VATICAN CITY, June 26 (CNS)--The so-called third secret of Fatima is a symbolic prophecy of the church's 20th-century struggles with evil political systems and of its ultimate triumph, said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"The message of Fatima invites us to trust" in Christ's promise that the final victory is his, the cardinal wrote in a commentary on the secret, which was released Monday at the Vatican.

In a 43-page booklet, the Vatican published photocopies of Carmelite Sister Lucia dos Santos' handwritten texts of the secrets she said was revealed to her and her two small cousins when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to them in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917.

The booklet also included Cardinal Ratzinger's commentary on the text and an explanation of why some church officials believe a key part of the secret refers to the 1981 attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II.

In the third part of the secret, which has been kept at the Vatican since 1957, Sister Lucia wrote of "a bishop dressed in white, we had the impression it was the Holy Father," going up a steep mountain toward "a big cross of rough-hewn trunks" with other bishops, priests, and religious.

"Before reaching there, the Holy Father passed through a big city half in ruins and prayed for the souls of the corpses he met on his way," Lucia wrote. "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."

The others walking with the pope are also killed and angels standing beneath the cross gather the blood of the martyrs, put it in "a crystal aspersorium," as if it were holy water, "and with it sprinkled the souls that were making their way to God," she said.

At a Vatican press conference Monday, Ratzinger said, "There does not exist an official definition or official interpretation of this vision on the part of the church."

Like any private revelation approved by the church, the cardinal said, the Fatima message "is a help which is offered" to Catholics for living their faith, "but which one is not obliged to use."

In the commentary he wrote that the vision described the path of the church through the 20th century as a Way of the Cross, "a journey through a time of violence, destruction, and persecution."

The cardinal said he believed the particular period of struggle described by the vision, culminating in the attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II, has ended, therefore making it appropriate to reveal the secret's contents.

Lucia, the cardinal wrote, said the Vatican's "interpretation corresponded to what she had experienced and that, on her part, she thought the interpretation correct."

According to the booklet, Pope John Paul sent Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the doctrinal congregation, to Portugal to review the Vatican interpretation with Sister Lucia.

In a letter to the cloistered nun, the pope said, the archbishop "will come in my name to ask certain questions about the interpretation of the third part of the secret. You may speak openly and candidly to Archbishop Bertone, who will report your answers directly to me," the pope wrote.

Bertone said the letter was read to Lucia April 27, then she read it again herself.

The archbishop also gave Lucia an envelope containing what she confirmed as the message she had written in her own handwriting.

Lucia "repeated her conviction that the vision of Fatima concerns, above all, the struggle of atheistic communism against the church and against Christians and describes the terrible sufferings of the victims of the faith in the 20th century," Bertone said.

The archbishop said he felt he had to ask Lucia why she had given instructions that the secret should be revealed only after 1960, an instruction many people claimed was an order that it be published then.

Bertone asked Lucia if Mary had fixed the date.

"Sister Lucia replied: 'It was not Our Lady. I fixed the date because I had the intuition that before 1960 it would not be understood," the archbishop wrote.

Lucia also told the archbishop that while she was given the vision, it was up to the pope to interpret it.

The Carmelite continued having visions of the Virgin Mary and hearing messages from her as late as the 1980s and perhaps beyond, the archbishop said.

She also has written a book of thoughts and reflections in response to questions sent to her by Fatima pilgrims. The archbishop said the book will be published, although he did not say when.

The Vatican's booklet containing the text of the secret included the May 13 announcement by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, that the pope had ordered the publication of the secret and that he believed the vision referred specifically to the 1981 attempt on his life.

Bertone said the pope, who was elected in 1978, first read the contents of the wax-sealed envelope in May 1981 while in Rome's Gemelli Hospital recovering from the attack.

The archbishop's insistence that the pope first read the secret in the hospital deflated another Fatima myth: that during a semi-private meeting in Fulda, Germany, in November 1980, Pope John Paul referred to the Fatima secret and its supposedly apocalyptic, end-of-the-world vision.

Cardinal Ratzinger said the story was "really was apocryphal; it never happened."

The cardinal also was asked how the Vatican came to its interpretation when in Lucia's text the pope is killed.

Ratzinger said the language of the vision is symbolic, and like biblical prophecy it does not predict the future but warns what the future may hold if people do not convert and pray.

Of course, the cardinal said, the church has experienced martyrdom throughout its history, but the Fatima vision "speaks of a very specific situation of violence, persecution, and the destruction of cities," which fit the 20th century's two world wars, Nazism, communism, and other forms of totalitarianism that oppressed the church.

"Naturally," he said, there is "a margin of error" when interpreting visions, which is one reason why "the church is not imposing an interpretation."

The central point of the message and the reason why it has been accepted as authentic by the Vatican is "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," the cardinal wrote.

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