May 13, 2017 marks 100 years since an extraordinary warning was given to a skeptical world ─ a world which in 1917 was plunging ever deeper into dangers and darkness. That fateful year forever changed the established world order, and in ways that statesmen of the time could have hardly envisaged. A horrific European war was in its third destructive year as machine guns and trench warfare consumed millions of lives, mostly the idealistic flower of European youth. But rather than call off this senseless slaughter, the belligerents doubled down stubbornly because, as in any war, the calm voices of reason are invariably drowned out by the hysterical rhetoric of zealots.
And so the carnage ground inexorably on until March 1917 when the Russian troops who were bearing the brunt of mayhem finally revolted and brought down their Czar. Rather than resolving the conflict, this defection only created a new kind of conflict both inside and outside of Russia. For even as Russian resolve was crumbling a new super-power entered into the fray to reenergize it and keep the war alive. In April 1917 the United States joined forces with the French and British thereby escalating what had been essentially a European conflict into something entirely new, a worldwide war.
This fresh infusion of new armaments, capital, and manpower rendered any negotiated peace settlement virtually impossible. And for the first time in history a war was not only global but it was being waged in the air as well as on land and sea. The advent of “total warfare” had descended like a terrible plague upon mankind as the art of dropping aerial bombs on cities far removed from the front was perfected.
Meanwhile, in Russia, another deadly mode of warfare was erupting among the various factions that constituted a provisional government, namely civil war. By October the socialists had instigated a new revolution. These “Red” revolutionaries would ultimately inflict far greater casualties on the nation than the former war had done. Communism would soon take its place in a new world order as the historic balance of power in Europe was forever shattered. The new reality would become a constant struggle between International Communism and liberal American Democracy.
But on May 13, 1917 such dramatic shifts in the geo-political equation were well beyond the anticipation of the most savvy political strategist. Yet that day, in the faraway backwater of Portugal, a beautiful lady appeared to three shepherd children to warn them about things to come. Consider that such a warning would have rung completely senseless in their naïve ears, yet she admonished them to pray fervently for sinners and especially the conversion of Russia, a place they likely would have been unable to locate on a map. This lady warned that unless sinners repented Russia would spread her errors throughout the world, and yet at that moment Russia was hardly in any position to spread anything. She was in the midst of social chaos! The Red Guard was six months or more away from consolidating its power even over the Russian people.
The larger question remains, however. Why would a presumably heavenly messenger reveal such an important message to three peasant children in the middle of nowhere? Why not announce it to world leaders? The moment was opportune. At that moment there was a general changing of the guard in many of the belligerent nations. Emperor Charles had just assumed the Austrian throne about the same time that Lloyd George became Britain’s new prime minister. Within months Wilson had committed America to the conflict. Clemenceau then became prime minister in France just as the Lenin’s Bolshevik revolt laid siege to Russian power. Could not this heavenly lady just as easily and more profitably have appeared to Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, or even Kaiser Wilhelm II to give them her discomforting glimpse of the future if they would not manifest some change of heart? After all that seems to have worked for Mr. Scrooge in Dicken’s Christmas Carol.
Alas, she already knew full well just how hardened the hearts of men can be, especially men who control great power ─ or men who have lost their religious sensibilities. Only pure and innocent hearts would be receptive to her message of prayer, penance, and conversion. The only leader who made any serious initiative towards restoring peace in 1917 was the Emperor Charles of Austria who, unfortunately, was also in the weakest position of the various contestants involved. Conversion doesn’t win wars, after all, bombs and armaments do. And what of her prediction of a new and even more terrible war to follow if the hearts of men didn’t change? Ridiculous! The statesmen and military elite all insisted that this was a war to end all wars. They intended to settle the question here and now, once and for all, concerning the future of Europe. Charles made a sincere attempt to secure a separate peace for Austria, via secret negotiations through Prince Sixtus and Pope Benedict XV. The negotiations were not only shattered by French intransigence but Prime Minister Clemenceau then treacherously publicized the matter, thus undermining Charles’ very credibility. It became increasingly clear that the other leaders had set their hearts on total victory, not peace. They simply closed their eyes to the millions of new corpses piling up on both sides in the trenches.
Meanwhile, the Lady of Fatima continued to appear to the three children over the next five months, always on the 13th day. The crowds of curious onlookers grew until the final apparition on Oct. 13, 1917. This was also her most sensational appearance. By now the word had spread widely and as many as 70,000 people had assembled on the hillsides at Fatima. Again the Lady issued dire warnings and begged for prayer and conversion in order to allay the just wrath of God upon the world. This time she accompanied her words with a miraculous sign. As the dense clouds parted the sun danced wildly in the sky and then appeared to be hurtling straight towards the earth. Terrified witnesses assumed that the end of the world had come. 70,000 panicked souls scrambled this way and that until suddenly they realized that all was perfectly normal again. The solar disc had returned to its customary arc and the 70,000 witnesses who had been completely drenched by the torrential rains that had fallen that day suddenly realized that they, and everything around them, were entirely dry!
The succeeding century played out pretty much as she had predicted. A Second World War ensued and Communism gained a firm foothold in almost every corner of the globe. But even today, how many are willing to take her words to heart? Even in the Moslem world, Fatima is a highly regarded name (a coincidence, or was the Lady making some prophetic point by appearing in Fatima, Portugal?) But among Western intellectuals, political and business leaders the message of Fatima is a long forgotten anomaly of history. Nonetheless, ask yourself this: is Russia not still spreading errors? Are we safer for all of our sophisticated weapons and technology, or is that same technology now being used against us by terrorists? More importantly, have hearts truly embraced conversion or do the masses care more about the next generation of I-phones to be released?
Mankind has now had a century to ponder the meaning of Fatima. On May 13, 1981 an assassin’s attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II failed when the bullet (divinely guided?) barely missed the pope’s aorta. That same pope later revealed to the world the mystery of Divine Mercy which, in a sense, completes and fulfills the meaning of the Fatima message. Justice and Mercy are God’s sentence on the world, after all. They work in tandem rather than in opposition to one another, not unlike the proverbial carrot and stick. Meanwhile, God is patiently waiting for each person to respond to both his Divine Justice and his Divine Mercy. This is nothing new, it is as old as the cross.
On August 21, 2017 another solar display will stretch across the American sky ─ a total solar eclipse that will be seen from the Pacific to the Atlantic coastlines. While this great event may not be so sensational as what those people at Fatima witnessed a century earlier, it should serve as a symbolic reminder of that great event. Our world today is in far greater need of total conversion than it was a century ago. Prayer, penance, and conversion are the only way to access God’s Divine Mercy so that we need not be fearful of his Divine Justice when it appears. We have now been given a century of grace to respond to that call to conversion, don’t assume that we will be given another.
Francis J. Pierson + a.m.d.g.
May 11, 2017