It began on May 13, 1917—a series of “miracles” and “secrets” that three shepherd children claimed the Virgin Mary shared with them in Fatima, Portugal. Another milestone was reached on the centennial of this event, May 13, 2017, when Pope Francis canonized two of the three children on a visit to the revered site. I have followed this continuing drama for a quarter-century—for example, appearing in 2001 on an episode of the History Channel series History’s Mysteries titled “Fatima Secrets Unveiled.” In this essay, much more will be unveiled, as the claims continue to proliferate and still more can be predicted (without any recourse to supernaturalism).
The Invisible Lady
On that first May 13 (not surprisingly, a Sunday) three children were tending their flock when the three—Lucia dos Santos, age ten, and her cousins Francisco Marto, nine, and his sister Jacinta, seven—saw a flash of lightning and fled down a slope. There the two girls beheld a dazzling apparition: a beautiful lady radiant in white light, standing among the leaves of a small holm oak. Only Lucia talked with the figure, who promised to reveal her identity in six months, during which time the children were to return on the thirteenth of each month.
The Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Fatima was available for “veneration” at a Catholic church in Amherst, New York. Figure 2. Close-up of statue shows its glass eyes that are frequently said to “weep” (photographs by Joe Nickell).
News spread quickly throughout the town, and at each visitation an increasingly large crowd attended, as each time (except on August 13, when the children were detained by skeptical authorities) the children knelt at the oak and saw and listened to the apparition. No one else beheld the lady, but some would see evidence of her leaving: a cloud rising from behind the tree, perhaps, or a gentle movement of the branches. While there were just fifty attendees at first, when the period ended on a stormy October 13, as many as seventy thousand had gathered.
Lucia, clearly the leader of the children, was a precocious and charismatic child. She once again related what the unseen figure had said, with many of those in attendance anticipating a miracle. They had heard that the figure had identified herself as “the Lady of the Rosary” and that she urged people to repent their sins and erect a chapel at the site.
After this, the invisible Virgin supposedly lifted her hands to the sky, and Lucia exclaimed dramatically, “The Sun!” In unison, everyone gazed upward to see that the sun had emerged from behind the clouds but appeared as a silvery disc (obviously still partly obscured by a thin cloud layer). Thereupon, many had a profound experience that they came to believe was miraculous.
‘Miracle’ of the Sun
Not everyone’s experience was the same. Some insisted that the sun spun like a pinwheel having colored streamers, while others described it as dancing. One saw it slowly gliding through the air from east to west while some, before the “dance of the sun” occurred, reported white petals showering down only to dissolve before reaching the ground. Precisely what happened has been the subject of much controversy, but any such experience is now known in the terminology of Marian apparitions as a “Sun Miracle.”
It is important to note that people elsewhere in the world at that moment—viewing the selfsame sun—failed to perceive the reported gyrations. Neither did astronomical observatories detect the sun in any way deviating from its usual behavior—which, if it had, would have devastated Earth! It is inescapable, therefore, that this was a purely local phenomenon—surely some mixture of the particular meteorological phenomena coupled with mass expectation and certain optical effects.
The latter likely included temporary retinal distortion caused by staring at an intense light or the darting of eyes to and fro to avoid fixed gazing (thus combining image, after-image, and movement). Moisture droplets in the atmosphere might have refracted the sunlight to impart colors, and there are other possibilities, including an alteration in the density of the passing clouds, causing the sun to alternately brighten and dim and so seem to advance and recede. The phenomena did not happen at the very same time, and the various experiences, recorded later, were no doubt influenced by those described by others, as well as by individuals’ own memory distortions.
We should not be surprised to learn that sun miracles have been reported at other Marian sites. These include Lubbock, Texas (1989); the Mother Cabrini Shrine near Denver (1992); Conyers, Georgia (early to mid-1990s); and elsewhere, including Thiruvananthapuram, India (2008). Ironically for a supposed miracle and tragically for those involved, many people have suffered eye damage (solar retinopathy) as a result of staring at the sun. In some instances, the damage may have been permanent.
Interestingly, at the Conyers site, the Georgia Skeptics conducted experiments (in which I participated on one occasion) involving a telescope outfitted with a vision-protecting Mylar solar filter. Of more than two hundred people who visited the site and viewed the sun through the telescope, not a single one saw anything unusual.
Also at Conyers and many other Marian sites, pilgrims wisely avoided staring at the sun and instead snapped photos with their Polaroid cameras. This process too produced a kind of sun miracle: many photos yielded, in place of the sun, the effect of an arched doorway flooded with golden light. These “golden door” photos, however, were merely an artifact of the Polaroid One-Step camera, whose lens aperture was of that very shape. Thus, it was not the doorway to heaven mentioned in Revelation 4:1 but rather the entranceway into the camera.
The apparition also allegedly made certain predictions to Lucia, a petted and spoiled child whose older sisters encouraged her to be the center of attention—for example, at festivals, when she would stand on a crate to dance and sing for adoring crowds. Her talent for telling stories—fairy tales as well as biblical narratives and saints’ legends—made her popular with children in the mountain village. Having traits associated with a fantasy-prone personality, she and other girlfriends had reported apparitions of a snow-white figure on earlier occasions. Her mother once huffed that her daughter was “nothing but a fake who is leading half the world away.”
Among the “predictions” the Virgin allegedly made to Lucia was that Jacinta and Francisco would soon die. True, both did succumb to influenza (Francisco in 1919 and his sister the next year). However, the source of that and two or three other predictions—a vision of hell and the end of World War I—was Lucia’s memoirs, which were written after the fact.
A third secret of Fatima, however, possessed by the Vatican since 1957, became the subject of endless interest and speculation. In mid-2000, the Catholic Church revealed the content of that secret, which had purportedly been imparted to Lucia in 1917. The prediction gave no specific date but described “an angel with a flaming sword in his left hand” crying out “Penance, Penance, Penance!” In her difficult-to-decipher handwriting, Lucia continued telling how a “bishop dressed in white” was “afflicted with pain and sorrow” as he made his way through a ruined city. Moreover, “he prayed for the souls of the corpses he met on his way; having reached the top of the mountain, on his knees at the foot of the big Cross he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him, and in the same way there died one after another, the other bishops, priests, men and women religious.”
Many of the faithful rushed to interpret the text of this third secret as having forecast the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, who was shot by a Turk in 1981. Alas, nearly all aspects of the vision were in error: it described not a pope but a bishop; he was not killed; he was not shot by soldiers; no arrows were fired; and the other bishops and priests present were not killed. Nevertheless, a Vatican statement claimed all three Fatima secrets had represented authentic prophecy. When Sister Lucia (who had become a Carmelite nun) died in 2005, she was placed on the track to sainthood.
‘Miracle’ Fatima Statue
Much earlier, in 1947, a commemorative statue was created based on Lucia’s description of her apparition. This Pilgrim Virgin statue of Fatima was sent traveling the world to relate the Lady of Fatima’s “message” of world peace.
In 1982, a year after the attempt on his life, Pope John Paul II instructed that the bullet recovered from the vehicle he had been riding in be set in the crown of the Fatima statue. When the statue came to visit St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Amherst, New York, in 2012, I viewed it closely—and with great interest, since it had claimed miracle status at least a decade before it acquired the bullet.
On several occasions—most notably, at New Orleans in 1972—the statue was reported to be weeping. However, as an archdiocesan spokesperson stated at that time, “There are all sorts of possible causes. This is a very humid climate here.” Indeed the possibility that the “tears” were really condensation was underscored by the fact that the wooden statue had glass eyes. Hoaxing is another possibility, as I have learned from investigating some bogus “weeping” statues and icons on-site. Still another possibility is simply the pious imagination, since individuals have sometimes reported seeing tears on the statue when others at the same time did not.
(The “weeping” claims concerning such statues are ironic in light of a pointed lesson against idolatry found in— and only in—Catholic Bibles. Given in an extra, fourteenth chapter of Daniel, it tells about worship of an idol that daily consumed food and wine, until it was discovered that the consumption was due not to a miracle but to priests and their families who used secret doors [Daniel 14:1–22].)
At last, two of the three Fatima children were added to the Catholic roster of saints—on the events’ centenary, Saturday, May 13, 2017.
Ironically, only the younger children, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, were canonized, since Lucia lived a long life and her canonization process could not begin until after her death in 2005. As we have seen, however, her two cousins died not long after the events that made them famous—as if the supposedly miraculous forces that once attended them had waned.
What further irony, then, that those who could not be healed of influenza in 1919 and 1920 would be able, posthumously, to heal others—or so it is claimed. Because they were children, only a single miracle was needed for canonization, and this was found in the case of a five-year-old boy who fell from a window and suffered head trauma. His doctors thought he would either be in a vegetative state or be mentally disabled—if he survived at all. When he survived without apparent after-effects, the case was declared a miracle. The Church used its invariable standard of supposed inexplicability.
But that is simply the illogic of an argument from ignorance: “We don’t know what happened, so it must have been supernatural.” Actually, it may have been only the obvious: that the doctors mistakenly assessed the boy’s chances by overestimating his injuries and/or underestimating his body’s natural healing ability. Such judgment calls are not infallible.
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As these events show, what began as the fantasies of a little girl have been compounded—folly added to folly.
There were contrary events, of course, notably in May 1993, when eleven buses and four automobiles were on their way to the Portugal shrine for the annual anniversary of Fatima. This time there was a heavy fog and the vehicles collided, injuring ninety pilgrims.
Nevertheless, the faithful are undaunted and there seems no end to claims of miracles. No doubt one will be found for Lucia too, and she will also be canonized on some future, shrewdly chosen occasion. Such is what happens when ignorance and superstition are promoted over science and reason.
- “Miracles.” 2012. Available online at www.pilgrimvirginstatue.com; accessed September 6, 2012.
- Nickell, Joe. Looking for a Miracle. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1993. —. “The Case of the Miracle Oil.” Skeptical Inquirer 35, No. 3 (May/ June 2011): 17–19.
- —. The Science of Miracles. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2013.
- —. “‘Miracle’ Statue of Fatima,” 2013. Available online at http://www.ciscop.org/sb/show/miracle_statue_of_fatima; accessed June 28, 2017.
- “Tales of Divine Ingratitude.” Fortean Times 72 (1994):18.
- Zimdars-Swartz, Sandra L. Encountering Mary. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Photos originally published Joe Nickell, “‘Miracle Statue of Fatima,’ Skeptical Briefs, Summer 2013.