May 13 is the optional memorial of Our Lady of Fátima, arguably the most prominent approved apparition of the 20th century. It became famous the world over, particularly for its three-part “secret.”

Here are nine things to know about this Marian apparition.

1) What happened at Fátima, Portugal?

A young shepherd girl, Lucia dos Santos, said she experienced supernatural visitations as early as 1915, two years before the famous appearances of Our Lady of Fátima.

In 1917, she and two of her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, were working as shepherds tending their families’ flocks. On May 13, 1917, the three children saw an apparition of a lady from heaven. She told them, among other things, that she would return once a month for six months.

At her third appearance, on July 13, Lucia was shown the secret of Fátima. She reportedly turned pale and cried out with fear, calling Our Lady by name. There was a thunderclap, and the vision ended.

The children again saw the Virgin on Sept. 13.

In the sixth and final appearance, on Oct. 13, a dramatic outward sign was given to those gathered to witness the event. After the clouds of a rainstorm parted, numerous witnesses — some as far as 40 miles away — reported seeing the sun dance, spin, and send out colored rays of light.

2) What happened after the main apparitions?

More in Europe

As World War I raged across Europe, an epidemic of Spanish flu swept the globe. It erupted in America and was spread by soldiers being sent to distant lands. This epidemic killed an estimated 20 million people.

Among them were Francisco and Jacinta, who contracted the illness in 1918 and died in 1919 and 1920, respectively. Lucia entered the convent.

On June 13, 1929, at the convent chapel in Tuy, Spain, Lucia had another mystical experience in which she saw the Trinity and the Blessed Virgin. Mary told her:

“The moment has come in which God asks the Holy Father in union with all the bishops of the world to make the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, promising to save it by this means” (S. Zimdars-Schwartz, “Encountering Mary,” 197).

On Oct. 13, 1930, the bishop of Leiria (now Leiria-Fátima) proclaimed the apparitions at Fátima authentic and worthy of assent.

3) How was the “secret” of Fátima written down?

Between 1935 and 1941, on the orders of her superiors, Sister Lucia wrote four memoirs of the Fátima events. In the third of these, she recorded the first two parts of the secret, explaining that there was a third part she was not yet permitted by heaven to reveal. 

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In the “Fourth Memoir,” she added a sentence to the end of the second part of the secret:

“In Portugal, the dogma of the faith will always be preserved, etc.”

This sentence has been the basis for much speculation that the third part of the secret concerned a great apostasy. 

Sister Lucia also noted that in writing the secret in the “Fourth Memoir”:

“With the exception of that part of the secret which I am not permitted to reveal at present, I shall say everything. I shall not knowingly omit anything, though I suppose I may forget just a few small details of minor importance.”

Upon the publication of the “Third and Fourth Memoirs,” the world became aware of the secret of Fátima and its three parts, including Our Lady’s request that Russia be consecrated (entrusted) to her Immaculate Heart by the pope and the bishops of the world.

On Oct. 31, 1942, Pius XII consecrated not only Russia but also the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. What was missing, though, was the involvement of the world’s bishops.

In 1943, the bishop of Leiria ordered Sister Lucia to put the third secret of Fátima in writing. She did not feel at liberty to do so until 1944. It was then placed in a wax-sealed envelope on which Sister Lucia wrote that it should not be opened until 1960.

4) What happened to the “third secret” afterward?

The secret remained with the bishop of Leiria until 1957, when it was requested (along with photocopies of Sister Lucia’s other writings) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. According to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone the secret was read by both Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI (see “The Message of Fátima[MF], “Introduction”).

“John Paul II, for his part, asked for the envelope containing the third part of the ‘secret’ following the assassination attempt on 13 May 1981” (ibid.).

He read it sometime between July 18 and Aug. 11.

It is significant that John Paul II did not read the secret until after the assassination attempt was made on his life. He notes in “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” (1994):

“And thus we come to May 13, 1981, when I was wounded by gunshots fired in St. Peter’s Square. At first, I did not pay attention to the fact that the assassination attempt had occurred on the exact anniversary of the day Mary appeared to the three children at Fátima in Portugal and spoke to them the words that now, at the end of this century, seem to be close to their fulfillment” (221).

After reading the secret, the Holy Father realized the connection between the assassination attempt and Fátima. He has since consistently attributed his survival of the gunshot wound to the intercession of Our Lady of Fátima.

“It was a mother’s hand that guided the bullet’s path,” he said, “and in his throes the pope halted at the threshold of death” (“Meditation from the Policlinico Gemelli to the Italian Bishops,” May 13, 1994).

5) Did John Paul II consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary?

As had Pius XII, John Paul II decided to consecrate not only Russia but also the entire world to her Immaculate Heart. After he read the third part of the secret, he decided to journey to Fátima on May 13, 1982, and there performed the Act of Entrustment.

This act, however, did not appear to satisfy the requested consecration, and so, “on 25 March 1984 in St. Peter’s Square, while recalling the fiat uttered by Mary at the Annunciation, the Holy Father, in spiritual union with the bishops of the world, who had been ‘convoked’ beforehand, entrusted all men and women and all peoples to the Immaculate Heart of Mary” (Bertone, MF).

“Sister Lucia personally confirmed that this solemn and universal act of consecration corresponded to what Our Lady wished (‘Yes it has been done just as Our Lady asked, on 25 March 1984’: Letter of 8 November 1989). Hence any further discussion or request is without basis” (Bertone, MF).

6) Is Fátima related to the fall of Russian communism?

After it became public that there was a secret of Fátima and that it mentioned Russia, many pondered Fátima in the light of Russian communism.

1917 was a year of turmoil for Russia. Besides fighting in World War I, the country experienced two civil wars known as the February Revolution and the October Revolution. The former led to the creation of a provisional government that proved unstable. On Oct. 24–25, less than two weeks after the final appearance of Our Lady of Fátima, the second revolution resulted in the creation of the Soviet government.

In the ensuing years, Russia expanded its sphere of influence, exporting communist ideology and revolution to other lands and martyring Christians wherever it spread. Once Pope John Paul II’s 1984 consecration took place, first the Soviet bloc and then the USSR itself crumbled from a variety of social, political, and economic factors.

As the pope himself noted:

“And what are we to say of the three children from Fatima who suddenly, on the eve of the outbreak of the October Revolution, heard: ‘Russia will convert’ and ‘In the end, my [Immaculate] Heart will triumph’ ... ? They could not have invented those predictions. They did not know enough about history or geography, much less the social movements and ideological developments. And nevertheless it happened just as they had said” (CTH, 131; emphasis in original).

Though he did not reveal the third part of the secret until the year 2000, six years earlier John Paul II hinted at its contents. Immediately after he meditated on the fall of communism in connection with Fátima, he went on to write:

“Perhaps this is also why the pope was called from a ‘faraway country,’ perhaps this is why it was necessary for the assassination attempt to be made in St. Peter’s Square precisely on May 13, 1981, the anniversary of the first apparition at Fátima — so that all could become more transparent and comprehensible, so that the voice of God which speaks in human history through the ‘signs of the times’ could be more easily heard and understood” (CHT, 131-132).

By the year 2000, the Holy Father felt able to reveal the final part of Fátima’s secret, since “the events to which the third part of the ‘secret’ of Fátima refers now seem part of the past” (Sodano, MF, “Announcement”).

The pontiff selected the beatification of Francisco and Jacinta on May 13, 2000, in Portugal as the occasion to announce this fact.

7) What is the essence of Fátima’s three-part “secret?”

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, pointed out that the key to the apparition of Fátima is its call to repentance and conversion (MF, “Theological Commentary”).

All three parts of the secret serve to motivate the individual to repentance, and they do so in a dramatic way.

8) What is the first part of the secret?

The first part of the secret — the vision of hell — is the most important, for it reveals to individuals the tragic consequences of failure to repent and what awaits them in the invisible world if they are not converted.

9) What is the second part of the secret?

In the second part, Mary says:

“You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart.”

Ratzinger explains:

“According to Matthew 5:8, the ‘immaculate heart’ [of Mary] is a heart which, with God’s grace, has come to perfect interior unity and therefore ‘sees God.’ To be ‘devoted’ to the Immaculate Heart of Mary means therefore to embrace this attitude of heart, which makes the fiat — ‘your will be done’ — the defining center of one’s whole life. It might be objected that we should not place a human being between ourselves and Christ. But then we remember that Paul did not hesitate to say to his communities: ‘imitate me’ (1 Corinthians 4:16; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:7, 9)” (op. cit.).

After explaining the vision of hell, Mary spoke of a war that “will break out during the pontificate of Pius XI.”

This latter war, of course, was World War II, which Sister Lucia reckoned as having been occasioned by the annexation of Austria by Germany during the reign of Pius XI (J. de Marchi, “Temoignages sur les apparitions de Fatima,” 346).

Our Lady also mentioned that this would happen after a night of the “unknown light.” Sister Lucia understood this to refer to Jan. 25, 1938, when Europe was witness to a spectacular nighttime display of light in the sky. In her third memoir she wrote:

“Your Excellency is not unaware that, a few years ago, God manifested that sign, which astronomers chose to call an aurora borealis. ... God made use of this to make me understand that his justice was about to strike the guilty nations.”

Our Lady added:

“If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.”

Much has been made of the statement “Russia will be converted.”

Many people have assumed this meant the Russian people as a whole would become Catholic. But the language of the text does not require this.

The Portuguese word “converterá” doesn’t necessarily mean converted to the Catholic faith. It can mean simply that Russia will stop its warlike behavior, and thus “there will be peace.”

This interpretation seems to be the one understood by John Paul II in a passage cited above from “Crossing the Threshold of Hope.”

This story was first published by the National Catholic Register, CNA’s sister news parter, on May 13, 2020, and has been adapted by CNA.