Lucia in the Sky with Diamonds

by Matt Mattheisen

    It might be a shame that you didn’t hear of Lucia’s passing. She was famous at the age of 10, threatened with torture and death by public officials before she became a teenager, written about by hundreds, visited by thousands, been the subject of theological discourse for over three quarters of a century and to some she inspired the end of the Cold War. And yet, in a cloistered, Carmelite convent in Portugal at the age of 97 on February 13th she passed away with little tribute while the world was going about its business as if in a dream.

    The apparitions began on May 13, 1917. Ten-year-old Lucia, along with her cousins Jacinto and Francisco, were tending the family’s sheep that day in a small hollow near a city in northern Portugal called Fatima. The Blessed Virgin Mary suddenly appeared to the three children and began speaking to them of God and the evils of Communism. The Virgin then promised the children that she would visit them again “on the thirteenth of each month for the next five months.”

    The Virgin kept her promise and word soon spread. The people of the city along with thousands of others from surrounding villages began to follow the children to the cove to witness the apparitions. Aware of a religious revival and fearing a subsequent peasant revolt, the already anti-clerical government had the children arrested on August 13th. While in prison amidst hardened criminals, the government officials threatened to have them boiled in oil. By then, however, the crowds had increased and public pressure was so great that the officials feared an even greater uprising and as a result the children were returned to their families. The apparitions continued.

    The Virgin spoke further to the children reminding them to pray the Rosary, to pray for the conversion of Godless Russia and to pray for peace. She also gave the unsettling revelation that two of the three children would die young. Indeed, Jacinta and Francisco would both die at the age of ten due to an influenza epidemic that swept the region following World War I.

    Three secrets were ultimately revealed to the children from the Virgin. The first two secrets predicted another great war and of Russia’s chastisement.  But the third secret, the Virgin told them, was to remain a secret and was not to be told to anyone. And hidden it remained. Guarded in the heart of the only surviving child Lucia for 70 years the secret was held there and eventually given to a single Vatican official to be sealed in the Vatican’s vaults for over 40 years.

    On May 13th 1991 Pope John Paul II visited Fatima and placed in the crown of the statue of the Virgin where the apparitions occurred, a bullet which had been recovered after the attempt on his life ten years earlier: May 13th 1981. At the time of his placing the bullet in the crown the significance of the act was not understood. It was not until 2000 when Jacinto and Francisco were beatified that the third secret was revealed and John Paul’s act and its significance was realized. The third secret that had been given to the children had predicted the persecution of the Church and the shooting of a pope. John Paul’s act symbolized the meaning and fulfillment of Fatima. The assassination attempt on his life, a second world war, the evils of Communism, the downfall of Russia, it was all realized.

    I can almost hear you sigh at this point. “Another cradle Catholic shackled to medieval visions and provincial spirituality.” Well, that’s not true. Actually, I didn’t convert to Roman Catholicism until I was in my late twenties. Moreover, I graduated from a Baptist college, led Bible studies and read Luther and Calvin in my spare time. It is a past for which I’m entirely grateful. Yet I see nothing incongruous with this past of mine and these three young children and the events surrounding their lives.

    The spirituality of apparitions, rosaries and scapulars is to me truly a New Testament Christianity that stands with its body pressed upon the veil. It engages itself with the power of what is on the other side of the curtain and is not stuck in the past or superstitious as some may claim. It is fluid and full of life both natural and supernatural. We all come together, you and me and the heavens and its principalities. We all float on towards the great revealing and reunion occasionally witnessing the intersecting lines of our world and the world to come. How terrifying it must have been for the three children of Fatima to be at such an intersection. Most children, had they concocted such a thing, would have been guilty of sentimentality and selfishness and not of inspiring religious revival and elucidating global terror. That two of the children died young and in poverty and that the third, Lucia, lived her entire life cloistered in a small, poor community makes their presence and their message to this world all the more worth pondering.

    I believe in Fatima. Maybe it’s due to the fact that the images of grace and redemption in the works of Flannery O’Connor were instrumental in my conversion. Maybe it’s partly due to the environment I was raised in.

    My mom was perhaps the world’s only Sicilian-Lutheran mystic. Years ago, her best friend had a grandchild that died from sudden infant death syndrome.  Due to the circumstances surrounding the baby’s death, the passing of the child unsettled my sensitive Italian ma but she awoke from a dream one night that finally gave ease to her troubled mind. She told me later that in her dream the Blessed Virgin Mary came to her holding the recently departed baby and told my mom that the baby was safe and at peace and then my mom awoke.

    Some months after my mom’s passing I too had a dream. For some strange reason I dreamt people were confusing my dad’s house with a Home Depot. I had learned that droves of people were headed to my dad’s house for home improvement questions and I called to warn him of the crowds of people descending upon his home. But instead of my dad answering, my recently deceased mother answered the phone instead. Stunned to hear her voice on the other line I paused.


    “Guess whose home?” she replied.

    Still stunned, I couldn’t speak to answer her so she answered her own question by saying, “A free and dancing spirit.” Then she was gone.

    And in the background, as I write this column, Keith Richard's sublime guitar into to "Gimme Shelter" comes on the radio and reverberates through my office. The ending chorus to the song goes: "Love, sister, it's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away."  Perhaps that's a good starting place to understanding Fatima. At the cross, Christ said to the beloved disciple John, "son behold your mother, woman behold your son." In a way we are all his beloved disciples. God in His design allowed the Virgin, the Crown of Motherhood to be so close to Lucia and her cousins that they actually crossed planes. My mom is still close by watching my wife and I and her grandchildren. Each night I'd like to think she sends us off to dreaming with a brush of her hand across our face and a kiss.