is true, Fatima is the story of the century
Despite the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri that day, there was no real doubt in my mind about what ought to be the lead item on The Daily Telegraph’s obituaries page for Tuesday, February 15. The story of Sister Lucia de Jesus Dos Santos, the last of the three children to have seen a vision of the Virgin outside the Portugese town of Fatima in 1917, is surely one of the most remarkable of the century. As Charles Moore pointed out in last week’s Spectator, Sister Lucia was probably famous for longer than any other person (she died aged 97, and was 10 at the time of the apparitions) – certainly than anyone who was not notable by dint of rank. And her fame was the more extraordinary given that, as a Carmelite nun, hers was far from a public life.
Yet I was sure of her importance, not because I have any devotion to Lucia’s story (I am an Anglican and, if anything, mildly suspicious of Marianism), but because it reminded me of the occasion several years ago when what was thought to be evidence of microbes was found on Mars. The story was duly carried by most newspapers – usually down column on page five or seven. I thought then, and think now, that this was a strange judgment by the backbench. Either the story was untrue, or there was, or had been life on Mars. In other words, it was a non-story, or it was the biggest story of all time. If the mother of Our Lord appeared in a vision to a Portugese peasant girl, it strikes me as of more than passing interest. And though I am not in a position to give a verdict about the truth or falsehood of Sister Lucia’s account of the events of 1917, I have no reason to doubt her sincerity, and the Church has investigated the matter and takes it seriously.
But the scepticism which greets accounts of the miraculous is not confined to the profane; Monday’s newpaper, covering the meeting of Anglican archbishops in Northern Ireland, described liberals in that church as contending “that the Bible can be reinterpreted or even ignored as it was written in and for another era”. The problem is that, in a materialist and rationalist age, even believers have trouble with miracles.
This strikes me as odd. To believe in an omnipotent God who takes an interest in personal salvation – a fairly broad definition which covers most theists – is already to have engaged with the supernatural. To believe in the literal truth of the Incarnation and the Resurrection which, unlike some Anglicans, I regard as the bare minimum qualification for calling oneself a Christian, is to have accepted the transcendent and noumenal, and to assert that materialism is not all that there is.
One either believes that Sister Lucia saw the Virgin or that she was deluded. The worst possible judgment is the one to which so many modern clergymen, in every denomination, are given: to claim that her experience was “in a very real sense” valid, while arguing that it has no basis in objective reality. But if Christianity is true, it is true in exactly a physical and objective sense. If God created the physical world, and our physical form, then our redemption is bound up in that objective reality. It is the decisions which we make in this world which affect our position in the Kingdom of Heaven, or the alternative. To have faith in a miracle is not to be irrational: the water that Christ transformed into wine in his first miracle turned into real wine, as real and as rational as the water had been. That we cannot understand the physical transformation does not make it an irrational one; there is a difference between not understanding a reason and asserting that it is unreasonable.
Almost everything that Christianity demands of us seems impossible: to put God at the centre of our lives, to love our neighbour as ourselves, to attempt to match Christ’s example. But it is not unreasonable. The remarkable coherence of creation and the universal truth of moral laws are both testament to the fact that God is rational. To create a law is to indicate a regard for rules and reason. And so it is right to be properly sceptical of miracles, and proper that the Church should investigate them.
But what Sister Lucia (and, on one occasion, 50,000 others) saw when the sun appeared to change colour and spin on its axis was not an impossibility; it was merely a remarkable event. And if we believe in the literal truth of the Resurrection, and in the communion of saints, Sister Lucia’s visions are no impossibility either. It is merely that such things do not happen to most of us, and so we find them hard to credit. But most of us, if we are honest, do feel moral promptings, whether we call them conscience or attempt to rationalise them in some other way. And most of us feel some connection through prayer. These are supernatural events. They may not have the drama of Sister Lucia’s encounter, but they are recognisably the same phenomenon: the difference is one of degree, and not of type.
Sister Lucia’s reaction to her experience was, in fact, the rational one. She believed the evidence of her own eyes. She believed in her encounter because it corresponded with her experience – her mother catechised and taught the Bible to children in the village. And, above all, she refused to deny the reality of what had happened to her, even though she was given every incentive to do so by the authorities who questioned her about her visions.
It turned out, of course, that the so-called “Three Secrets” of Fatima were vindicated by later events. Sister Lucia’s companions died young, Russia abandoned Communism, and the Pope survived an assassination attempt. But Sister Lucia’s confidence in the truth of what had happened to her was solid long before any of that came to pass. The test of a prophecy for the rest of the world is that it is fulfilled, but that is not the case for the recipient. The test for him or her is the moment of revelation itself. Sister Lucia did not need events to vindicate her message, but she believed that it had been delivered to her from Heaven.
The extraordinary thing is that so many of us refuse to have faith in faith, that we have no expectation that our prayers will be answered, and that we attempt to transform remarkable, straightforward religious truths into allegorical homilies with no physical reality. We do that, I suppose, because to do otherwise means surrendering to the understanding of what God is: our Creator and our Saviour. That is a realisation which should shake the whole of our world as thoroughly as the sun was shaken for Fatima’s observers. It is more comfortable to dismiss remarkable phenomena as an optical illusion or an eclipse. But if we recite the Apostles’ Creed, why shouldn’t we mean what we say? And if we believe it, we are believing in something very much more amazing than even Lucia’s vision.