The Importance of the Fatima Centenary

A big danger to growth in faith is letting it become routine. That's one of the reasons why I have always been a big supporter of ecclesiastical holy years, which provide a prism through which to look with fresh eyes and renewed hearts at all the interconnected aspects of the life of faith.

In the last 20 years, Catholics have been blessed to have had more such holy years than at any time in history: we've had years dedicated to God the Son (1997), God the Holy Spirit (1998), God the Father (1999), the Incarnation (2000), the Rosary (2002-3), the Eucharist (2004-5), St. Paul (2008-9), the priesthood (2009-10), faith (2012-3), consecrated life (2014-6) and mercy (2015-6).

As a disciple and as a priest, I have grown so much from the graces of these years and have sought to help others profit from them that, I confess, I'm almost on a little spiritual and pastoral "withdrawal" from not having one to focus the Church's attention since last November's close of the Jubilee of Mercy.

The absence of an officially declared holy year, however, provides the opportunity for popular devotion to fill the vacuum. I would suggest that 2017 would best be lived as a "Year of Fatima," a time to celebrate the centenary of the appearances of Our Lady to the three shepherd children in the Cova d'Iria in Portugal, to ponder the messages entrusted by Mary to them, and to imitate the response of Lucy, Francisco and Jacinta.

Over the course of the next several columns, that's what I will try to do.

But before we get there, I'd like first to address the subject of "private revelations" so that readers will know where apparitions like Fatima fit into the practice of the Catholic faith.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church writes, "Throughout the ages, there have been so-called 'private' revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church" (67).

When the Church recognizes a private revelation -- a reputed vision or apparition since the completion of the New Testament -- as worthy of belief, we do not believe it like we do the truths contained in the "public revelation" of Sacred Scripture and Tradition, but look to it as a means to live the faith contained in Scripture and Tradition more fully.

Public revelation demands an act of faith in the God who sent his Son as his incarnate Word, who founded the Church to share his Gospel, who sent the Holy Spirit to guide that Church into all truth and prevent it from erring, ever, on teaching definitively what we are to believe and do. Such faith is different from any form of human trust, opinion or belief, because it is founded on a trust in God on the basis of which we accept what he reveals and build our life on it.

Private revelation, on the other hand, is accepted as credible and probable with what we could call human faith, prudence, or purified common sense. In the case of Fatima, for example, we can examine the "miracle of the sun" that occurred October 13, 1917 and recognize that what happened defies human explanation -- as the reports of communist journalists present that day attest -- and adds great credibility to the shepherd children who said that Our Lady would give such a sign. We can similarly evaluate the content of the messages given to the simple pastorinhos, see how they clearly exceed the children's intellectual formation, recognize how predictions given have come to pass, and notice how they lead us back to Christ and his definitive public revelation.

We would not believe in the Message of Fatima the way we believe in the Eucharist or in the inspiration of Sacred Scripture -- on the basis of our faith in God himself -- but like we would believe that George Washington really was the first president or that video of an earthquake on the other side of the world testified to real events rather than was doctored.

If, as the Church teaches, definitive revelation -- what we really need to know and believe -- finished with the completion of the New Testament, why does God permit and engage in private revelation? The Catechism explains, "Even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made fully explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries" (66).

The future Pope Benedict wrote in 2000 that just because public revelation has come to an end with the fulfillment of the mystery of Christ, "this does not mean that the Church can now look only to the past ... condemned to sterile repetition." Rather authentic private revelations are like the "charism of prophecy," which "explain the will of God for the present and therefore show the right path to take for the future."

Authentic private revelations provide the "actualization of the definitive Revelation" and apply it to our circumstances here and now, so that we may "recognize the presence of Christ in every age," "understand" and "interpret" the "signs of the times" in the divine light, and "respond to them rightly in faith." While they do not teach us anything new necessary for salvation, they may offer new emphases, devotions, liturgical practices -- like, for example, Jesus' revelations to St. Juliana of Liège about Corpus Christ, to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque about the Sacred Heart or to St. Faustina about Divine Mercy -- that can nurture our faith, hope and love.

They can be a "genuine help in understanding the Gospel and living it better at a particular moment in time," as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote, which means that although one is not "obliged" to use that help, they should not be easily disregarded.

What criteria does the Church use to evaluate private revelations and pronounce some worthy of belief -- like the Marian apparitions in Fatima, Lourdes and Guadalupe -- and reject the vast majority of claimants, from pure frauds to well-meaning people who mistakenly but earnestly believe they're chosen seers? Approval normally involves several elements, including that the message contains nothing contrary to Christian faith or morals (the deposit of faith), the recipients are credible, there's nothing in the message impeding its being made public, and people are authorized prudently to accept it.

That's precisely what took place in Fatima, as we'll explore in upcoming columns.

- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.