Reading this slim and puzzling book  is a little like receiving a message from another period of church history. Yet it contains a foreword from our current pope, Benedict XVI, a series of interviews with Tarcisio Bertone, the cardinal he appointed secretary of state, and a theological commentary on the third secret of Fatima written by Cardinal Ratzinger (then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ) in June 2000, when Pope John Paul II made the third secret public.
Why do these distinguished church leaders find it useful now to revisit well-publicized information about the famous secrets associated with the apparition of Our Lady of Fatima to three Portuguese children in 1917? Those of us who are old enough can well remember the excitement surrounding such secrets in the late 1940s and 50s. Unlike many earlier apparitions, during which viewers were asked to have a church built on the site of Mary’s appearance, a number of serial 19th-century appearances, beginning with La Salette in 1843, suggested divine punishment if people did not repent and pray. La Salette was also accompanied by secrets the children were told not to share.
The events at Fatima followed in this pattern, but received far more attention for two reasons. First, because Lucia, the primary caretaker of the secrets from 1917, became a Carmelite nun and under her superior’s orders, wrote four memoirs between 1935 and 1941 revealing further details of the Virgin’s visitations. And second, because those revelations were widely understood to apply not only then but to all of 20th-century history.
The “secrets” are recorded here: the second (from the third memoir in 1941) contains a view of hell reminiscent of the medieval horrors painted by Hieronymus Bosch. It also introduces the Virgin’s concern for the conversion of Communist Russia and threatens cataclysmic war if her pleas for prayer—particularly the Rosary—and other requests are not met. Fear of Communism in the post-World War II environment brought this message to worldwide attention. It was widely known that one last secret had been withheld, and speculation as to its content grew amid near-panic. Only when Lucia seemed near death did her bishop tell her to write down the third and final secret, which was sent in 1957 in a sealed envelope to the confidential archives of the Holy Office.
As Lucia describes it, the message is reminiscent of the Book of Revelation, with visual images of angels hovering over a scene of great suffering. A “Bishop dressed in White,” surrounded by clerics and faithful, passes through a ruined city and climbs to a cross high on a mountain, where he is killed along with many others by arrows and bullets.
Pope John XXIII read the document in 1959 and decided to return it to the archives as irrelevant to our times. Later Pope Paul VI read it and also sent the envelope back. But when John Paul II read the message while recuperating from his near-assassination in 1981, he was convinced that the bishop in white was himself, and that Our Lady of Fatima had saved his life. A year later he made a pilgrimage to Fatima to thank her; he also had the bullet that struck him placed in the crown of her statue. One piece of evidence that convinced him of his personal connection with the secret was the extraordinary coincidence of a number of dates. For instance, Our Lady had appeared to the young visionaries on May l3, 1917; and John Paul was shot on May l3, 1981.
The pope visited Fatima once again, in 1990, and talked with Sister Lucia in her cell. By 2000 he decided to publish the third secret but felt he needed corroboration by her that the document was genuine and that his interpretation of it was correct. He sent Tarcisio Bertone to meet her several times, and she confirmed both points. On May 13 of that year he beatified Lucia’s cousins Jacinta and Francisco, and in June had Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Bertone (then prefect and secretary, respectively, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) divulge at a press conference what the book calls “the greatest mystery of the twentieth century.”
So we are back to the mystery of this book—which is more a collection of separate documents—whose purpose is unclear and even somewhat contradictory. The problem begins with its authorship. Both front and back covers suggest that Cardinal Bertone is the author. Yet he has actually written nothing in it. Its centerpiece is a series of interviews with him. The reader can only assume that the “Giuseppe De Carli” whose name appears under the cardinal’s on the frontispiece and is thanked by Pope Benedict in the foreword is in fact the questioner and writer of the long, unsigned introduction, though he is never so acknowledged or described. He also suggests in his lengthy, rambling questions that he is more strongly devoted to the Fatima story, its blessed visionaries and the centrality of John Paul II to its world significance than either the pope or the cardinal. He claims, for instance, that John Paul’s survival of his assassination attempt was responsible for the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.
Apparitions have always been of great interest to the official church—but are often also seen as thorns in its side. Private revelations, so often occurring to the poor, uneducated faithful in trying times, always exist in tension with the official church. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger says in his theological commentary on the third secret, public and private revelations are essentially different, and no revelation adds to that of the Gospels. “It is not their role to complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history.”
Both Benedict XVI and Cardinal Bertone seem to be suggesting that the period of history to which Fatima and its secrets belong has passed with the story of John Paul II. With due respect for Lucia and the extraordinary devotion of John Paul II, they seem to be trying to end whatever speculation still exists about further apocalyptic prophecies related to the secrets of Fatima. Without specific references, De Carli suggests there is much speculation. How much simpler would the pope’s and the cardinal’s task have been if the imaginative, long-lived Lucia (she died, still lucid, at 97) had been able to fend off her constant secret-searchers as Bernadette Soubirous did.
She, too, had been given a secret at Lourdes and was told by Mary to reveal it to no one. When the bishops’ commission asked her if she would tell her secret to the pope, the young woman is said to have replied: “The Pope is someone.” When the commission persisted, pointing out that the pope had the authority of Christ, she replied: “The Pope has authority on earth; the Blessed Virgin is in heaven,” and refused to speak further on the subject.