"The Third Secret." It sounds like a Graham Greene title, and it is has fascinated many for whom a frisson while reading Greene is as close as they want to get to the supernatural. Until this spring, however, only a few traditionalist Catholics were aware that the Third Secret referred to a revelation reportedly made by the Blessed Virgin to three peasant children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917 and never made public.

Then, a few weeks ago, Pope John Paul II, who had been told the secret's contents many years before, made a highly publicized trip to Fatima for the beatification of Francisco and Jacinta Marto, two of the children who had died of pneumonia not long after the visions. The third and oldest of the seers, Lucia Dos Santos, now a 93-year-old nun in Fatima, had a private talk with the pope. Afterward, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's No. 2 prelate, announced that the Third Secret of Fatima would finally be revealed: It involved a prediction of the 1981 assassination attempt on John Paul II. Nearly everyone had expected something more apocalyptic, and there was widespread disappointment. One grumbler said That's some prophecy, telling us something that already happened.

He should have held his grumbling. The Vatican quickly corrected the impression it had given that the Third Secret was exhausted by the prophecy of the assassination attempt (that a "bishop clothed in white" would fall to the ground in a burst of gunfire). Cardinal Sodano indicated that this was by no means the case. Furthermore, John Paul now promises that in mid-June, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, will release the complete Third Secret text, along with appropriate theological commentary.

The Third Secret consists of a portion of a written account by Sister Lucia, made in 1945 on the orders of her religious superiors, of certain revelations that the Virgin had entrusted to her some 28 years earlier for delivery to the Holy Father. Sister Lucia's account did not reach Rome until 1960, and there it more or less languished. Pope after pope seemed to treat it gingerly. Pope John XXIII said it didn't apply to his papacy, and Pope Paul VI said almost nothing at all about it. Two of its so-called "secrets"--Mary's predictions of the end of World War I and beginning of World War II, and the rise and fall of Soviet communism--were made public, but the Third Secret remained exactly that, except to the popes and perhaps a few trusted advisers. Holding it back whetted the curiosity of millions who were certain it contained catastrophic revelations of end-times doom.

This fear--or hope--was not dampened when, in his famous "Ratzinger Report" of 1985, the cardinal, responding to a question by the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, announced that he had read the Third Secret. Why didn't he release it? It would be, Ratzinger said, too sensational. Not a remark calculated to appease the curious.

Catholics are under no obligation to believe in private revelations--revelations that do not issue from official church channels or Holy Scripture. True enough, but there are private revelations and private revelations. Some to whom the Blessed Mother appeared have been canonized, a fact that seems to cast favorable light on their extraordinary experiences. Bernadette of Lourdes, said to have seen the Virgin in a French grotto in 1858, is now a canonized official saint. Indeed, her still uncorrupted body can be seen on display in a glass casket at Nevers, France, in the convent where she was a nun.

John Paul II has visited Fatima twice as pope. The first time to thank the Blessed Virgin for his survival of the assassin's bullet, which struck him on May 15, 1981, exactly 64 years to the day of Mary's first appearance there. The second time for the beatifications of Jacinta and Francisco. And now, at last, will come the secret.

That the Fatima revelations concern the papacy in an intimate way has long been known. Blessed Jacinta, as she now is, reported this of one of her visions: "I can't say how, but I saw the Holy Father in a very large house, kneeling before a table with his face in his hands. He was crying. Many people were in front of the house; some were throwing stones, while others were cursing him and using foul language." Sounds like a meeting of dissenting Catholic theologians.

There are those, and I am among them, who have guessed that the Third Secret describes the parlous condition of the church in the contentious years that have followed the Second Vatican Council. This is not to use the secret as a weapon against the adversaries of either the church or the papacy. If Fatima says anything, it is that all of us Catholics have been delinquent in our duties as Christians. Mary's chief revelations to the children to whom she appeared at Fatima were never a secret. She called for prayer and penance. She declared that their purpose was to wean people from the values of this world to those of the next. One of the most dramatic features of the apparitions was a vision of hell that all three children reported. It wasn't empty, pace some theologians.

Fatima is not a call for one group of Catholics to win arguments against another group of Catholics but for all of us to change our lives. And the means of doing that, as Mary told the children, are prayer and the sacraments. Plus devotion to Mary's Immaculate Heart. Is this some Portuguese fillip, a possible source of embarrassment to colder Nordic types who don't share the Mediterranean devotion to the image of the Madonna's heart impaled by seven swords of sorrow? Not if we reflect on the final and culminating chapter of the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, the council's major ecclesial blueprint, which presents Mary as the Mother of the Church. Her maternal heart beats and bleeds for all of us, her children.

Whatever the Third Secret of Fatima contains, it will be good to have it public. Probably, as with the assassination attempt, when the rest is revealed in a few weeks, many will feel disappointed. The secret has deflected attention from the real meaning of Fatima, which is not about secrets but an open call for repentance. Apparitions that achieve official recognition from the church do so precisely because they contain no novelty and ultimately have no big secret to reveal. As Cardinal Ratzinger has pointed out, those visions instead serve as dramatic reminders of the fundamental demands of the Christian life, which never change. To go to private revelations for news bulletins, for a peek around the corner of time, is a distraction. The Good News is no secret.

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