Homily: Fatima in these troubled times
Monday 13 May 2019
Bishop Peter J Elliott
We live in troubled times, very troubled times. The extraordinary events of Fatima unfolded in another era of troubled times.
In 1917 the First World War was raging, devouring the lives of so many soldiers and civilians. Portugal was neutral, not that Saint Francisco and Saint Jacinta Marto and their cousin Lucia Santos would have known much about world events, such as the October Revolution, which would soon erupt in Russia and launch global Communism. But what happened to the children has great bearing on events in our own troubled times.
On 13 May, they were tending sheep on the area called the Cova d’Iria near the village of Fatima, when they were visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary in the first of a series of apparitions. Her words to them included messages to us all, dramatic revelations, warnings of what would happen in history, yet accompanied by much hope for a broken world longing for peace.
Recent months in 2019 have accentuated a sense of foreboding and menace. We reflect on the massacre of our Islamic brothers and sisters in Christchurch, on the massacres and sacrilege in Sri Lanka, when Catholics and Protestants were murdered. We reflect on the mysterious burning of Mary’s noble Catholic cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris. But now, Satan’s darkness draws closer to us.
In a few weeks time, the evil practice of euthanasia will be introduced in this State of Victoria, already stained by barbaric abortion laws. The international war against human life and the family rages, and here I turn to the words of Sister Lucia in a letter to the future Cardinal Carlo Caffarra.
In 1983, Saint John Paul had entrusted the project of founding the first John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family to Msgr Caffarra, placing the institute under the patronage of Our Lady of Fatima. Aware of strong opposition to the project, he wrote to Sister Lucia for advice.
In her reply she said: ‘Father, a time will come when the decisive battle between the kingdom of Christ and Satan will be over marriage and the family. And those who will work for the good of the family will experience persecution and tribulation. Do not be afraid, because Our Lady has already crushed his head.’ Cardinal Caffarra, who died in 2017, pointed to abortion and same-sex ‘marriage’ as defeats for life and family, but he said that the role of women will be critical in the struggle.
What does it all mean? Can we read the ‘signs of the times’? Fatima calls us to prayer and penance, but also to read signs God gives us in troubled times. But first of all, Our Lady speaks to us in a strange way, through silence.
The Silence of Fatima
In Fatima, pilgrims encounter silence. On the Cova d’Iria, a vast windswept piazza has been constructed that can hold many thousands, especially for the Eucharistic celebrations at major pilgrimages. At other times it is silent.
This is what struck me on my one visit to Fatima three months after I became a Catholic in 1968. For me, it was a marked contrast to the noise and bustle I experienced at Lourdes or the endless stream of pilgrims I have joined at Guadalupe, Mexico. I interpreted the silence as a sense of judgement on our world and a call to be silent, to reflect, to pray and be converted.
In this sacred space, a small chapel marks the site of the tree where the Blessed Mother appeared to the shepherd children a century ago. It is here that we find the heart of Fatima, not the classical basilica that rises above the piazza, where the visionaries are buried.
The chapel and the Marian image have a simplicity about them, as befits the Madonna and the village children to whom she revealed her Immaculate Heart. She showed herself to them as a sorrowing Mother, echoing Simeon’s prophecy, ‘and a sword will pierce through your own soul’, Luke 2: 35.
She spoke at a time when so many mothers were mourning their sons and daughters, victims of war. That way of sorrow has continued into our times, on into a new century and millennium: wars, revolutions, genocide, mass migrations, terrorism...and is our God involved? God seems to be silent - or does the divine silence speak loudly? Is this the silence of Christ crucified?
Fatima speaks to us about the process of time. We can easily appreciate this because we are people of faith. Our lives are shaped by sacred time, by the annual and weekly cycles of liturgical worship. In the Judaeo Christian heritage, all time is sacred because it is God’s time, when our God is patiently working out his great mystery and plan of salvation.
The expression ‘salvation history’ shows us how Divine Revelation in Christ gives a new meaning to time. It is always the great story of our salvation, of your salvation and mine. The faith journey of the whole Church is made up of millions of personal journeys, yours and mine.
Salvation history is the ordered reality of time; it is the reign of God always coming through, always breaking through, as Christians pray again and again: ‘Thy kingdom come!’ History shows how God is always bringing shape and destiny out of the pain, chaos and disorder of troubled times. Purpose and meaning in history and in each of our lives are not our human invention. We find meaning in God’s saving plan and loving Providence as he brings in his reign, his Kingdom of justice, truth and peace.
Time and Judgment
However Christians do not believe that the history of the universe or the lives of individuals are endless cycles mindlessly repeating themselves, as is taught in some Eastern religions. We believe that time is linear, going forward steadily towards its completion, its purposeful end, or telos, which is why theologians use the word teleological when discussing what lies ahead of us: death, judgement, purgatory, heaven, hell. In these ‘last things’ justice finally triumphs in divine judgement.
These ultimate options mark the serious side of the Fatima revelations, a call to repentance and prayer, with warnings of what happens if we fail to respond to Christ’s love. Briefly, the children were shown a vision of hell. Some people find that disturbing, but Fatima is disturbing. It is not a nice story about little children and Mary. Then again, Catholic Christianity is not nice. The truth is not always nice. Yet in the challenging message of Fatima there is hope for our world.
Time and God’s Provident Love
Today, on Good Shepherd Sunday in Easter Season, we hear a short Gospel from the Gospel of Saint John. It has a consoling and encouraging message from the Good Shepherd himself, that we belong to the Good Shepherd, that he knows us and that we know him and he gives us eternal life, But our Shepherd makes a promise about his flock: ‘they will never be lost and no one will ever steal them from me’. Do you believe this? Do you believe what you say to our Shepherd, who is the Divine Mercy: Jesus, I trust in you?
In life and in death, the little shepherds of Fatima were never lost. They were all embraced by the provident love of Jesus the Good Shepherd. Now they pray for us on our journey home.
Echoing her Son, Mary assures those who pray and do penance that they will never be lost. This is part of our hope for what Mary also promised, the triumph and reign of her Immaculate Heart, a grace of peace after troubled times.
Fatima Speaks of Hope
The promised ‘triumph and reign of Mary’s Immaculate Heart’ paves the way for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, Christ’s reign. She reigns because she is indeed a Queen, but she is only a Queen because her Son is the Messiah King and the Lord of all creation. It is as simple as that.
Mary always points to her Son, to Jesus Christ our Shepherd King. She leads us to him for he is always the answer, the only answer, as Saint John Paul constantly proclaimed, as Pope Benedict and Pope Francis proclaim. Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, crucified and risen again, is the word we speak. He is the way we live. He is our personal Lord and Saviour, our Good Shepherd. He is the One to whom we turn, whose face we long to see, our Light, our Way to the Father.
We bear witness to Jesus Christ, not only by timely words and good deeds. We bear witness by bringing his Mother Mary into our homes as John did after Jesus had entrusted her to him from the cross. Like John, may we testify to Christ’s amazing grace with hearts full of gratitude for his gift of Mary, so clearly revealed on the wind-swept Cova d’Iria in Fatima one hundred and two years ago.