In 1917, three Portuguese shepherd children--Lucia Abobora and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto--reported monthly apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a field. The apparitions began drawing thousands of visitors to Fatima and eventually received the official blessing of the Roman Catholic Church.
According to the children, the Virgin made a series of revelations to them of what the future would hold, including the onset of World War II. One of those revelations--a reportedly frightening vision of the future, known as the "Third Secret of Fatima"--has never been revealed to anyone outside the Vatican.
Yet on the Internet, Catholics of various stripes, New Age seekers, and even marketers of "miraculous medals" claim they know the secret and will share it.
Top church officials who really have read the secret say it is not frightening, and it adds nothing essential to Fatima's message of conversion and prayer, especially through daily recitation of the rosary.
But many of those who have hit the information superhighway, supposedly with the secret, say it's not so innocuous.
Most of the Internet revelations fit into two broad categories:
- God will destroy the world with earthquakes and flooding, or with nuclear war.
- The Antichrist is destroying the Catholic Church; or the reforms of the Second Vatican Council are.
Off the Internet mainstream, one web master claims wearing a medal of Our Lady of Fatima can help you win the lottery. Another cites Fatima as proof, along with UFOs, that "we are not alone."
As Pope John Paul prepared to travel to Fatima, Portugal, Friday and Saturday to beatify two of the shepherd children to whom the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in 1917, the thoughts of many turned to the secret.
The pope, who is deeply devoted to Our Lady of Fatima and credits her with saving his life in 1981 when a Turkish gunman tried to assassinate him, has read the secret but not revealed it.
It was only 18 years after the apparitions that Sister Lucia dos Santos, the only surviving Fatima seer, began writing down her recollections of the apparitions at the request of her religious superiors.
Responding in 1941 to requests for more information, Sister Lucia said, "The secret is made up of three distinct parts, two of which I am now going to reveal."
The first part of the secret, she said, was that Mary had shown the children a vision of hell, "where the souls of poor sinners go." The second part was that Mary wanted devotion to her Immaculate Heart and she wanted Russia to be consecrated to her.
While the first two were published, Sister Lucia wrote the third part of the secret in 1943, put it in a wax-sealed envelope, and gave it to her bishop, who sent it to the Vatican, where it remains.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and one of the few people who actually has read the secret, said it is not sensational or apocalyptic.
In a 1996 interview with Portugal's main Catholic radio station, the cardinal said, "To all the curious, I would say I am certain that the Virgin does not engage in sensationalism; she does not create fear. She does not present apocalyptic visions, but guides people to her Son."
Marianist Father Johann G. Roten, director of the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton, Ohio, said it is natural that people would think the remaining Fatima secret is sensational or apocalyptic.
"What people want is their rosaries turning to gold or the sun spinning in the sky," something out of the ordinary which points to the supernatural, he said.
They are also attracted to apparitions that help them "get a grasp of the end of time," the fulfillment of history and the definitive establishment of God's kingdom in the world, he said.
However, Father Roten said, all of the major apparitions--like the prophecies of the Bible--place the warnings about sin and the end of the world "in a larger context which is one of salvation and hope and promise of happiness which will overcome all of these intermediate warnings and punishments."
The Marianist, who has done extensive research on Marian apparitions and alleged apparitions, suspects that the third secret is not of immense importance.
The fact that Popes Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II chose not to reveal the secret "is for me reason enough to say that it is not that important," he said.
"If it really would provide a better understanding of the faith," one of the popes would have revealed it, Roten said.
If the secret contains a harsh judgment of the church or the Second Vatican Council, he said, Popes Paul and John Paul II would not have "espoused the whole philosophy of Fatima" and visited the shrine in Portugal.
Should the third secret regard something that has already passed or is not really important, perhaps it is best not to reveal it, Roten added.
"Because as soon as you reveal it and it turns out to be something that falls flat on its face, it doesn't have the same kind of attraction anymore," he said.