I did an interview with Leo Madigan for Our Sunday Visitor. Those published interviews are always shorter than what is gathered, and what Leo said is insightful. So here's the full thing.
By Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz
It was the spring of 1916. World War I had started two years before, but it had not brought war to Portugal. However, the country was in political turmoil after the killing of the king in 1908 and the government takeover by radical atheists.
Into this scene come three peasant children watching their sheep outside of Fatima and a sudden apparition of an angel who identified himself as the “Angel of Peace.” Unbeknownst to them, it was the beginning of a series of apparitions that would culminate in seeing the Blessed Virgin Mary six times the following year.
Lucia Santos and Francisco and Jacinta Martos, Lucia’s cousins, would become the carriers of an important message from heaven – the world needs to repent and pray for peace. If not, then something worse than WW I will happen and Russia “will spread her errors.” Francisco and Jacinta would not live long afterwards, but Lucia would remain on earth another 89 years.
Her death at age 97 on Feb. 13 brings to a close the living history of one of the most famous of Marian apparitions in the history of the Church.
Three secrets were given to the children. The first two became known fairly quickly – a terrifying vision of hell and the request for the Holy Father to consecrate Russia to Mary’s Immaculate Heart for the sake of the country’s conversion. The third would remain only for the Pope. Six successive pontiffs (Pius XI through John Paul II) would read it and keep it secret. That is until the Jubilee Year when it was disclosed that it was a prediction of the assassination attempt on John Paul II.
But more than that, Fatima is and has remained a distinct call for daily conversion and prayer – just like the Gospel.
Our Sunday Visitor talked with Leo Madigan, the author of six books on Fatima, about Sr. Lucia’s life and death.
Q. Was there a sense of real conversion for Lucia after the apparition with the angel or did that not come until after those of Mary began? And was there a need for conversion? After all, she was a young child.
A. Conversion isn’t really a word that applies here. She had been brought up in surroundings of solid peasant faith and had no experience outside it. The appearances of the angel certainly deepened her awareness of things spiritual without affecting her personality as a happy, affectionate young girl. The angel was clearly preparing her for the visitations of the Blessed Virgin, though Lucia was given no inkling of that.
Q. The story of Fatima is retold quite often, but we know little of what happened afterwards. What went on in Lucia’s life between the time of the apparitions and when she went into the convent?
A. For three and a half years after the apparitions, Lucia was mostly at her home in Aljustrel or staying with a series of ladies who undertook to provide her with an education. The longest of these was with a lady in Lisbon whose monarchical sympathies jeopardized the venture. Lucia went back to Aljustrel and then to another lady in Santarem, very near the Church of the Eucharistic Miracle. Lucia particularly liked it there and was keen to stay and attend school but the newly appointed Bishop of Leiria persuaded her to go north to Porto to a school run by the Dorothean Sisters. There she was to assume a new name and identity so that neither her fellow pupils, nor many of the nuns, would know that she was the surviving seer of Fatima. She went there on May 16, 1921. In 1925 she became a postulant in the same congregation and was sent to Pontevedra in Spain for her religious formation because the anticlerical politics of Portugal at the time would not allow the training of candidates for religious life in the country.
Q. How did Jacinta’s and Francisco’s deaths affect her?
A. She would hardly be human if she wasn’t deeply affected by the early deaths of her cousins and fellow seers, but these deaths could not have come as a surprise because Our Lady had told her that this would happen.
Her last words to Francisco (she had just turned 12) the day before he died were, “Goodbye then, Francisco Till we meet in heaven, goodbye …”
Before Jacinta died in Lisbon, she managed to send word to Lucia (who was now almost 13) that Our Lady had appeared to her and told her the day and hour of her death. It is clear from Lucia’s later writings that her bond with Jacinta was one of the most important influences of her life. When Jacinta’s coffin was opened in 1935 and a photograph of her incorrupt face was sent to Lucia by the bishop, she replied, “I cannot say how much I prize…the photograph of Jacinta. I longed to tear aside the wrappings and see her altogether. I was impatient to uncover the rest of the body, without taking into consideration that it was a photograph; I was half absorbed, such was my joy at beholding the most intimate friend of my childhood again.”
Q. Portuguese history is little known in the U.S. Can you put the apparitions in a historical context and talk about what happened there afterwards? How did the apparitions influence public life? Did Sr. Lucia have any role in that, however small?
A. There are many fat, though uniformly depressing, books written on the Portuguese politics of the time, so it is too complicated to condense here. But if anyone thinks the country was a sweet bucolic paradise on the edge of Europe, which our Lady approved of as she peeped out of heaven and decided to pay the odd fleeting visit, then he must be disillusioned because the opposite was true. The only certainty that was surfacing among the political turmoil was virulent atheism. And the Prime Minister at the time of the apparitions, Afonso Costa, was so fanatically atheistic that he was an embarrassment to his atheistic colleagues. He swore that two generations would see the obliteration of Catholicism in Portugal. From the assassination of the King and the heir in 1908, the only regicide in Portuguese history, till the relative stability introduced by [Antonio] Salazar over 20 years later, the country was in constant political chaos.
I am convinced that the influence of Fatima was immense in stabilizing the country – both in the realm of direct grace and in the effect it had on the consciences and moral sensibilities of the populace. But these are, ultimately, intangibles and defy verifiable assessment. In studying the subject though, I privately wonder if Portugal wasn’t the devil’s first choice for an atheistic state, an ambition forestalled by the effects of Fatima – and poor Albania got the brunt of the awful negativism
Q. How did the sisters in the convent deal with having a visionary in their midst? Was that a hardship for them? How much did it intrude on their life as a community?
A. In the Dorothean community Lucia was a lay sister (coadjutor), as opposed to a choir sister, at that time very much a manual worker in a convent. Her superiors saw to it that she was given no favors as a confidant of heaven, and she herself was no cringing mouse. Indeed, it seems that she had an admirable, if sometimes disconcerting, peasant’s bluntness about her till the end. If any of her sisters in religion wanted to treat her differently from the others on account of her role as a seer, they would have got no encouragement whatsoever from her.
The situation in the Carmel would have been a little different being, as it is, a school of intense spirituality. It can almost be said that saints are the norm in a Carmel, though those who are enclosed there are the last to recognize the fact. But the real difference with the Carmel is that Lucia was already a mature religious when she entered and the particular community was only starting up again after several generations of being disbanded. Sister Lucia of the Immaculate Heart was one of the pioneer nuns. She wasn’t entering a collection of women as an outsider, seer or no.
Q. I wasn’t aware that the Carmel she entered had been out of commission. Who were the others who joined her and how did they start it? Why was there an interest for her to leave the Dorotheans and restart this Carmel?
A. After the installation of the republic in 1910 the contemplative religious were forced to disband their monasteries. The nuns from the Coimbra Carmel went to Carmels in Spain and their convent was taken over by the Ministry of War. During the 1930's as things were heating up in Spain, some of the sisters returned to Coimbra and continued their monastic life in a rented house. All the while they were negotiating for the return of their property, a transaction which was finally realized and they moved back into the restored building in 1947. Sister Lucia joined them in 1948.
One can’t assume to judge Lucia’s motives for leaving an active sisterhood and joining a contemplative but, given her ‘fame,’ life in an open convent would have become unbearable. She had, in a sense, done all she could do to spread devotion to the Immaculate Heart. Also, it is interesting to recall that during the miracle of the sun in October 1917, Lucia, and Lucia alone, had seen the Blessed Virgin in the sky as Our Lady of Carmel. It could hardly have been the resurrection of some early memory because she had never seen a representation of her and spoke of the vision as Our Lady of the Two Cards – as if she was suggesting a quick game of Gin Rummy. Many think this was Our Lady’s way of telling her that she would later be under her special protection as a Carmelite. Anyway, in the late 40's she applied to Rome for permission to change the manner of her religious life and it was granted.
Q. Was convent life difficult for her at all? Did she ever talk about it?
A. Convent life is difficult for anybody. So is marriage, and any street in life. But the difficulties were never insurmountable. Yes, she did talk about it. Father Antonio Maria Martins’ excellent “The Intimate Life of Sister Lucia” published under a contributing editor’s name by the Fatima Family Apostolate in Alexandria, SD, gives a picture of her life as a Dorothean, mostly by using her letters. Her chief difficulty, as with all of us, was herself.
Q. Why has she remained such a public figure? Has the Faith in Portugal remained that strong over the last 80 years that despite the fact that Sr. Lucia lived in such obscurity after taking the habit, she would remain so popular?
A. She was certainly a public figure in Portugal, inasmuch as everyone knew who she was and where she was. But no one expected anything of her apart from what she gave and that was, as it were, veiled in silence. Her contemplative vocation was well respected and, curiously, understood by most Portuguese. There is still a sort of atavistic understanding of religious and spiritual values among the majority of Portuguese no matter how much the activities of the media and the “intellectuals” might try to deaden it. In a sense her very obscurity was an essential part of her popularity – her fame. Had she suddenly started making world tours and lecturing and sounding off opinions, she would have got in the way of the message heaven had chosen her to deliver.
Anyway, I hardly think she was a public figure outside Portugal. Many Catholics were aware of her existence – though most were surprised to learn that that existence was still continuing in this world.
Heaven always has at least one “phenomenon” witnessing to its value somewhere in this world and, in its own way, heaven also handles their publicity.
Q. The president of Portugal declared a day of mourning for her and ordered flags at half-staff. While that’s a very nice official pronouncement (which admittedly would never happen here in the U.S.), what remains are there of the Faith and the influence of the apparitions in the 21st century? Has secularism pretty much taken over as it has in the rest of Europe?
A. All I can go by is the sight of the Portuguese people coming here which they do in their hundreds of thousands, many of them walking long distances, some even on their knees for stretches of the way. And not just the act of coming, as if they had nothing better to do. It is also the reverence they show when they get here. Sometimes it even seems to be in spite of themselves. The sacred mightn’t play a large part in their daily lives, but when it presents itself, they recognize it without putting up barriers. Yes, secularism has put down roots in much of Portuguese life, but those roots are shallow and only the shallow yield to them absolutely. The Faith is too deeply implanted in the people. Our Lady herself said at Fatima that Portugal would never lose the Faith and anyone observing the daily procession of Portuguese, coming from every corner of the nation to pay homage at their Marian shrine, would have no trouble in giving credence to the prophecy.
Q. Do you expect a beatification process to begin for her? If so, do you think it will happen as quickly as it did for Mother Teresa?
A. People are already praying to her, instead of for her, so if it’s a matter of popular pressure then I reckon she will at least be declared Venerable before too long. There is supposed to be a five year wait but, who knows? There seem to be more exceptions to the rules for raising souls to the altars these days than there are conventionally promoted candidates. It might be remembered, though, that the greatest exception was the great St. Anthony, another Portuguese (in spite of the Padua tag which sticks to him) in the 13th century. He was canonized within a year of his death.