy.” Instead, they all view Vatican II as an unqualified good for the Church and the world. The last pope of Vatican II, Benedict XVI, seemed to allude to the third secret when dealing with the clergy sexual abuse crisis.
Benedict is the last man who was at the Second Vatican Council. He and his predecessors tried to enlist Sister Lucy as a proponent of Vatican II but Sister Lucy kept her distance from them all. For the last fifty years of her life she was silenced by the popes and her visitors were restricted. Under such constraints it may not be surprising that she was unenthusiastic about being forced to visit Fatima for photo ops with popes who, in her opinion, refused to obey the Blessed Virgin and heaven.
When Sister Lucy died her apartment was sealed until Vatican officials could arrive at Coimbra, Portugal, to confiscate everything in the apartment. What they were trying to hide remains as unclear as the real contents of the third secret of Fatima.
Mark Fellows, Fatima In Twilight, Marmion Publications, 2003.