At first sight the two most famous Marian apparitions seem to have little in common. A closer look reveals a mysterious link between them
Among Catholics there is an impression that Lourdes and Fatima have little to do with each other, beyond the fact that Our Lady appeared at both places. It even seems to be a different Our Lady who came to each place.
At Lourdes she is a mother full of compassion for the sick, causing healing waters to spring forth and working wondrous cures. At Fatima there is no marvelous spring and no list of spectacular cures, just unsettling prophecies and mysterious secrets. How could Our Lady be so different in these two apparitions?
These things might cause us to think Lourdes is about the mercy and goodness of God, while Fatima is about the severity of God.
Truth is, Lourdes and Fatima are two episodes of the magnificent story of Our Lady’s intervention in world affairs. What Our Lady began at Lourdes she continued at Fatima and both apparitions make up the same appeal to a sinful world to repent.
To do full justice to this magnificent story we could include Rue de Bac in Paris, where Our Lady came 28 years before Lourdes to give us the Miraculous Medal. We could also include La Salette, where Our Lady visited just a few years before Lourdes. Perhaps we might also add Akita, Japan (1973). These apparitions taken together form a coherent sequence.
There are yet others, but they are either not widely known among Catholics, or have not been approved by Holy Church as worthy of belief, so we will leave them outside our present considerations.
We will fail to grasp the significance of Our Lady coming to Lourdes if we do not think about the context in which it happened. At the time of the Lourdes apparitions, France – indeed all of Western society – was in dire spiritual decay. A spirit of pride and smug belief in the power of Progress had lulled people into thinking they no longer needed God.
Even as Our Lady was appearing to Saint Bernadette, the Englishman Charles Darwin was writing a book called On the Origin of Species which would become famous and convince multitudes that God was not our creator. In an outburst of insane pride, the celebrated German philosopher Nietzsche was proclaiming “God is dead.” These false prophets were enthusiastically listened to, because they gave people an excuse to expel God from their lives.
This is the background that we must take into consideration if we are to understand the significance of what Our Lady did at Lourdes. From the banal rock outcrop of Massabielle on the outskirts of a provincial backwater called Lourdes, there surged forth across the world a flood of graces and a revival of belief in the supernatural. The scientists whom everyone admired – even adulated! – were unable to work the cures that were so easy for Our Lady. Nor could the scientists dismiss or explain these spectacular cures that began to happen one after the other. Soon the sneering skeptics fell into sullen silence; the civil authorities that tried to thwart Bernadette and her “lady” fell back in defeat.
So when Our Lady cured – and still cures! – at Lourdes, it is not merely to show her maternal compassion for suffering; she also has the higher purpose of reminding us of the power of God.
While healing and mercy are very evident at Lourdes, it is not the whole picture. Our Lady also came there to beseech the world to convert from sin, above all the sin of atheism. This is the supreme sin of our time.
Franz Werfel tells us in The Song of Bernadette – his classic account of the Lourdes apparitions – that during the apparition of 25 February, Our Lady suddenly stopped looking at Bernadette and lifted her gaze to something far away…“Then she became distraught”, he writes. “She did not lean down toward her favorite. Her crystalline eyes painfully sought some far horizon. She seemed beset by visions – visions of torment and horror, for again and again her lips pronounced the word ‘penitence’. Her revulsion was very great, and Bernadette did her best to ease, by penitential acts, the lady’s presence in this revolting world. The lady shivered despite the fairness of the day. The roses at her feet were very faint and at the end of twenty minutes she withdrew.”
Penitence! Penitence! Penitence! These are the words uttered by the terrible angel who holds a burning sword over the world in the third part of the “secret of Fatima”, as published by the Vatican a few years ago. At Fatima we not only have Our Lady as a Mother full of anguish over her wayward children; we also have an avenging angel with a flaming sword. During the sixty years between Lourdes (1858) and Fatima (1917) mankind did not amend, but sank ever more into sin.
At Fatima it seems as if God can no longer prove His love through merciful miracles of healing. Mankind has grown deaf and nothing remains but the heavy hand of justice. In the apparition of 13 June 1917, Lucia dos Santos asked Our Lady to cure a sick boy. Our Lady replied “If he converts he will be cured within the year.” Cure? Yes, but conversion is the condition. During the last apparition, on 3 October, Lucia again asks for the cure of some sick persons. Our Lady responds “Some yes, others no; they must amend their lives and ask forgiveness for their sins.”
And what will be the consequences of not converting? One consequence will be hell. This is a reality often forgotten today – or worse, ridiculed. At Fatima Our Lady went out of her way to remind us of this reality. During the apparition of 13 July the three children were shown hell in all its horror.
The second consequence of sin is earthy catastrophes. Sadly, we cannot say mankind has amended its ways during the nine decades since Fatima. His Holiness Pope John Paul II remarked in his allocution at Fatima in May 1983, that far from converting, as Our Lady had asked, most of mankind “has gone in the opposite direction.” How can this be! How could we do the opposite of what Our Lady asked! Could anything be more foolish?
Yet it would be somewhat simplistic to say mercy is the message of Lourdes and justice the message of Fatima. We should not forget that God chastises only in order to convert. God is not seeking revenge, but our eternal salvation. We should not complain that He is being cruel if He has to lay the burden of suffering on us in this life so that we can enjoy eternal happiness in the next. What then is more important, our earthly life or our eternal one?
There is more however. Beyond the terrible prophecies of war, famine, destruction, persecution of the Church, and the annihilation of nations – all spoken of by Our Lady at Fatima – there is also the consolation of knowing that the conversion of the world has been prophesied too. “In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph and an era of peace will be granted to the world.”
There is a final important point: why did Our Lady say her Immaculate Heart will triumph, and not God will triumph? To answer this question we need to recall the very central role of the Virgin Mary in salvation.
The great Marian saint, Louis de Montfort, says in his True Devotion to Mary that it was through Mary that God came into the world and through Mary God will save the world. Not just poetic words these, but solid and profoundly orthodox Catholic theology. What Eve lost through sin, Mary recouped through virtue. In Genesis, God predicts that the heel of the Woman will crush the head of Satan and all his followers.
We can easily see the link between this prophecy of Genesis and Our Lady’s prophecy at Fatima that her Immaculate Heart will triumph. After all the frightful chastisements have come and gone, what will remain is the supreme, total and spectacular victory of Mary. Our Lady echoes St Louis de Montfort’s prediction of the coming Age of Mary when she says there will come a time of peace after a great conversion. Nor is it just St Louis de Montfort who predicted this but many other saints who received prophetic insights. We don’t know the details, but we can say with certainty that Our Lady will triumph. To triumph is to be completely victorious.