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Crowds gathered in Cova da Iria on October 13, 1917, for what would be the final apparition of Our Lady of Fatima to the three children. A period of rain earlier that day caused puddles and mud, which witnesses reported to dry up completely during the Milagre do Sol (Miracle of the Sun).

The Day the Sun ‘Danced’

By Emma Donnelly

Oct. 13, 1917 — the Great War is terrorizing Europe. The Triple Entente and the Central Powers, after a year of brutal warfare, are now locked in a fatal stalemate on the Western Front. Yet on this date, amidst the turmoil, 70,000 people journey from all across Europe to Fatima, Portugal, hoping to witness a miracle promised to three young messengers of the Virgin Mary.

The Initial Apparitions

On May 13, 1917, 10-year-old Lúcia dos Santos and two younger cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, ages 9 and 7, were tending to their sheep when two bolts of lightning consecutively flashed across the cloudless blue sky.  When the frightened children looked up, they saw a woman dressed in white, glowing radiantly and smiling at them.

“Do not be afraid,” the woman assured them. “I will not harm you. I come from Heaven.”

The children calmed instantly.  The woman’s glowing figure became a comforting presence.  She requested that the children return to the site at the same time on the 13th of the next six months.  Then she asked them, “Are you willing to offer yourselves to God and bear all the sufferings He wills to send you as an act of reparation for the conversion of sinners?”

Lúcia answered for all three: “Yes.”

“Then you are going to have much to suffer,” the Lady warned, “but the grace of God will be your comfort.”

She left them with one last piece of instruction: “Say the rosary every day to bring peace to the world and the end of the war.”

With that, she rose and moved eastward until her figure disappeared.

Lúcia, Francisco and Jacinta returned home and reported what had happened, but they were met with skepticism from neighbors, friends and even their own families. But the children did as the woman had asked. They prayed the rosary every day for the conversion of sinners.  On the 13th of each month, they returned to where the Lady had first appeared. She made several other requests, including asking them to learn how to read.

On July 13, the woman promised them that in October, she would reveal who she was and perform a miracle for all to see. To Lúcia, Francisco and Jacinta, she revealed three visions, which became known as the three secrets of Fatima.

The first was a vision of hell, filled with lost souls and unspeakable horrors that terrified the children. The second was a prophecy that the war would soon end, but if people didn’t stop sinning, a worse one would break out. She also foretold that an unknown light would appear in the sky as a warning that God would be about to punish the world through war and the annihilation of nations. She requested that to avoid this, the Holy Father should consecrate Russia.

The third secret — revealed in 2000 — was a vision of the Pope, religious figures, saints and ordinary people on top of a mountain at the foot of a cross being shot and killed by soldiers.

As time went on, word spread of three seers. Crowds began to form at the site, known as Cova da Iria, in hopes of experiencing a vision themselves. But the publicity also drew political criticism from the largely secularized Portuguese government. Officials viewed the fervor a threat to the stabilization of their republic, which sought to separate church from state.

The tensions reached a climax on Aug. 13, when Lúcia, Francisco and Jacinta were kidnapped by the mayor of their town, Arturo Santos.  For two days, they were placed in solitary confinement and interrogated about their visions. Santos attempted to force the children to admit that the visions were false, but they remained steadfast, responding that they would rather die than lie.

That month, the vision appeared to them on the 19th in a place called Valinhos. She reiterated that they must continue to pray the rosary and again promised to send them a miracle in October.

‘The Miracle of the Sun’

On Oct. 12, a storm raged across the mountain regions of Portugal.  Despite the lightning and pouring rain, 70,000 people gathered at Cova da Iria. Many were barefoot, freezing, and up to their ankles in mud, but still they waited. The rain continued all throughout the morning of Oct. 13. Lúcia, Francisco and Jacinta arrived at around noon, and the woman made herself known to them.

Kneeling before her, Lúcia asked, “What do you want from me?”

The Lady answered, “A chapel is to be built here in my honor. I am the Lady of the Rosary.  Continue always to pray the rosary every day.  The war is going to end, and the soldiers will soon return to their homes.”

Before she left, Mary left the children with one last piece of instruction.  “Do not offend the Lord our God anymore,” she warned, “because He is already so much offended.”

Then Mary opened her hands and launched a ray of light in the direction of the sun.

“Look to the sun!” Lúcia shouted.

The clouds parted to reveal the sun, and people could look at it without being blinded. The sun began to whirl and project brilliantly colored light. It seemed to shudder and plunge downward.

Screams of terror erupted; many feared that this was the end of the world, but the sun then returned to its original position. All of this took place over the span of approximately 10 minutes. The crowd began to laugh, cry, and shout. They reported that their soaked clothes and the ground were dry and clean.  Several reported the curing of the blind and the lame. The phenomenon was reported to have been seen from as far 25 miles away.

The Aftermath of Fatima

Not long after the sun phenomenon, Francisco and Jacinta died of influenza, leaving Lúcia to be the sole secret-keeper. 

Mary appeared twice more to Lúcia in 1925 and 1929 with similar messages of repentance. On Jan. 25, 1938, a geomagnetic storm — the aurora borealis — lit up the European sky.  Lúcia and many others interpreted this light as a warning from God that punishment through war was close, which Mary had predicted. A little over a year and a half later, World War II broke out.

Lúcia published a memoir recounting her experiences and dedicated her life to spreading devotion for the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She died in 2005 at the age of 97. The process for her canonization is underway.

Mary’s requests at Fatima were left unfulfilled for over 60 years. On May 13, 1981, the 64th anniversary of the first vision of Fatima, Pope John Paul II was shot twice in St. Peter’s Square.  Despite the close range of the shooter, Mehmet Ali Ağca, the pope survived and credited Our Lady of Fatima for his recovery. From his hospital bed, the pope forgave Ağca. In 1984, Pope John Paul II finally carried out Mary’s request and consecrated Russia to Mary’s Immaculate Heart.  On May 13, 2000, he beatified Jacinta and Francisco and published the third secret of Fatima. Jacinta and Francisco were canonized by Pope Francis on May 13, 2017, the 100th anniversary of the first Fatima apparition.

What Can Be Learned From Fatima?

At Fatima, Mary pleaded with humanity to be more understanding and forgiving of each other’s misgivings.  It’s up to us to carry out her message and open our hearts to take on the suffering of the people we share this world with. Only then will the lessons of Fatima truly be learned.

— Emma Donnelly ’26 is a history major and a student employee in the Marian Library.

The photograph shown is from Oct. 13, 1917. For more photographs and realia on this subject, see the Marian Library’s Our Lady of Fatima Collection.

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