The apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima are famous for the three-part "secret" they conveyed.
Of these, the "third secret" is the most famous, because it was kept confidential at the Vatican for many years.
Only a few popes and a select few others read it--until the year 2000, when Pope John Paul II published it for the whole world to read.
Here are 9 things to know and share with friends about it . . .
NOTE: We've already looked at the apparitions at Fatima in general and at the first two parts of the secret. For information on that, you should click here.
1) What is the third part of the secret or "third secret"?
Here is what Sr. Lucia wrote:
After the two parts which I have already explained, at the left of Our Lady and a little above, we saw an Angel with a flaming sword in his left hand; flashing, it gave out flames that looked as though they would set the world on fire; but they died out in contact with the splendour that Our Lady radiated towards him from her right hand: pointing to the earth with his right hand, the Angel cried out in a loud voice: Penance, Penance, Penance!'
And we saw in an immense light that is God: something similar to how people appear in a mirror when they pass in front of it' a Bishop dressed in White we had the impression that it was the holy father'.
Other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious going up a steep mountain, at the top of which there was a big Cross of rough-hewn trunks as of a cork-tree with the bark; before reaching there the Holy Father passed through a big city half in ruins and half trembling with halting step, afflicted with pain and sorrow, he prayed for the souls of the corpses he met on his way; 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, and in the same way there died one after another the other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious, and various lay people of different ranks and positions.
Beneath the two arms of the Cross there were two Angels each with a crystal aspersorium in his hand, in which they gathered up the blood of the Martyrs and with it sprinkled the souls that were making their way to God [The Message of Fatima [MF], "Third Part of the 'Secret'"].
2) What does the secret refer to?
In a letter to John Paul II date May 12, 1982, Sr. Lucia wrote:
"The third part of the secret refers to Our Ladys words [in the second part of the secret]: If not, [Russia] will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated (13-VII-1917)" (MF, Introduction).
In general terms, then, the third part of the secret refers to the twentieth-century conflict between the Church and Communist Russia.
3) What does the angel with the flaming sword symbolize?
The angel with the flaming sword represents the judgment that would fall on the world were it not for the intercession of Mary (and, of course, the intercession of others, though here it is Mary with whom we are concerned since she radiates the light that stops the flaming sword).
For many years it was rumored that the third part of the secret involved the possibility of a nuclear war. If there is anything in the text that suggests this, it is the flames of the sword, which Sr. Lucia noted "looked as though they would set the world on fire."
In Scripture, fire can be an image of judgment or conflict in general. In his commentary on the angels flaming sword, however, Cardinal Ratzinger seems to allude to nuclear war:
"Today the prospect that the world might be reduced to ashes by a sea of fire no longer seems pure fantasy: Man himself, with his inventions, has forged the flaming sword" (MF, "Theological Commentary").
In the 1984 consecration of the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the second of Pope John Paul IIs specific petitions was:
"From incalculable self-destruction, from every kind of war, deliver us" (Sodano, MF, "Introduction").
4) What does the bishop in white and his journey represent?
The seers then saw in the unapproachable light of God a reflection of someone who, Lucia says, "we had the impression . . . was the holy father."
With the pope were others climbing a mountain to a rough-hewn cross. Mountains are traditional places where man meets with God, the difficult process of ascending the mountain suggesting the perseverance required to follow God. The ruggedness of the cross depicted in the vision evokes the harshness of the sufferings of Christ and those who share in his sufferings.
The journey of the pope and those with him through the half-ruined city suggests that the Church must pass through the destruction that accompanies war, and it evokes the suffering of the pontiff in witnessing this destruction but being unable to stop it. This reflects the experience of many twentieth-century popes.
5) What does the apparent killing of the bishop in white refer to?
This appears to refer to the attempted assassination on Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981--the anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima's first appearance.
It shows that he, like numerous other members of the Church, must face the possibility of martyrdom in the conflict between the Church and Russian Communism.
There are, in fact, significant indications that the would-be papal assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was on a mission sponsored by Soviet Russia.
There are two aspects of this part of the secret that will be seized upon by those who wish to challenge the Holy Sees interpretation. First, the killers are described as a group of soldiers using guns and arrows, not as a lone gunman who is not a soldier.
However, the third part of the secret describes one group of people killing another group. The soldiers in the vision seem to represent all those who have been used by Communists to martyr or attempt to martyr Catholics, and those being killed represent all Catholics who suffer in this way at the hands of Communists. The vision thus indicates that the Holy Father will himself be a victim of this violence, though without indicating the particular means by which it will be brought to bear upon him.
Critics of the Holy Sees interpretation will also point to the fact that Pope John Paul II did not die. To this there are a couple of responses:
(1) If in the vision Lucia saw the pope being shot and falling over, she might well have thought that he had been killed even though in reality he would only be gravely wounded.
(2) The intercession of Mary may have changed what would have happened. After he read the third secret, John Paul II attributed his survival to Mary guiding the bullet so that he did not die. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger commented:
"That here a mothers 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" (Ratzinger, MF, op. cit.).
6) What do the angels with the aspersoria refer to?
An aspersorium can refer to a stoup, basin, or vessel used to hold holy water or it can refer to the aspergill used to sprinkle holy water.
Either way, the angels using the blood of the martyrs to sprinkle the souls going to God gives us a powerful symbol of salvation, of the honor shows to the martyrs by God, and of the significance of their blood. Cardinal Ratzinger points out:
"Therefore, the vision of the third part of the secret,so distressing at first, concludes with an image of hope: No suffering is in vain, and it is a suffering Church, a Church of martyrs, which becomes a sign-post for man in his search for God" (op. cit.).
7) Did Mary demand that the pope reveal the secret in 1960?
You often hear people claim this, but no, she did not. Here are the actual facts:
Before giving the sealed envelope containing the third part of the secret to the then Bishop of Leiria-Fatima, Sister Lucia wrote on the outside envelope that it could be opened only after 1960, either by the Patriarch of Lisbon or the Bishop of Leiria [Bertone, MF, "Conversation with Sr. Maria Lucia"].
Thus the message on the outside of the envelope said that it "could be opened only after" 1960, not that it must be published to the world in 1960.
Furthermore, it envisioned the opening being done by the Patriarch of Lisbon or the Bishop of Leiria, not the pope.
This still leaves us with the question of why 1960. This was clarified in a conversation between then-Archbishop Bertone and Sr. Lucia:
Archbishop Bertone therefore asked: Why only after 1960? Was it Our Lady who fixed that 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, but that only later would it be understood. Now it can be better understood. I wrote down what I saw; however it was not for me to interpret it, but for the Pope" [ibid.].
Sr. Lucia's intuition may have been correct, since the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war were well understood by 1960, though not in 1944, when the third part of the secret was originally written down.
8) Has the Vatican revealed the whole of the secret?
Despite the claims of some to the contrary, yes, it has. In his theological commentary, the future Pope Benedict XVI says so twice:
A careful reading of the text of the so-called third secret of Fatima, published here in its entirety long after the fact and by decision of the Holy Father, will probably prove disappointing or surprising after all the speculation it has stirred. No great mystery is revealed; nor is the future unveiled. We see the Church of the martyrs of the century which has just passed represented in a scene described in a language which is symbolic and not easy to decipher. . . .
Thus we come finally to the third part of the secret of Fatima which for the first time is being published in its entirety [Ratzinger, MF, op. cit.].
Unless you think that the future pope--who was himself the keeper of the secret at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith--was lying then the whole secret has been revealed.
9) Are other interpretations of the third secret possible?
Since the Holy See has not infallibly defined the subject, other interpretations are possible. This does not mean that other interpretations are rationalat least if they depart from the main lines of the interpretation given by the Holy See.
Sr. Lucia herself indicated that she agreed with the interpretation offered by the Vatican:
Sister Lucia agreed with the interpretation that the third part of the secret was a prophetic vision, similar to those in sacred history. She 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 twentieth century [Bertone, MF, op. cit.].
If she was satisfied that this is the correct interpretation, we should be, too.