One of the most famous Marian apparitions in recent memory is that of Our Lady of Fatima, said to have been witnessed by seventy-thousand spectators on October 13, 1917.
Considering the scale of this particular apparition, naturally skeptics would feel inclined to discrediting it. Notably, Joe Nickell, of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry notes certain objections:
- There is evidence that Lucia de Santos herself orchestrated the apparitions, being that Jacinta had said that the Virgin had said many things, some of which she didn’t remember, but that Lucia knew, and also that Lucia’s own mother thought her to be a fake.
- People elsewhere, including astronomical observatories, in the world had not taken note of any unusual solar activity. Such an event, if it had happened, would have had devastating effects on the planet.
- The phenomena is attributable to a combination of causes, namely mass hysteria and meteorological events.
- If the spectators were indeed looking directly at the sun, what they say would have caused temporary retinal distortion accounting for imagery of the sun’s apparent movement. Meanwhile at other sun miracles people had suffered eye damage.
- Sister Lucia, purportedly predicting the deaths of Francisco and Jacinta, in actuality first wrote it in 1927 after the fact.
- The prediction in the second secret, which predicted World War II was penned after the fact in August 31, 1941, which would make it of no prophetic value.
Before tackling these objections, it has to be pointed out what the Apparition of Fatima is: a private revelation. It is not necessary to hold to approved private revelations in order to be in good standing with the church. Even if a certain apparition were to turn out to be false, it would not -or should not- cause a crisis of faith. The Catholic Christian has this option open to him. The skeptical atheist, however, has no such alternative; he must disbelieve.
When Joe Nickell cites as evidence Jacinta’s forgetfulness of certain details of the apparition of May 13, it refers to her inability to keep her silence after having promised. His reference is the secondary source Encountering Mary, by Sandra L. Zimdars-Swartz. Having the book myself, the account as given by the author doesn’t, in my opinion, hint at evidence that Jacinta was being manipulated by Lucia, though it doesn’t help that only fragmented quotes are given. The actual source for this account is from research and interviews done by Father John de Marchi with certain eyewitnesses of the Fatima event. This particular episode was recounted by Olimpia Marto, Jacinta’s mother:
She [Jacinta] said, “The Lady held a rosary in her hand; a beautiful rosary shining like the stars, and a crucifix that shone…. She spoke with Lucia a great deal, but not with me, or Francisco. I heard all that she said. Oh, mother, we must say the Rosary every day; the Lady said this to Lucia. She said too, that she would take us all to heaven, and other things which I can’t remember, but which Lucia knows. When she went back into heaven the doors seemed to shut so quickly that I thought her feet would get caught.”
Now that we have seen the original source…. Nickell’s claim gives the impression that Jacinta remembered a lot less than she actually did. When she first spoke about her experience, she certainly recalled what would have been considered the essential details, namely that she and her brother Francisco would go to heaven. There really wasn’t much else, except that Lucia inquired of the Virgin about two friends who had passed on; one named Maria Neves and the other Amalia. She was then told that the former was in heaven, and the latter was in purgatory. Considering that the sources don’t mention anything else of note, if Jacinta had momentarily forgot something, it would have been this particular detail. Everyone forgets details. In the end, it seems to read too much suspicion into the narrative without any warrant, perhaps the workings of what comes off as a paranoid mind.
Furthermore, he indirectly cites Lucia (via Swatz, pg 68) that Jacinta and Francisco were accustomed to following her directions before the apparitions, no doubt wishing to implant suspicion upon his readers that she had to have manipulated them into it. His suspicious logic is obvious: 1) The apparitions couldn’t possibly have happened. 2) Francisco and Jacinta were accustomed to listening to Lucia, therefore 3) she manipulated them into it. Never mind that Jacinta, in spite of promising Lucia to never speak of the first apparition, spoke about it freely anyway to her mother, something that would not have been the case if Jacinta’s obedience to Lucia was as slavish as Nickell would have us believe. Besides, had Jacinta known or believed nothing had happened, it would have been that much easier for her to keep her word. In the account of Jacinta’s mother, she “ran to meet” her and spoke “excitedly” about it, hardly the actions of a little child who had a non-experience. However, even if we assume that Lucia had such an influence over her two cousins, it doesn’t follow that she used it to manipulate them into dishonesty over such a matter. “Could have” doesn’t mean “did.” And if someone wishes to affirm that she did, it must be remembered that implanted suspicion isn’t evidence, even if one choses to disbelieve in the apparition.
Perhaps a skeptic would suggest that the detail of Lucia telling the others to not speak about the event is a later invention, as they suggest about other details. That is not likely to be the case in this particular instant since Lucia’s sister, Maria dos Anjos, recounted how she herself was the one who informed Lucia that Jacinta broke her silence to Olimpia Marto, and she recounted how Lucia responded, “And I told her so many times not to tell anyone.” It’s easy enough to accuse Lucia of later embellishment by herself, but not so much when details and first hand memories given by others -namely her aunt and sister- who were present often corroborate what she affirms. With this, we can be sure that Lucia wanted the event of the apparition to be kept secret; that she told both of her cousins to not say a word, and that Jacinta had an excited inability to keep quiet about the event– which is evidence that she herself believed something wonderful had happened.
As for Lucia’s mother, Maria Rosa, disbelieving her daughter, Nickell quotes her from page 86 of Swartz’s book as saying, “her daughter was ‘nothing but a fake who was leading half the world astray.'” One would have to wonder why he would cite this as evidence for Lucia fabricating the apparition. Of course the obvious answer would be that such a statement would be considered as a character witness. What he doesn’t point out is that in the same paragraph, even Swartz clearly indicates that the very source of the quote of Lucia’s mother comes from Lucia herself. Apparently Nickell trusts Lucia enough to use her as a source at his selective convenience. The fact that Maria Rosa didn’t believe her daughter is hardly a secret; it’s a well known fact.
But since we can now apparently trust what Lucia said about her mother’s disbelief, then we can also trust her quoting her mother as saying, “I always managed to have my children tell the truth, and now I have to let my youngest get away with this?” (Silva, pg. 85) Taken at face value, this would actually indicate that Maria Rosa didn’t affirm that her daughter had a reputation of dishonesty, quite the contrary, but that she certainly didn’t believe her in regards to the apparition. After the sun miracle itself, she still was asked if now believed, to which she responded, “I’m still not sure if all this is true.” When pressed if she had seen the miracle, she said “I saw it, I saw it, but it seems to me to be something so great that we are not worthy of it!” (Silva, pg. 25)
Nickell goes on to call Lucia a “petted and spoiled child,” adding that “her sisters fostered in her a desire to be the center of attention by teaching her to dance and sing.” Though he isn’t saying it bluntly, he is essentially implying that she was an attention whore. Nickell, who only has a Ph.D in English, is not a psychologist. Neither am I, though from what I can tell, children who are desperate for attention don’t get it from their primary caretakers, which would contradict the accusation that she was “petted and spoiled.” Lucia herself indicates that her mother was loving, but strict, for example, by teaching her to eat the food on her plate, whether she liked it or not, and putting her in a position in which she would have no other choice. (Ibid, 23) Also the fact that Lucia had decided to become a cloistered nun -that is an enclosed nun with no connection with the external world- contradicts the perception that she had such a craving for attention.
So what about others who had not seen it, that is the astronomical observatories? I would counter by asking how many observatories world wide happened to have their telescopes facing the sun at that particular moment in time? I don’t know why it was not observed world wide, but miracles do not come with a labeled guarantee to be viewed in every part of the globe. I would add then the miracle itself seems to have been meant primarily, first and foremost, at Fatima which would have been why the 70,000 people present would have been gathered at that particular location in the first place. It is also true that an event like the movement of the sun would have had disastrous effects on the planet—-that is, barring divine intervention. Given that it is in the context of a purported miracle, that by itself is a non-issue, unless you already dismiss miracles a priory. Perhaps in this particular matter, people on both sides could easily accuse each other of circular reasoning; the skeptic saying “Miracles don’t happen, so the event would have been disastrous,,” and the Catholic saying “Miracles can happen, so God can prevent disaster.”
When it comes to explaining the miracle itself with a meteorological event, I got to admit that I do find Nickell’s suggestion a bit interesting, that it could have been a phenomena known as a sundog, or a mock sun. It is part of the sun’s halo interacting with ice crystals within the earth’s atmosphere. Such an event could explain, though only in part, some details that the witnesses at Fatima had described, such as the colors they had seen; they key term being “in part.” The problem with the proposal comes when one realizes that sundogs are at their most visible when the sun is on the horizon; the higher the sun, the dimmer the sundog becomes, and the miracle of the sun occurred when the sun was at it’s zenith according to the eyewitnesses. There’s no point in suggesting a phenomena as explaining the strange event of the sun when it would have been too dim for the people present to have been able to see it, or take much notice of it.
He does admit, however, that the observers claimed to have been looking at the sun, suggesting:
…the “dancing sun” and other solar phenomena may have been due to optical effects resulting from temporary retinal distortion caused by staring at such an intense light or to the effect of darting the eyes to and fro to avoid fixed gazing (thus combining image, afterimage, and movement).
With this, you would think, from this, that everyday people wouldn’t have known the harmful effects of looking directly at the sun. However, the account left behind by José Maria Proença de Almeida Garret who was both present and had taken into account the possible damage the sun could do to one’s eyes:
Fearing that my retina would be damaged . . . I turned around, closed my eyes, and covered them with my hands to keep out all the light. With my back turned, I opened my eyes and realized that the landscape and the air had the same purple color that they had previously had.
Further evidence he gives that the people would not have looked at the sun if it was in fact as bright as it normally was is when he points out, “This phenomenon must have lasted about ten minutes, except for two brief interruptions when the sun gave off brighter and more dazzling rays that made us look away.” Independently of Almeida Garret, Father Manuel Pereira da Silva confirms this saying: “With some interruptions, this lasted about eight minutes.” This last detail can account for why the photos occasionally show a few shielding their eyes, an objection I’ve seen at least once. It does show that the people were not going to look at the sun if, in fact, it would have been harmful for them to have looked at it.
Nickell insists, however,
Not surprisingly, perhaps, sun miracles have been reported at other Marian sites—at Lubbock, Texas, in 1989; Mother Cabrini Shrine near Denver, Colorado, in 1992; Conyers, Georgia, in the early to mid-1990s; and elsewhere, including Thiruvananthapuram, India, in 2008. Tragically, at the Colorado and India sites, many people suffered eye damage (solar retinopathy)—in some instances, possibly permanent damage. At the Conyers site, the Georgia Skeptics group set up a telescope outfitted with a vision-protecting Mylar solar filter, and on one occasion I participated in the experiment. Becky Long, president of the organization, stated that more than two hundred people had viewed the sun through one of the solar filters and not a single person saw anything unusual.
None of these so-called Marian sites that Nickell is talking about -including the one in which his experiment took place- are approved, unlike Fatima. In fact the details he gives about them here would likely lead to their rejection by the Holy See. Besides, there were no such reports of permanent eye damage at Fatima, unlike there were at these unapproved locations.
A relevant piece of information is the duration of the sun miracle itself, as the witnesses who approximated the time give relatively similar estimates:
- José Maria Proença de Almeida Garret: “This phenomenon must have lasted about ten minutes…”
- Gonçalo de Almeida Garret (Father of the former, sometimes mistaken for him): “The phenomena lasted about eight to ten minutes.”
- Father Manuel Pereira da Silva: “…this lasted about eight minutes.”
- Father Ignacio Lorenco: “After about ten minutes the sun, now dull and pallid, returned to it’s place.”
This is a further indication that Fatima is not equivalent to these other sites since it has been shown that permanent damage to the retina can occur around 100 seconds. For so many to look at the sun for so long without any reports of permanent eye damage by itself would be a miracle.
Since the accounts that estimate the duration of the miracle of the sun give similar periods of duration, between eight to ten minutes, this also contradicts the claim that what was seen by the witnesses was really temporary damage to the retina. We would expect larger variation from various individual witnesses in the perceived or more prolonged duration of the miracle itself, unless we are to believe that temporary eye damage disappears in every individual simultaneously instantaneously after the inflicted damage. And since eye damage lingers, they would have realized there was a problem with their vision. This establishes that there was an actual beginning and an actual end to the event. Even if an objector wished to interject by saying that though all the witnesses that give an estimated time agree on that matter, that we don’t know of the others who gave no such detail, that would simply be their dismissing of the evidence we do have out of the baseless assumption that those witnesses who didn’t speak on the matter would have said any different. Temporary retina distortion from the sun can last a month to a year; if this were a case of temporary damage, the witnesses would have come to realize that there was a problem with their eyesight in enough time.
Nickell gives his “most likely” scenario:
Most likely, there was a combination of factors, including optical effects and meteorological phenomena, such as the sun being seen through thin clouds, causing it to appear as a silver disc. Other possibilities include an alteration in the density of the passing clouds, causing the sun’s image to alternately brighten and dim and so seem to advance and recede, and dust or moisture droplets in the atmosphere refracting the sunlight and thus imparting a variety of colors.
Just above, optical factor is already ruled out. To explain as another factor of the event as the sun being observed through clouds is to completely go against the accounts left behind by the witnesses as Alvelino de Almeida in his article in O’Seculo makes it very clear:
From the top of the road … we saw the crowd turned toward the sun, which was at its zenith and had no clouds blocking it. The sun seemed like a plate of dull silver, and people could look directly at it with no trouble. It didn’t burn or blind.
José Maria Proença de Almeida Garret:
It should not be confused with the sun shining through fog (There was no fog at the time). The sun was not opaque, diffused or veiled. . . . The clouds moved from east to west but did not obscure the sun. They did seem to go behind it, while the white puffs that at times slipped in front of the sun appeared in a shade of rose and translucent blue… While still looking at the sun, I noticed the atmosphere had cleared.
Though Almeida Garret mentions the occasional white puff of cloud in front of the sun, such is hardly sufficient to credibly explain even as a factor what was seen by him or anybody else, and after he mentions that “the atmosphere had cleared” as he was still looking at the sun, he indicates that the phenomenon is still occurring. Likewise de Almeida and Almeida Garret are hardly the only two witnesses who show that the sun was not blocked by the clouds; Mary Allen in her account says “the rain ceased, the clouds separated and I saw a large sun.” In fact, I find it nearly impossible to believe that the people present wouldn’t have recognized clouds of various density passing in front of the sun to the point that they could actually dim it. The very fact that Almeida Garret Jr. could make out the occasional small puffs of cloud passing in front indicates that such a thing would have been recognized for what it was. Hence, this factor can also be ruled out.
Gonçalo de Almeida Garret pointed this out in his clarification:
These events happened soon after noontime, when the sun was at it’s zenith . . . when meteorological phenomena have a less intense influence on the sun. When the sun is closer to the horizon in the late afternoon, more evaporation occurs, and this produces colorful sunsets. . . . The solar activity observed at noon in Fatima was far less likely to occur then than in the morning or afternoon, which makes these phenomena more valuable and important.
It should be mentioned that even authentic miracles don’t necessarily rule out at least some natural factors. Part of the miraculous aspect would have been the timing. The ten plagues of the Exodus mostly considered natural phenomena, but they happened at just the right time for Moses to free his people. Perhaps part of the miraculous aspects of Fatima could be the time of day, as well as the day itself, since they all would have come into place on precisely the day and hour that the Virgin said the miracle would happen; the ending of the rain, the breaking of the clouds revealing the sun when it was at it’s zenith, at precisely the time meteorological factors would not be likely to affect the view of the sun from the Earth’s perspective. At that point it could be argued that Our Lady wished to have the miracle performed at that particular time so it would be less likely for such factors to be cited credibly.
So what about suggestion due to expectation of seeing a miracle? When Alvelino de Almeida says that the sun “made brusque movements, never before seen, beyond all cosmic laws,” given that he had already scheduled an article mocking the apparitions previously (Silva, pg 228), I tend to believe him. Given that the newspapers, including those who were anti-Catholic, who previously mocked the apparitions and sent their reporters to ridicule the event, without exception, all affirmed something unusual happened, (Allegri, pgs 219, 20), I tend to believe something happened. Except for that, there is no plausible explanation to their change in tone. It can’t be ratings and readership (as I once saw objected) because there is no reason for skeptics to wish to publish something which would actively promote the Church; that would go against their long term goal. Suggestion cannot explain what they saw since they were expecting to see nothing.
To further refute the suspicion that De Almeida was fishing for readership ratings, the 2010 documentary film Finding Fatima shows a more recently discovered personal letter which he wrote to his sister dated the same day as the Sun Miracle itself telling her that he had seen something incredible. Such a personal message would not have been intended for public readership, and therefore ratings was hardly his motive.
What about mass hysteria? Such a view in contradicted by the fact that the event had witnesses who saw the event from miles away. Ignacio Lorenço was in Alburitel, eleven miles from Fatima when he saw the event, along with the rest of his town. Alfonso Lopes Vieira, who was twenty-five miles away pointed out:
On that day of October 13, 1917, without remembering the predictions of the children, I was enchanted by a remarkable spectacle in the sky of a kind I had never seen before. I saw it from this veranda….
What makes these two descriptions of the event from miles away significant is that both Lorenço and Lopes Vieira had no way of knowing that the event would have revolved around the sun. Only at Fatima, right after the rain, and right before the actual event did Lucia even say anything about the sun. By itself, these accounts rule out suggestion, hallucination and mass hysteria in one sitting. All a skeptic could do is accuse these witnesses of deception, an accusation which cannot credibly stick, especially since the witnesses have the advantage of saying they were there and saw what happened unlike a present-day naysayer.
How about the prophesy of the deaths of Jacinta and Francisco Marto being written after the fact by Lucia? Strictly this is true, but to simply dismiss it on that basis is to not take into account that there was multiple attestation to it. In his recollection, their older brother João Marto affirms that such a prediction existed as early as 1917 itself. He himself was skeptical of the apparitions, having not been present at the miracle of the sun. When asked when his skepticism left, he said:
Much afterwards. More precisely it was when my brother and sister got sick…. I thought the prophesy was a joke, but when Francisco got sick and died in 1919, my skepticism began to waver. Shortly thereafter, Jacinta got sick. I remember that she had often spoke of that illness…. I thought a lot about what my brother and sister had said, and about the fact that it all turned out to be true. (Allegri 40, 42)
Emanuel Marto, their father, also recalled when his daughter got sick, she told him:
Papa, dear, if I should recover from this illness, you may be sure I would get another. When I go to Lisbon, Papa, it means goodbye.
While Jacinta was in Lisbon, she was tended to by Mother Godinho who recounted that the child visionary told her:
I am much better now, thank you. Our Lady said that she would come to take me almost right away, and that there will be no more pain.
Perhaps it could be countered that these recollections, though primary in nature, were recounted after the fact. Though true, that is about all that could be credibly said against them, and their very sources make is difficult to simply dismiss them. The affirmation of the existence of such a prediction of the deaths of Francisco and Jacinta by those who knew them personally is much stronger than the denial of someone far removed who had no relation to them.
About the objection that the second part of the mystery predicting WWII was penned by Sister Lucia after the war’s start, that is true in itself, but it also misses the point of the mystery which was chiefly about consecrating Russia to the immaculate heart for its conversion. In hindsight, if we were to assume that Sister Lucia were inventing this prophecy on the fly, then it would have made more sense for her to write about Germany, not Russia, considering her geographic proximity. And considering that the publication of the second mystery corresponded with Hitler’s invasion of Russia with Operation Barbarossa, it would have been extra risky for her to invent a prediction of Russia spreading it’s errors since she would have had no way of knowing the final result of the Nazi’s military campaign.
There is documentary proof that years before the war started that Sister Lucia was highly concerned with the consecration of Russia, as she points out in a letter she wrote to Father Goncalves dated May 29, 1930:
This is what seems to have passed between God and my soul, concerning the reparatory devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the persecution in Russia [. . .]
If I am not mistaken, the good Lord promises to put an end to the persecution in Russia, if the Holy Father himself deigns to make a solemn and public act of reparation and consecration of Russia to the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, as well as ordering all the bishops of the Catholic world to do the same, and if the Holy Father promises that, upon the end of this persecution, he will approve and recommend the practice of the reparatory devotion already described.
And in another letter from May 18, 1936:
About the other questions, if it will be convenient to insist in order to obtain the consecration of Russia? I answer in almost the same way as I answered the other times. I am sorry that it has not been done yet, but the same God Who asked for it, is the One Who permitted it.
Though these references do not go back as far as I’d like, they do go back far enough to show that there are “before-the-fact” aspects of the mystery itself, since Russia (not simply the war) is at it’s heart.
St. Pope John Paul II finally consecrated Russia on March 25, 1984, a short seven years before the Soviet Union’s collapse. In the words of Patrick Glynn, “. . . as historians penetrate the circumstances of the communist collapse, it is becoming clearer that the Soviet elite was itself in the throes of an atheistic ‘crisis of faith.'” (God: The Evidence, pgs 161, 162). He adds that it likely wouldn’t have happened peacefully “without Catholic solidarity and the Lutheran-inspired ‘revolution of light.'” Given that Our Lady speaks of the “conversion” of Russia following the consecration, it is an interesting coincidence (?) that at the right time, the Communist leadership should have such a crisis of faith shortly before the fall of the USSR. To the believer, this could possibly also be considered a validation of the second mystery.
Admittedly, not every possible objection to the sun miracle has been raised here and knocked down, but there is only so much one could cover. Though there are two notable miscellaneous ones such as the claim that half of the witnesses at Fatima saw nothing and that the Pope in the third mystery is killed, but that John Paul II who is usually thought to be the pope referred to survived his assassination attempt. The time I saw the former objection, supporting documentation was not provided; it was simply asserted, making it much less credible than De Almeida’s account that “the majority of them said they had seen the shaking, the dance of the sun.” To the later, I’d simply point out Prophecy contains warning, not necessarily always fixed events. Jonah warned the people of Nineveh that the city would be destroyed, and it was spared.
Fatima is definitely one of the most impressive private revelations approved by the church, and it’s only natural for skeptics to attempt to knock it down. If authentic (as I believe it to be), it does more than provide evidence for God and Christianity itself. It provides strong evidence for Catholicism itself. Of course, private revelations are not binding on the faithful; we don’t need them to be true, though it cannot be denied that the atheist needs it to be false to maintain his worldview. The Protestant Christian can take one of three approaches: 1) affirm no apparition happened, 2) accept it and convert to Catholicism, or 3) assume that it is a Satanic apparition, as many Protestants do. But with the last two options, either would demonstrate that the spiritual realm exists. I consider the third option untenable because the advice Our Lady gives is out of character for the devil, exhorting us: “Do not offend the Lord our God any more, for He is already too much offended!”
“The Shepherds of Fatima,” by M. Fernando Silva
“Fatima: The Story Behind the Miracles,” by Renzo & Roberto Allegri
“THE TRUE STORY OF FATIMA” by Father John de Marchi, I.M.C,
(Note: This online version of this last work has more detail than the printed edition I have)
The Skeptical link:
“The Real Secrets of Fatima,” by Joe Nickell, The Skeptical Inquirer