I want to begin with a personal anecdote that is not directly related to Fatima. In the academic year of 1996-1997 a junior at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio was running for student president, thinking that he would be able to have the most impact for good on campus by exercising that position his senior year. As a prominent member of the student senate he played a prominent and very public (both on national radio and outside of the U.S.) role in a number of significant changes that took place on campus. Notwithstanding his valiant efforts, he lost the presidential race. Unsure what to do, he turned to an older friend and mentor, and decided to become an R.A. in a dorm and lead a Bible study for freshmen in the dorm. This incoming senior would-be R.A. and Bible study leader, was a student leader in a very large para-church (primarily evangelical Protestant Christian) organization on campus, which, at least for the following two years (if I’m not mistaken), represented the largest para-church organization on any college campus in the world at that time, boasting about 1,000 members at their weekly meeting. His mentor, who happened to be Roman Catholic, was a staff member with that organization (at one point full-time, but by this point, part-time on a volunteer basis). That summer they decided to fast and pray for the future Bible study which together they would co-lead. They studied Scripture and church history together that summer, and they prayed and fasted that the future study would bear fruit for the kingdom of God.
Typical freshmen Bible studies within this organization at Miami had fewer than 10 members. This study had 40, 9 of whom came to faith in Jesus for the first time, 4 of whom (to date) entered the Catholic Church (3 of whom, including this very leader, entered the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 1999 less than 2 years after the study). By their junior and senior years of college, members from that study held leadership positions in all of the major Christian organizations on campus (and there were over 5, including 3 rather large ones), not only the one whose study it was. The leaders of course were none other than my fellow-co-bloggers Biff Rocha and Jason Shanks. One of those who entered the Catholic Church from that study is currently a seminarian on his way to ordination as a Catholic priest, another currently teaches Catholic priests at a seminary. The reason I bring this story up is because I was one of those 9 members of the study who came to faith in Jesus, and I was one of the 3 who entered the Catholic Church in 1999.
I wasn’t aware of the prayer and fasting Jason and Biff underwent for the study until after my conversion. All I remember was the hours of study and all-night debates, as I was an agnostic who didn’t believe in God (in contrast to an atheist, who knows God does not exist), who had been bar mitzvahed in a Jewish home a few years before. I was aware of the intellectual portion of my journey, but only later became more aware of the spiritual influence. As I have studied history, religion, theology, Scripture, and I have become ever more aware of how the hinge of history (both on the level of world events, and at the smaller level of our lives) is prayer. My story is one of many millions of examples of how this worked at the micro level. Let’s turn to one at the macro-level.
Enter Fatima. In 1917, Jesus’ mother Mary appeared as Our Lady of Fatima to three children in Fatima, Portugal. Over 70,000 individuals (including skeptics and a number who were anti-Catholic) witnessed the miracle of the sun at the same time, on October 13, 1917. Our Lady of Fatima had revealed 3 “secrets” to the 3 children, the first of which was a vision of hell. The second secret predicts the end of World War I, and the beginning of another horrible war (World War II), but also hope for the conversion of Russia, which has been interpreted, since the revelation of the secret during World War II, the fall of Communism in Russia. The third “secret” remained secret until Pope John Paul II asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (currently Pope Benedict XVI) to make it public in 2000. The official Vatican commentary on the three secrets (as was well as photos of the actual hand-written letters and translations) may be accessed online here:
[As an aside, for purposes of clarity, the message of Fatima does not represent part of the deposit of faith, and the commentary does a fantastic job of clearly explaining the distinction between public and private revelation.]
It is not a coincidence that John Paul II played a significant role in the fall of Communism in Europe. I’ve heard older (80 + year old Catholics) calmly explain, “I played a role in the fall of Communism because I prayed the rosary as Our Lady of Fatima encouraged us to do.” It wouldn’t be the first time. Many are unaware that 4 Catholic priests emerged from the rectory beside a church completely destroyed (only a matter of blocks from ground zero) by the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, who were praying the rosary faithfully following Our Lady of Fatima’s message. In the same year, Russia invaded Austria. Fr. Petrus Pavlicek led (eventually about 500,000 of) the faithful in praying the rosary. In 1955, the Russian army left without a single-shot fired. Anyone who knows the history of Russian invasions can see the significance of this. What does this have to do with John Paul II?
Well, the Polish government had de facto veto-power on appointments to the position of metropolitan archbishop of Krakow. John Paul II, as bishop Wojtyla, was the only candidate the anti-Catholic state authorities would allow—they saw him as an un-political intellectual. Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) and Marco Politi explain, in their biography, His Holiness:
“According to procedure, he [Cardinal Wyszynski] was obliged to present the Polish government with a list of three candidates (previously approved by the pope) and to await a green light from the Warsaw authorities….Wojtyla’s [John Paul II] name wasn’t among the three….all of whom were rejected flatly by the government. And Wyszynski didn’t insert Wojtyla’s name into his second list of three—all of whom were also summarily rejected by the regime” (p. 99).
What were the Communists thinking? They thought the man who would become John Paul II would stay out of their way and help divide and undermine the Catholic Church in Poland and thus aid their own political machinations. Boy were they mistaken (huge understatement). Archbishop Wojtyla became an unrelenting thorn in the side of the Poland and thus the Soviet Union. As Cardinal Dziwisz colorfully relates in his recent memoirs of 40 years of friendship with John Paul II, they were bugged and followed by the KGB:
“The entire archbishop’s residence, including the study, the dining room, the parlor, and even the cardinal’s bedroom, was bugged, the whole place was ‘wallpapered’ with listening devices….(A Life with…, p. 42).
You can read the incredible measures Archbishop Wojtyla took to fight peacefully but relentlessly, the anti-Catholic Communist authorities in places like George Weigel’s, Witness to Hope. One of my favorites is:
“[his] annual custom that would long be a burr under the Communist saddle—Christmas midnight Mass in an open field in Nowa Huta, the so-called model workers’ town outside Krakow, the first town in Polish history deliberately built without a church” (p. 151).
When he was elected pope, Communist authorities thought he would finally leave them alone. He was elected pope on October 16, 1978. Within less than 7 months, he was back in Poland. Fr. Robert Barron writes about this eloquently when he notes:
“When John Paul II arrived in his homeland for his first visit as pope in 1979, his countrymen came out by the millions to hear him, despite numerous obstacles—physical and psychological—thrown up by the communist regime. In a remarkable prescient editorial, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, said that, in the wake of that visit, communism in Poland was finished. This was before the formation of the Solidarity trade union and a full decade before the actual fall of the Soviet-backed regime. But what Brzezinski saw was millions and millions of people moving into a space of truth that the pope, by his words and presence, opened up. In the face of that, the illusion simply could not be maintained, no matter how many tanks and bombs defended it. And the forced dispelling the illusion is precisely what took place throughout the eighties in Poland, aided and abetted at key moments by a pope who wasn’t afraid to speak the truth about God and humanity” (The Strangest Way, pp. 106-107).
It’s no wonder that, on Wednesday of May 13, 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II, an assassination attempt behind which all experts and all involved saw the hand of the Communist authorities. What Agca didn’t know, was that that particular date was the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima. Agca was not surprised that he was caught and thrown in prison, nor was he really surprised that John Paul II extended forgiveness to him. What surprised Agca, from which he never recovered, was that John Paul II survived the attempt. Agca never missed. He fired several shots. Four bullets entered John Paul II, and, in addition to tremendous blood loss, two of the bullets barely missed his mesenteric artery and his aorta. As John Paul II would claim on many
occasions, “one hand pulled the trigger, another guided the bullet.” John Paul II attributed Our Lady of Fatima’s intercession as what saved his life. It was only after this event that he opened the then sealed third secret of Fatima, which depicted the successful assassination of the Pope. In response, the then Pope John Paul II (now Blessed Pope John Paul II), wanted to show our Lady thanks in some way. In addition to consecrating the world to Mary, he had a bullet from the assassination attempt placed in the crown of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima.
Previous popes had read the third secret, and then had it closed again, no doubt fearing they might be the victims of the assassination. In the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s interpretation (linked above), John Paul II was the victim of the assassination,
but through prayer and our Lady’s intercession, was spared. The inevitable was changed. I had never thought about Fatima in this way (even though I read the CDF’s statement went it first came out in 2000), until the priest I see for confession pointed it out to me. Here’s what the CDF stated, in the words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) in his theological commentary on the third secret of Fatima:
“The cross transforms destruction into salvation; it stands as a sign of history’s misery but also as a promise for history….That here [in the shooting of John Paul II] ‘a mother’s hand’ had deflected the fateful bullet only shows once more that THERE IS NO IMMUTABLE DESTINY, THAT FAITH AND PRAYER ARE FORCES WHICH CAN INFLUENCE HISTORY AND THAT IN THE END PRAYER IS MORE POWERFUL THAN BULLETS AND FAITH MORE POWERFUL THAN ARMIES.” [upper-case and bold added for emphasis].
I would like to end this overly long blogpost with a related reflection more akin to the one with which I began this post, at the individual level…to show how such small events can turn into the type of world-historical events at the macro level just described.
There once was a Catholic layman who was striving to serve God wholeheartedly as a tailor. He saw a number of young people who were like-minded, all trying to serve God
from their positions, and trying to grow in the faith and discern what God was calling them to do. The tailor’s name was Jan Tyranowski, and among the young men he mentored was one named Karol. Karol thrived under Tyranowski’s spiritual direction, and was introduced to the great Carmelite mystical tradition. Karol eventually entered the seminary to become a priest in a time and region of the world where that had become illegal—Nazi-occupied Poland—and for this, was on the Nazi’s completely legal hit-list of underground seminarians. Karol continued his clandestine seminary studies, was ordained a priest, and eventually came to be known throughout the world as Pope John Paul II, whose funeral in 2005 remains the most televised event in the history of the world.
Conclusion: If you want to change the world, begin with prayer and fasting. Be a faithful friend reaching out to others, doing the best you can to spread peace, love, and joy to those around you. Prayer is the core of the message of Our Lady of Fatima: prayer is the hinge of history. Again, as Ratzinger concludes: “faith and prayer are forces which can influence history and…in the end prayer is more powerful than bullets and faith more powerful than armies.” The prayer, fasting, and apostolate of friendship of Biff and Jason changed the course of my life. The prayer, fasting, and apostolate of friendship of Jan Tyranowski, changed the course of world history.