When the sun danced: 100 years later, Our Lady of Fatima continues to mystify, inspire

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

A view of the original statue of Our Lady of Fatima. (Photo courtesy/Shrine of Fatima)


FORT WORTH — While in Rome to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, Charles DeCastro asked his wife, Moneta, what gift he could give her to remember the occasion.

“I told him the only thing I wanted was a large statue of Our Lady of Fatima — like the ones you see in a church,” said the Arlington pediatrician. “I’m the mother of three boys so the three children who saw Our Lady always reminded me of them.”

At the time, Dr. DeCastro didn’t know how significant Mary’s words to the visionaries would become in her life. A few years after the anniversary trip, her husband died in a tragic motorcycle accident. Then her only sister was murdered and the crime never solved.

In May 1917, a luminous lady in white — who later declared herself Our Lady of the Rosary — told young Portuguese shepherds, 10-year-old Lucia dos Santos and her cousins, Francisco Marto, 9, and Jacinta Marto, 7, they would “suffer much but God’s grace will strengthen you.”

Following the first apparition, the Church and government officials subjected the pious but unsophisticated youngsters to harsh treatment and interrogation. Though Lucia lived to the age of 97 as a cloistered Carmelite nun, Jacinta and Francisco died young — as Mary predicted — during the Spanish influenza pandemic. They never lost faith.

“Those children are an inspiration to me,” said DeCastro, who recently returned from a second pilgrimage to Fatima. “We have suffering, trials, and things that go wrong in our life. Our Lady said we will suffer in this world. If those little ones at the ages of 7, 9, 10 could accept it, how can I not?”

The Holy Family parishioner is one of the millions of people reflecting on the importance of Our Lady of Fatima as the world observes the 100th anniversary of a religious event that continues to mystify and inspire believers.

North Texas Catholics will mark the centennial with a Mass celebrated by Bishop Michael Olson at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Fort Worth on Oct. 15, 2017 at 10 a.m. The parish will use the occasion to dedicate a new statue of Our Lady of Fatima planned for the front yard. Church members launched a fundraising campaign to purchase the Vietnamese-crafted statue.

“Since the beginning of the year, we’ve asked every family to pray the Rosary together,” said Deacon Michael Hoang. “On May 13, the entire parish will pray the Rosary inside the church.”

Forty-five parishioners from Our Lady of Fatima are also planning a pilgrimage to Portugal in June to visit the site of the apparitions.

A century ago, the Blessed Mother appeared six times to Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta at Cova da Iria, now the site of a shrine and one of the most important landmarks in Marian spirituality. The apparitions occurred on the 13th day of the month from May to October and culminated with the “Miracle of the Sun.” Approximately 70,000 observers, standing on a rain-soaked field, saw the sun burst through dark clouds and spin or “dance” before seeming to fall toward the earth. Terrified, people dropped to their knees.

On Oct. 13, 1917, some 70,000 people who descended on Cova da Iria witnessed the "Miracle of the Sun." According to a Portuguese newspaper, the people began "weeping and praying" as they witnessed the miracle in astonishment.

Before the solar spectacle, the Lady of the Rosary implored the children to pray the Rosary every day and have a chapel built at the site in her honor.

 “It was a private revelation in a public manifestation. That’s why we take Fatima as seriously as we do,” said Sharon Perkins, secretary director of formation and spirituality for the Catholic Diocese of Austin.

The veteran catechist said the Fatima story is consistent with other Marian apparitions. They occur in places where faith is being attacked or challenged; Mary appears to children or young people who are innocent and can give a guileless account; and a brilliant light of unearthly intensity, that doesn’t hurt the eyes, accompanies the vision.

“There also are certain thematic elements to her message. It’s always about penance, prayer, and reparations to her son,” Perkins pointed out.

Pope Benedict XVI affirmed that in 2010, but took it one step further, saying the heart of the Fatima message was also a call to “the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity.”

A three-part message, communicated to the children at Fatima, is particularly prophetic and offers hope for conversion of the world. Our Lady of Fatima divulged the first “secret” on July 13, 1917 along with a vision of hell Lucia described as “a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth.”

Mary then revealed the second “secret,” promising that worldwide devotion to her Immaculate Heart and Communions of Reparation would save souls and restore peace. The apparitions occurred as World War I was ending but she prophesied a worse conflict “if men do not cease to offend God.”

To prevent another, deadlier war, Our Lady asked people to pray for the conversion of Russia and for the Holy Father to consecrate the country to her Immaculate Heart, “otherwise Russia will spread her errors throughout the world.”

St. John Paul II had a special devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, crediting her "mother's hand" with guiding a bullet's path away from his heart and aorta when he was shot during an assassination attempt. (CNS file photo)

Controversy and speculation surround the third secret. Although the first two secrets were made public in 1942, information about the third was withheld. Lucia eventually wrote down the message and placed it in a sealed envelope. It was delivered to the Vatican in 1957 with the understanding its contents would be revealed in 1960. Pope John XXIII opened the envelope in 1959 but it was placed in the Vatican archives and not published.

Pope John Paul II read the third secret after the attempt to assassinate him on May 13, 1981, the 64th anniversary of the first Fatima apparition. He believed Our Lady of Fatima saved his life and, in appreciation, gave the bullet to the shrine in Fatima where it is part of the Virgin of Fatima’s crown.

Before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger carefully studied the text of the third secret and provided clarification. The so-called third secret was formally published and released by the Vatican in 2000.

“He said it concerned a radical call to conversion, dangers threatening the faith, and the importance of ‘last times,’” Perkins explained.

Intrigued by the message of Fatima and inspired by the centennial celebration, millions of pilgrims will journey to Portugal this year.

Kim Brown, associate director of vocations for the Diocese of Fort Worth, visited the religious site in October 2012 during a time of introspection and discernment in her life. She described the village of Fatima as a small, peaceful home to a large number of convents that cater to the needs of pilgrims.

“When you get to the older part of the town you see the wall where the famous photo of the three shepherd children was taken,” said Brown, who met the niece of the two younger visionaries.

The home where two of the children lived is now a small museum where some possessions are displayed.

The 100th anniversary provides an opportunity to revisit the story of Fatima, Brown explained.

“The apparitions didn’t happen in our lifetime so seeing the photos makes it more real and tangible,” she continued. “There is a need for reparations for sinners and I think that’s the part of the message that resonates so strongly with people.”

When it comes to core values, the country has gone “off course,” Brown insisted.

Pope Francis makes the sign of the cross as he prays in front of the original statue of Our Lady of Fatima during a Marian vigil in St. Peter's Square in 2013. The pontiff will visit Fatima, Portugal this week for the 100th anniversary of the Marian apparitions. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“I truly hope during the 100th anniversary, the message of Fatima is heard and people understand what Mary is inviting us to do — go back to Jesus.”

Father Anh Tran, judicial vicar for the Diocese of Fort Worth, recently returned from Fatima and called the experience of visiting the children’s home and the site of the apparition, “amazing.” He hopes everyone can make a similar pilgrimage sometime in their life but, more importantly, people should heed Mary’s plea for prayer, penance, and reparations.

“The devil continues to attack the world and is trying to make us turn our back on God through individualism, indifference, and complacency,” the priest asserted. “We have to believe in God: the God who is love; the God who is mercy; the God who saves.”

Fr. Tran believes prayer can bring peace to the world.

“The Lord gives us messages through Our Lady and it’s a similar message — pray,” he adds. “Our Lady of Guadalupe — pray. Our Lady of Lourdes — pray. Our Lady of Fatima — pray.”

Perkins says the most fitting way to observe the 100th anniversary of Fatima is to do what Our Lady asks: pray the Rosary daily.

“We basically have the opportunity to change the course of history and bring peace to the world by our prayers and sacrifice,” she suggested. “With what’s happening around the world, it’s highly appropriate that we revisit the message of Fatima and take it to heart.”

FORT WORTH — While in Rome to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, Charles DeCastro asked his wife, Moneta, what gift he could give her to remember the occasion.