Friday, 8 May 2015

Faking It At Fatima

Lúcia Santos (left) with her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto, 1917
With the approaching 98th anniversary of the supposed miracles of Fatima, Portugal, it's worth looking at this particular example of how the Catholic Church operates and how truth becomes an early victim in its incessant search for spectacles to keep the faithful faithful and the money flowing in.

First a bit about 'miracles' in general.

The Catholic Church is notorious for using 'miracles' to convince its believers that it is the one true church, believing in the one true god and that it has a special relationship with the ruler and creator of the Universe. The problem it has to overcome is the problem of having no evidence whatsoever for that claim, so it needs trickery. Experience has shown that 'miracles' are particular effective on the poor, uneducated and unsophisticated people who make up the bulk of Catholic congregations worldwide.

Miracles are especially useful for the Church because, by definition, there can be no physical contradictory evidence, just as there can be no physical evidence for them, because otherwise they wouldn't be supernatural 'miracles' but perfectly natural events with perfectly natural explanations. 'Faith' fills the gap and renders the lack of evidence a mere inconvenience, even, in some strange way, confirmation.

Miracle. noun
An extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency:




The wonder of the miracle is due to the fact that its cause is hidden, and an effect is expected other than what actually takes place. Hence, by comparison with the ordinary course of things, the miracle is called extraordinary...

A miracle is said to be above nature when the effect produced is above the native powers and forces in creatures of which the known laws of nature are the expression, as raising a dead man to life, e.g., Lazarus (John 11), the widow's son (1 Kings 17). A miracle is said to be outside, or beside, nature when natural forces may have the power to produce the effect, at least in part, but could not of themselves alone have produced it in the way it was actually brought about. Thus the effect in abundance far exceeds the power of natural forces, or it takes place instantaneously without the means or processes which nature employs.


Favourite sites for these 'miracles' were formerly the remote rural areas of devoutly Catholic European countries such as Portugal, Spain, Italy and France, often involving children living in remote villages and farms. Some miracles are of course ludicrous and easily debunked, but nevertheless the Church still holds to them so long as a steady trickle of credulous people keep coming along to worship, buy into the superstition, buy the tacky souvenirs and continue to donate money.

For example, the almost laughable tale of the Cock of Barcelos (O Galo de Barcelos) from Portugal, the equally implausible and almost certain example of fraud from Spain, the 'Miracle of Calanda' or the 'Miracle of Miguel's leg' about which I wrote here and the obvious trickery of the 'liquifaction' of the blood of San Gennaro in Naples that 'honest' Pope Francis has even faked for the crowds.

Very many of these 'miracles', especially over the last couple of hundred years, have involved claimed manifestations of the Catholic demi-god, Mary, the alleged mother of Jesus who was promoted to the status of 'virgin' some time during the 3rd or 4th century CE as a device to get around the problem of inherited sin which would have made Jesus a sinner had his birth been natural. Mary was also dogmatically declared to have been immaculately conceived when it was realised she would have inherited sin too had she been conceived naturally.

Over the centuries, as the Catholic Church came to realise that what its pantheon of gods lacked was a female; a perfect mother figure and epitome of female perfection, so 'the Virgin Mary' has been promoted to the point where many people see Catholicism as the cult of Mary worship in all but name, whilst still paying lip service to the idea of monotheism. To this end, the Catholic Church has always been eager to promote Marian miracles. Indeed, no modern miracle would be worthy of promotion unless Mary was involved somewhere.

One of these miracles was the so-called 'Our Lady of Fatima' (Nossa Senhora de Fátima), which, along with that other Marian 'miracle' at Lourdes in France, is one of the more enduring Catholic miracles and still attracts vast crowds and generates vast amounts of money for the Church. It is, of course, like all the others, a creation of the Catholic Church provided for those who crave confirmation for their 'unshakable' faith.

Briefly, on 13 May, 1917, an uneducated peasant girl, 8 year-old Lúcia Santos, out tending sheep in a field known as Cova da Iria (Irene's field), with her younger cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto, claimed she saw an apparition who called herself 'The Lady of The Rosary'. The other two children never saw anything and Lúcia told them not to tell anyone. However, Jacinta told her mother who, amused by their childish imagination, told her neighbours. Soon, news of the 'miraculous apparition' spread round the village and attracted the attention of the the authorities.

At this point it's worth considering the central figure in all this, Lúcia de Jesus Santos:

Born on March 22, 1907, to Antonio and Maria Rosa Santos, Lucia was the youngest of seven children. Five years younger than her next-oldest sibling, Lucia was a petted and spoiled child. Her sisters fostered in her a desire to be the center of attention by teaching her to dance and sing. At festivals, Lucia would stand on a crate to entertain an adoring crowd. Among her other talents was a gift for telling stories—fairy tales, biblical narratives, and saints’ legends—which made her popular with village children, as well as an ability to persuade others to do her bidding.

Two years before the famous series of apparitions occurred at Fatima, eight-year-old Lucia and three girlfriends claimed to have seen apparitions of a snow-white figure on three occasions. Lucia’s mother called the experiences "childish nonsense." The following year, Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta were thrice visited by an "angel."

Lucia’s background is revealing. The seeds of her later visionary encounters were clearly contained in her childhood experiences and in her obviously fantasy-prone personality.1 Her charismatic ability to influence others drew little Francisco and Jacinta into the Fatima fantasy. As Zimdars-Swartz says of Lucia:
It is clear that she played the leading role in the scenario of the apparition itself. All accounts agree that she was the only one of the three seers to interact with both her vision and with the crowd, carrying on conversations with both while her two cousins stood by silently. She has said, moreover, and probably not incorrectly, that Francisco and Jacinta had been accustomed to follow her directives before the apparition began, that they turned to her for guidance afterwards, and that it was she who convinced them that they had to be very careful in their experiences. (p.68)

Further evidence that Lucia orchestrated the fantasy and manipulated the other children is provided by certain incidents. For example, when Jacinta first told the story, she stated that the Virgin had said many things that she was unable to recall but "which Lucia knows." Lucia’s own mother was convinced that her precocious daughter was, in her words, "nothing but a fake who is leading half the world astray" (pp. 71, 86).

Zimdars-Swartz, Sandra L. 1991. Encountering Mary. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press


Clearly, then, Lúcia Santos was a fantasist who, with her cousins, played the sort of fantasy games children play. Her parents knew what she was like and dismissed her fantasies for what they were. But there were other forces at work which latched onto her fantasy in this instance. To understand that we need to consider the wider context of Portuguese society at that time, and in particular the political situation.

In the early 20th-century, revolutionary, republican, anti-monarchist, anti-ruling class movements were gaining influence across Europe and Portugal had elected a republican government seven years earlier in 1910 which had abolished the monarchy. The Catholic Church, like other establishment churches, was closely allied with the ruling elite at that time believing that autocratic governments represented the ordained order as described by St Paul (Romans 13:1-7). So far as the Church was concerned, the collapse of the old order was dangerous and had to be opposed by all means. Power to the people would give control to the 'mob' and no-one knew what that would lead to.

This left-wing Portuguese government was becoming more anti-clerical as the Church meddled more and more in politics on the side of the forces of reaction, leading eventually to the first fascist coup d'état in Europe in 1926, led by the devout Catholic and former seminarian, António de Oliveira Salazar, closely supported by Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira, his room-mate in seminary, later to be promoted to Patriarch Cardinal of Lisbon for his efforts. In effect, the social tensions and democratic threats to clerical power in Portugal at this time were resolved by installing a Catholic theocracy and abolishing democracy but in 1917 this issue was far from resolved and formed the backdrop to politics of the time.

Rightly or wrongly, the local administrator, seeing a political motive for the story, briefly arrested the three girls, so creating even more attention to them and their story, but the girls stuck to their story despite his reported threats to boil them in oil - which would not have been a serious threat in Portugal at that time. But this gave even more credence to their story. The republicans had something to fear so there was probably some substance to the children's claims.

While there was no political motive in the children's fantasy, there was very probably a political motive for the Church to latch onto it and elevate it to the status of a miracle to impress a truculent and rebellious population. Nothing brings the masses back into line like a good miracle. What had started out as a childish fantasy had become bound up in Portuguese politics and the Church lost no time in promoting it as a cause celebre.

Apparently, the apparition had promised to return on the 13th of each month and had told Lúcia three secrets during her appearance on 13 July (how children love secrets!). By July, the story was spreading that the apparition would perform a public miracle on her final appearance on 13 October 1917. Accordingly, a crowd variously estimated to be somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 people gathered to witness this 'miracle' which was to become known as the 'miracle of the Sun'. The apparition dutifully appeared, but only to Lúcia, who, so she later claimed, saw light rising from the apparition's hands as the Sun shone through the thin clouds which followed heavy rain earlier in the day, and called out to the crowd to "look at the Sun!" Significantly from a meteorological perspective, many in the crowd had umbrellas with them.

Page from Ilustração Portuguesa, 29 October 1917, showing the people looking at the Sun during the 'miracle of the Sun', Fátima.
What followed depends a great deal on who reported it. Some people described the Sun as spinning round like a wheel, others saw it changing colour while yet others reported seeing it dance and zig-zag across the sky and some saw the Sun advancing towards Earth, radiating heat as it did so. Some even reported seeing white flower petals falling to Earth to disappear as they hit the ground. Still others reported seeing nothing unusual. None of this was witnessed anywhere else in Europe and for the Sun to appear to move erratically around the sky would actually entail Earth moving erratically in its rotation and orbit around the Sun - unless of course the Sun orbits Earth, as some uneducated people still believe.

In fact, of course, the meteorological conditions which give rise to high, thin cloud following heavy rain in October in Portugal are also the meteorological condition - an occluded cold front - which gives rise to high ice clouds with all their attendant optical effects such as strange coloured, shimmering sunlight. In addition, staring at the Sun frequently produces optical disturbances which can make the Sun appear to move around. It will also produce an 'afterimage' on the retina which will appear to move as the eyes move. As high clouds move across the Sun's disk, the Sun would be expected to get brighter and dimmer, appear to advance and recede, and the heat from it would be expected to rise and fall. Pre-primed observers, expecting a miracle, will interpret almost anything as miraculous. There is no common agreement about what the supposed phenomenon actually was but many in the crowd believed they saw a 'miracle'.

Sun 'miracles' are commonplace at supposed Marian miracle locations - Lubbock, Texas, in 1989; Mother Cabrini Shrine near Denver, Colorado, in 1992; Conyers, Georgia, early to mid-1990s; and elsewhere, including Thiruvananthapuram, India, in 2008. For reason which probably aren't hard to understand, witnesses are often required to stare at the Sun. At the Colorado and India sites, many people suffered solar retinopathy, possibly permanently, due to staring at the Sun.

So, the 'miracle of the Sun' is easy to explain, especially when balancing the probability that the Sun really did all the things reported by the witnesses but this was completely unnoticed by the entire population of the sunlit portion of Earth at the time, that Earth underwent an erratic change in its rotation and solar orbit without anyone feeling the effects, as though Newtonian Laws of Motion had been suspended, or there was a natural explanation for all those differing eye-witness accounts in an audience expecting to see a miracle and which read remarkably like accounts of normal meteorological phenomena and the effects of staring at the Sun.

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church prefers to claim that the 'miracle of the Sun' at Fatima really happened. In an attempt to deal with the fact that no-one else anywhere in Europe saw anything remarkable happen to the Sun, Pope John XII bizarrely suddenly remembered in 1950 that he had seen the miracle himself thirty-three years earlier from the Vatican gardens. So much for the 'Sun miracle'.

That just leaves the 'three secrets' which have become an essential ingredient in the whole Fatima miracle. And this is where events and the role of the Vatican itself begins to get more than a little murky.

Despite her father being an Atheist and he mother not believing her fantasies, the Catholic authorities decided they had a valuable asset in the form of Lúcia Santos and the best thing to do with it was to shut her away in the Dorothean convent in Tui or Tuy, Galicia, Spain, where her contact with the outside world could be strictly controlled. Sadly, her playmates and cousins, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, died in the 'Spanish flu' outbreak which swept the world between 1918 and 1920, killing more people than the number who died in WWI. Lúcia entered the convent as a 20 year-old in 1928 and was rarely seen in public again. She was visited only by selected clerics.

The First Secret
Our Lady showed us a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium, and amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. The demons could be distinguished by their terrifying and repulsive likeness to frightful and unknown animals, all black and transparent. This vision lasted but an instant. How can we ever be grateful enough to our kind heavenly Mother, who had already prepared us by promising, in the first Apparition, to take us to heaven. Otherwise, I think we would have died of fear and terror.


A straightforward vision of Hell with which any Catholic of those times would have been familiar, and suitably frightening to sow fear into the minds of doubters.

The Second Secret
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. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night illuminated by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father. To prevent this, I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the First Saturdays. 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.


Something nasty might happen 'during the Pontificate of Pius XI' (Pope from 1922 to 1939) and Russia is to be converted to Catholicism or else "she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church".

Quite remarkable 'secrets' for 1917 you might think, and a definite prediction there of the name and regnal number of a future Pope. How could this be? Clearly a miracle. However, remember, that Lúcia Santos was barely educated and, as an 8 year-old with her younger cousins, was tending sheep. Clearly, there was not much in the way of education for peasant girls in rural Portugal in those times. In fact, these 'secrets' (what's the use of a secret that is meant to warn the world and instruct us to take action?) were not written down until between 1935 and 1944, some years after being shut away in a convent, well after the events they describe, and during the pontificate of Pius XI himself.

In fact, Lúcia never thought to inform the Vatican of the second 'secret' until 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Given the politics of the time, this can be seen as a straight attempt to give legitimacy to the Nazi invasion, nothing more and nothing less. Catholics are to support the Nazis in overthrowing Soviet Communism and establishing a Catholic regime in Russia. Although Portugal and Spain were both ostensibly neutral in WWII, they were certainly friendly to the Nazis and the Catholic Church was keen to find reasons to support German fascism just as it had Spanish, Portuguese, Hungarian and Czech fascism. What better way to do this than to say the Virgin Mary had told them to? Not surprisingly, some see the sinister hand of the Vatican in this 'secret'.

One little retrospective problem, however, is that Germany lost and Russia never did convert to Catholicism, not even after the collapse of Communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It is to this day firmly in the Orthodox Christian camp that it has been in since becoming Christianised. Have no fear though! Having spotted this little problem of the Virgin Mary having apparently conveyed a false prophecy at Fatima, and having already venerated the 'miracle of the Sun' so obviously neither Mary nor Lúcia could be wrong, Pope Pius XII saved the day by announcing that he had consecrated the whole human race to 'the Immaculate Heart of Mary', and obviously that included Russia.

Phew! Prophesy fulfilled, and all divine reputations intact.

In 1936 and again in 1941 Lúcia remembered the apparition had told her her two companions were to die soon but she was to be kept alive to bring these important 'secrets' to the world. Lúcia's memory seems to have been quite similar to the memory of other 'prophets' and witnesses to miracles in that it tends to improve with time as more and more detail is remembered and especially after the events prophesied, rather like the memory of Monica Besra, the subject of and main witness to the miracle of the dead Mother Teresa's wonderful curative powers, who at one time seemed to have forgotten all about the miracle until her poverty-induced amnesia was cured by a very large sum of money from the Vatican, at which point, astonishing details were remembered which she had already forgotten when she first related the magical cure for her (non-exitent) terminal cancer.

This reverse amnesia is particularly noticeable when we compare what Lúcia said to the investigating canon Formigao a few days after the 13th October 'miracle':

The central question as to whether the secrets are genuine or not is the credibility of Sister Lucia. Questioned by canon Formigao, only six days after the October 13, 1917 apparition, she was asked: “The 13th of this month, did you ask that the people would look at the Sun?"

Lucia: “I don’t remember having done that.”

Formigao: “Did you ask them to close their umbrellas?”

Lucia: “The last time, I cannot remember whether I asked them.”

Formigao: “Did She tell you that the people would be punished if they did not repent their sins?”

Lucia: “I do not remember whether she said that; I think not.”

Formigao: “The 13th, you did not have such doubts as you have today about what the Virgin has said. Why do you have such doubts today?”

Lucia: “That day I could remember better; it was closer to the events.”

Lucia clearly had a rather short-term memory, which begs the question how she could possibly correctly remember decades later what had transpired in 1917, when six days after the apparition, most of what had happened, she had already forgotten. One might argue that the secrets were nevertheless forcefully imprinted on her memory, but the evidence suggests otherwise. That same day, on October 19, 1917, in front of Father Ferreira de Lacerda, when she was asked “What did the lady say the fifth time?” (i.e. September 13), Lucia replied “I do not remember well, but it appears to me that she said…”

“It appears to me that she said” doesn’t invite confidence and it begs the question of the contents of the Second and Third Secret, written down decades later, could have been remembered correctly. Indeed, Father Rolim would later conclude: “Because of the interrogations we have submitted them to, the visionaries were the first to hesitate about the words that the lady had truly used.”

But it gets worse. There are clear contradictions in what Lucia said in 1917 and what she wrote in 1942 and would comment on later. In 1917, Lucia declared to Formigao that “The Virgin did not speak about penitence”, but in 1946, to Father McGlynn, Lucia claimed: “She continued to demand sacrifices and penitences.” Worse still, in 1917, Formigao asked Lucia whether she had been given a secret, which Lucia confirmed. Asked whether she gave it only to Lucia or to all three children, Lucia replied “all three.” Most importantly, he asked: “If the people were to know the secret that Our Lady revealed to you, would they be sad?” Lucia answered: “I think they would remain as they are, more or less the same.” It suggests that the secrets as given by the Virgin Mary were quite modest, and seem not on par with the revelations of the Second and Third Secret several decades later. This is underlined when Lucia went on the record stating that the secret only applied for the good and happiness of the three children present, and not anyone else.


So to the third 'secret'.

The Third Secret
After the two parts which I have already explained, at the left of Our Lady and a little above, we saw an Angel with a flaming sword in his left hand; flashing, it gave out flames that looked as though they would set the world on fire; but they died out in contact with the splendour that Our Lady radiated towards him from her right hand: pointing to the earth with his right hand, the Angel cried out in a loud voice: ‘Penance, Penance, Penance!' And we saw in an immense light that is God: ‘something similar to how people appear in a mirror when they pass in front of it' a Bishop dressed in White ‘we had the impression that it was the Holy Father'. Other Bishops, Priests, Religious men and women going up a steep mountain, at the top of which there was a big Cross of rough-hewn trunks as of a cork-tree with the bark; before reaching there the Holy Father passed through a big city half in ruins and half trembling with halting step, afflicted with pain and sorrow, 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, Religious men and women, and various lay people of different ranks and positions. Beneath the two arms of the Cross there were two Angels each with a crystal aspersorium in his hand, in which they gathered up the blood of the Martyrs and with it sprinkled the souls that were making their way to God.


Gone is the uncertain, amnesia-prone memory of an 8 year-old girl six days after the event, and the memory has now come flooding back in glorious technicolor detail. The problem is, it's psychotic gibberish. It smacks of a narrow, wasted life spent steeped entirely in Catholic dogma, medieval Christian imagery and apocalyptic eschatology, by a little girl pushed into a world not of her choosing and cruelly forced to live out her own childhood fantasy for the benefit of an uncaring Church.

No wonder Pope Pius XII reputedly opened the sealed envelope in 1957, read the 'secret' - and promptly put it back into the envelope and consigned it to the Vatican Secret Archive. A face-palm moment if ever there was one.

Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II became convinced that this was an accurate prediction of his attempted assassination by Mehmet Ali Ağca in St Peter's Square Rome on on 13 May 1981 - the aniversary of first Fatima 'miracle'.

The only similarity to the 'prophecy' is that a Pope dressed in white was shot with a bullet. There was no mountain with a large cross, no other bishops, priests, etc., no soldiers, no arrows, no half-ruined city, unless Rome counts, and he was not on his knees. He was riding in a jeep. However, so convinced did Pope John Paul II become that this assassination attempt had been foretold in the third 'secret' that he donated the assassin's bullet to be kept in the shrine at Fatima. The fact that he didn't actually die as the apparition has allegedly foretold, was due to her having intervened and diverted the bullet.

Which just leaves the little question of why the Virgin Mary would go to all that trouble to prophecy an event which she intended to ensure didn't go as she had prophesied and why she had added all that extraneous detail which makes it look like a completely different event. Of such mysteries are religions made. But then the infallible Pope has declared the Fatima miracle to be genuine so it all has to come true, one way or another.

So, it should be obvious to anyone in possession of the facts that what we have in the Fatima 'miracle' is something that started out as a childhood game between a couple of impressionable girls and an older cousin given to fantasising about seeing angels, magical figures and Virgin Maries, which was misinterpreted as a political stunt by a local party functionary who probably saw popish plots everywhere, including in children's fantasies.

This in turn attracted the attention of the Catholic Church which latched onto it and used in its tussle with the anti-clerical government by elevating it to the status of a genuine miracle and the whole thing was reinforced in the popular imagination by a simple meteorological phenomenon interpreted as another miracle confirming the first. Mass hysteria, auto-suggestion and confirmation bias were enough. The Catholic church is never slow to use an opportunity like this to keep the credulous on side and has been busy ensuring that all the prophecies supposedly reveal to the children have come true, at least to the extent that those eager to believe in them will accept. Like other 'prophesies' the trick is to retrofit real events to the prophecy after they have happened, just as Pope John Paul II did.

It is, of course, still the childish fantasy that it always was and which those who knew the children always knew it to be.


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