It was not that many weeks ago that our country experienced what could be described as "eclipse mania" with people embarking upon eclipse road trips and doing all they could to obtain safe eyewear for eclipse viewing. This type of communal sky gazing is not a common occurrence in our modern world. We are more apt to be focused on the beeping smartphones in our hands than the broad sky above us. But on one afternoon in late August, we were all united in this upward gaze.
The recent solar eclipse reminded me of another celestial event of a very unique and enduring nature. As you may know, the Church has been celebrating the centennial of the Fatima Apparitions from November 27th of 2016 through November 26th of this year. It was 100 years ago this October 13th that the "Miracle of the Sun" occurred in a field in rural Portugal. This was the last of six apparitions made by Our Lady to three shepherd children - Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta.
On October 13th, 1917, the three children were joined by an enormous crowd comprised of believers and skeptics, farmers and scientists - all eager to see firsthand if the children's accounts of these apparitions were true. It is significant to note that the government of Portugal was vehemently anti-Catholic at this time. In fact, the local government had attempted to scare the three children by imprisoning them and threatening to throw them in boiling oil if they did not recant their story of "the beautiful lady." When Our Lady arrived on October 13th, she told the children that she was "the Lady of the Rosary" and requested that a chapel be built there in her honor. After speaking, she rose into the sky at which point the sun burst through the clouds and began to spin.
A reporter from the anti-clerical government newspaper O Seculo wrote this report of the events he observed that day: "We saw the huge crowd turn towards the sun which appeared at its zenith, clear of the clouds. It resembled a disc of silver and it was possible to stare at it without the least discomfort. Then the sun trembled, it made strange and abrupt movements, outside of all cosmic laws - 'the sun danced,' according to the typical expression of the peasants." When his account was later questioned and even attacked, this reporter reiterated that he was only describing what he had witnessed.
As incredible as this solar phenomenon is and was, it is important that we not let the miracle of Fatima distract us from the message of Fatima. Throughout the six apparitions, Our Lady asked the children to pray the rosary daily for world peace and to make sacrifices for the conversion of sinners. Some of the last words she spoke were these: "May our God be offended no longer. He is already offended so much!" When Pope Francis visited the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in May for the canonization of Jacinta and Francisco, he emphasized these words of Our Lady: "Our Lady foretold, and warned us about, a way of life that is godless and indeed profanes God in His creatures. Such a life - frequently proposed and imposed - risks leading to Hell."
Another recent pontiff, Saint John Paul II, offered his perspective on the message of Fatima when he visited there in 1982: "In the light of a mother's love, we understand the whole message of the Lady of Fatima. The greatest obstacle to man's journey towards God is sin, perseverance in sin, and, finally, denial of God. [Her] call to repentance is a motherly one, and at the same time it is strong and decisive." Saint John Paul II goes on to remind us that Our Lady's call to repentance is united with a call to prayer especially that of the rosary: "In harmony with the tradition of many centuries, [her] message indicates the rosary, which can rightly be defined as 'Mary's prayer:' the prayer in which she feels particularly united with us. The rosary prayer embraces the problems of the Church [and] the problems of the whole world. In it we also remember sinners, that they may be converted and saved, and the souls in Purgatory."
The month of October is always designated as the month of the Holy Rosary within our Church. As we draw near the close of this Fatima centennial, I encourage you to renew or strengthen your efforts to pray the rosary as Our Lady of Fatima requested. I also recommend that you visit one of our local churches that has a special devotion to Our Lady of Fatima. The Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Lewiston is our diocese's greatest tribute to Our Lady of Fatima. Sacred Heart Parish in Bowmansville is home to the working model for the Pilgrim Virgin statue that was created in Portugal and blessed at the Basilica in Fatima in 1948. Saint Padre Pio Parish in Elba boasts the first shrine in North America dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima. We are blessed to have these beautiful reminders of Fatima within our diocese.
I would like to close with part of a prayer that Pope Francis offered in Fatima this past May. Please join me in praying with him:
Hail, life and sweetness! Hail, our hope! O Pilgrim Virgin, O Universal Queen! In the depths of your being, in your Immaculate Heart, you keep the joys of men and women as they journey to the Heavenly Homeland. In the depths of your being, in your Immaculate Heart, you keep the sorrows of the human family, as they mourn and weep in this valley of tears. With your gaze of sweetness, strengthen the hope of God's children. With your hands lifted in prayer to the Lord, draw all people together into one human family. Show us the strength of your protective mantle and be the refuge of sinners and the way that leads to God. Amen.