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Catholics mark 100 years since Our Lady of Fatima warned about Russia and war

Messages of prayer, penance, reparations for sin, and devotion to Mary are oft-repeated in Marian apparitions, but the secrets that Our Lady of Fatima reportedly told three shepherd children in 1917 - prophecies and apocalyptic visions - set it apart.

Lucia dos Santos, 10, (left) and her cousins Francisco Marto, 9, (center) and his 7 year-old sister Jacinta, who reported seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917.
Lucia dos Santos, 10, (left) and her cousins Francisco Marto, 9, (center) and his 7 year-old sister Jacinta, who reported seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917.Read morePublic Domain

Joe Borek has never visited the shrine to the miraculous event that has long defined his religious life. But he has stood on a South Jersey beach, looked out over the water, and imagined.

More than 3,400 miles across the Atlantic, almost directly east of Brigantine, is Fatima, a rocky Portuguese hamlet of seven square miles where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared as a glowing figure in white raiment to three shepherd children 100 years ago.

"I totally believe it happened," said Borek, a retired mortgage executive from Langhorne. "There is absolutely, positively no doubt in my mind."

For 25 years, he has been a member of the World Apostolate of Fatima, USA, also known as the Blue Army, a New Jersey-based lay group of Catholics devoted to Our Lady of Fatima, an appellation given the mother of Jesus after the children reported seeing six visions of her between May 13 and Oct. 13, 1917.

This year, then, is a milestone for Borek, who along with Catholics worldwide is celebrating the centenary of the Marian apparitions described by Lucia dos Santos, 10, and her cousins Francisco Marto, 9, and Jacinta Marto, 7.  To commemorate the anniversary, Pope Francis visited Fatima in May and canonized the Marto siblings, who succumbed in an influenza epidemic within a few years of the visions.  Lucia dos Santos, who became a Carmelite nun, died in 2005 at 97. A petition for her sainthood is being examined.

Throughout the year, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's 1.5 million Catholics have been observing the anniversary with special services, lectures, movie screenings, retreats, and pilgrimages.  Archbishop Charles J. Chaput will preside over a consecration service at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

Fatima is among the three most popular Marian apparitions, including one reported in 1858 by St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France (Our Lady of Lourdes), and another in 1531 by St. Juan Diego and his uncle on the Hill of Tepeyac near Mexico City (Our Lady of Guadalupe), according to Jason Paul Bourgeois, an assistant professor at the International Marian Research Institute at the University of  Dayton in Ohio.

Messages of prayer, penance, reparations for sin, and devotion to Mary are oft-repeated in Marian sightings, but Our Lady of Fatima's three secrets — prophecies and apocalyptic visions of specific events to come — set it apart.

Following manifestations of an angel in 1916, the children reported their first encounter with Mary in Cova da Iria, a field where the dos Santos family herded sheep. They said the figure told them, "Fear not! I will not harm you." When they asked where she had come from, she replied, "I am from heaven."

 Over the next six months, the children said Mary reappeared at Fatima on the 13th of each month, with the exception of August, when they were jailed because their claims were disrupting their community. That month, they saw the vision on the 19th at a nearby pasturage after their release.

"It was even to the point where Lucia's mother was telling her to stop lying because this was going to cause problems for the family," said the Rev. Christopher Walsh, pastor of St. Raymond of Penafort Church in Mount Airy. He will give a lecture Friday at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood on the final apparition, the Miracle of the Sun. 

On Oct. 13, 1917, thousands gathered on a field near the village, waiting in the rain for a miracle that the children said Mary had promised for that day.

"The sun began to spin in the sky and come down to earth, as if it was going to be consumed into the earth, and then went back up to the sky," said David Carollo, executive director of the World Apostolate, USA. People "were drenched from the rain and then afterward they were dry and clean."

Skeptics point out that not everyone witnessed the same phenomenon, and some saw nothing unusual at all.

Joe Nickell, a senior research fellow at the New York-based Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which advocates for a secular society based on reason and science, said something likely happened at Fatima, but not a miracle. He attributes the alleged dancing sun to a combination of factors: the crowd's shared expectation of something fantastic, the interplay between clouds and sun, and the optical effect of staring at the sun, creating the illusion the orb was moving.

"The sun over Fatima was the exact same sun that was over Paris and London," he said, "and those places did not have a sun miracle."

The Rev. Dennis Gill, director of the archdiocese's Office of Divine Worship, discourages emphasis on the Miracle of the Sun. "Sometimes people talk about that as if it were the Fatima event," he said. "Yes, God was at work there, but the Fatima event was the speaking to the children, what Our Lady actually said."

In a 1941 memoir, dos Santos wrote of two of the secrets Mary shared. In one, she showed the children a vision of hell, a "vast sea of fire" populated with demons and the blackened souls of the damned.  In the second, she warned that World War I would be followed by a far worse conflict unless people stopped "offending God."  She called for the "consecration of Russia to my immaculate heart"; otherwise, Russia would "spread her errors throughout the world."

Devotees believe the coming war referred to World War II, and that the Russia prophecy was borne out in the spread of communism. Skeptics note that the dos Santos memoir was published in 1941, after the start of World War II and the rise of Russian communism.

Dos Santos did not disclose the third secret. Written in a letter hidden at the Vatican until the Holy See released it in 2000, it described a bishop dressed in white, resembling a pope, who would be shot and killed in a pilgrimage up a mountain. Pope John Paul II thought it referred to his attempted assassination in St. Peter's Square on May 13, 1981, noting that May 13 was the day of the first Fatima apparition.

The pope "believed he survived because of the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima," Bourgeois said. "But some people think the third secret refers to an event in the future and has not yet been fulfilled."

For the Rev. Roland D. Slobogin, pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Church in Secane, her messages still resonate.

"One hundred years ago, it was the first World War, the rise of communism, the beginning of economic disasters, and 100 years later we're on the verge of a confrontation with North Korea," he said. "Look at what took place in Vegas, and the hurricanes, the suffering of people. Things need to change."

Popes have recognized a "handful" of Marian apparitions, among them Fatima, Bourgeois said. Church approval of an apparition typically comes by way of the local bishop, who launches an investigation that considers, among other things, evidence of a supernatural occurrence. Of the 386 cases of reported Marian apparitions during the 20th century, the church found supernatural character in only eight cases. An additional 11 have been approved for prayer and devotion, despite no finding of supernatural elements.

In 1953, five students ages 12 to 14 claimed to have seen an apparition of the virgin on a bush in Fairmount Park on their way home from classes at the former St. Gregory's Catholic School. Thousands flocked there to await another appearance, but none occurred. Church officials eventually dismissed the report.  But the bush still stands in the park, marked by a wood cross, a white picket fence, and flowers left by pilgrims.

Joe Borek decided to focus his religious life on Our Lady of Fatima at the urging of his wife, Loretta. She said she was moved by the reported appearance to poor children, and "the simplicity of the message that when you delved into it, there was a lot more underneath."

Both pray the rosary daily, and Joe Borek wears a devotional scapular, similar to a necklace with religious text or pictures on both ends.  Until he contracted a degenerative muscular disease, he attended vigils on the first Saturday of each month with other local Fatima devotees.

"I'm happy to be doing something to promote" the message of Fatima, he said. "It's what Mary wants."