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Ninety-eight years ago today, in the Cova del Iria in Fatima, three peasant children saw the Virgin Mary. She would appear to Lucia dos Santos and Jacinta and Francisco Marto four more times, on the last occasion, in October 1917, a huge crowd gathered to see her, as rumour had spread that a sign would be granted. It was. On that day ‘the sun danced’, or at least that was what onlookers reported – the sun seemed to move, come close to the earth – some even thought (as men and women will) that the end times had come. It had not. Within four years two of the little ‘seers’, Jacinta and Francisco, were dead; Lucia, who became a nun, lived on until 2005.

Jesus himself lamented the tendency of mankind to demand signs, not least because it always needed more signs. Here is not the place to discuss the revelation itself and its implications, and whether it is worthy of wide acceptance; the fact is that it has such an acceptance, and the last four Popes have all had a devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, and the Church has beatified Jacinta and Franciso. We sometimes hear that in these ecumenical times a devotion to Our Lady is a sign of disunion; nothing could be further from the truth. The Orthodox love our Lady, as did Luther and Calvin, and if the descendants of the followers of the latter would but study their own history more, they too might see that it is through Our Lady that we can all be united in her Son – to be ‘one’ as he instructed.

The signs given at Fatima were ones so needed by our age that it tends, naturally, to turn from them. What, it says, a miraculous sign, well, we don’t believe in such things, we seek rational explanations. But there is nothing rational about rejecting a priori miraculous events; Christian history is full of them, and our faith is founded on the greatest miracle of all – that God became man for our sakes, died on the Cross and was raised again on the third day. If we believe that, how can there be a problem with any other miracle? Our Lady calls for repentance. Again, our age offers cheap forgiveness, so what need has it for repentance? But without it, there is no salvation. She warns of the perils of hell. Our age has abolished hell and does not want to hear about it, yet another reason not to listen to the message of Fatima. She also calls for penance, something else with which our age is uncomfortable, so much so that it tends to find the self-mortification of the little seers almost a form of child abuse. Then, of course, is the idea that God might send a war as punishment for the sins of the world. We have constructed a God outside of time and space, so the notion he intervenes, as he always has, is yet another reason we are uncomfortable with the message from Fatima.

Yet what, in any of it, is not there from the beginning? We are called to repentance and penance by a God who intervenes to save us from the fires of hell and who wants all souls led to heaven. That the mother of Our Saviour should exercise her maternal care for her children and seek to lead all souls to the path that leads to her Son is, if one stops to pray, the most obvious thing in this world or the next.

As Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco did, so must we do. They listened, they did penance, they prayed the Rosary, and they spread the message that God wants to lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of his mercy. The message of Fatima is not one set apart for private revelation, it is the call our age needs to heed.

O My Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are in most need of Thy mercy.