As a youngster, I had a few friends who went to Catholic school. Years later, I taught for a time at a Catholic college. As a result, I heard many references to what has come to be called the Miracle of Fatima. Most of these tales followed the same basic plot line. In the early part of the 20th Century, some children in a Portuguese village saw an angelic figure descend from the sky. It turned out to be the Virgin Mary and, after a few additional visits, she provided a prophecy for the Pope. After that, the story became more or less gripping depending upon the skill of the storyteller. After reading the missive, his Holiness wept for three days and three nights...or maybe it was three weeks...a month and a half...whatever.
Anyway, the prophecy was kept secret for decades and only now, at the start of the 21st Century do we get the rest of the story. Did the prediction bear any relation to any event that occurred since the note was delivered? Does it matter? Not really. A few months ago, I posted a piece that explained how to start a cult in seven simple steps. You can read it at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/look-it-way/200906/how-start-.... At that time, fellow PT Blogger Dr. Peter Stromberg commented that I'd omitted an eighth step - Make a prophecy that fails. Curiously, such a blunder can actually cause believers to believe even more. Jehovah's Witnesses (those people who go around sticking the Watchtower under your door) have been predicting (unsuccessfully as it happens) the end of the world since the 1800's. A classic study reported in Leon Festinger's book When Prophecy Fails deals with this topic at length and searching End of World Predictions on the Internet will reveal a long list going all the way back to 30 CE.
But, getting back to Fatima, Dr. Joe Nickell (www.joenickell.com) has written an excellent article on the case in the current (November/December '09) Skeptical Inquirer magazine (www.csicop.org). It seems that, in 1917, ten-year-old Lucia Santos was tending some sheep along with her two cousins (nine-year-old Francisco Marto and his seven-year-old sister Jacinta) when a dazzling apparition of a beautiful lady appeared. Supposedly the lady spoke with Lucia and told her to return in one month's time. The kids came back on the appointed day with approximately fifty villagers in tow. Although the youngsters reported seeing the lady, she remained invisible to the adults. Despite this no doubt disappointing no-show, rumors grew and an even larger crowd returned the next month. Finally, after six such sessions, some seventy thousand people were on-hand to witness the last walk in the woods.
And what else could any reasonable individual call these forays but a walk in the woods? Even Lucia's mother said it was all "childish nonsense" and that her daughter was "nothing but a fake...leading half the world astray" and yet the faithful were not to be deterred. Staring into the sky, perhaps directly at the sun, some of those in the assembled throng reported a variety of weird sightings. The sun danced, moved closer to earth, spun like a top and emitted glowing sparks. Mass hysteria and optical distortion alone would account for such reports but one might also offer local meteorological conditions as a possible (though hardly necessary) additional explanation. Needless to say, astronomical observatories saw nothing unusual in the sun's behavior that day.
Years later, Lucia recorded her first prediction. In 1927 (ten years after her purported chats with the Virgin Mary) she wrote that her cousins would die at an early age. They did. Influenza took Francisco in 1919 and Jacinta in 1920. Then she predicted that WW 1 would end and WW 2 would follow. She did this in 1941. All in all, it would be like me going on record to predict that Barack Obama will serve as President of the USA. The final secret to the Pope was delivered to the Vatican in 1957. In 2000, Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) revealed what he described as a "symbolic and not easy to decipher" scrawled note that supposedly reflected Lucia's vision. After a lifetime of waiting, the faithful heard:
"an angel with a flaming sword in his left hand; flashing, it gave out flames that looked as though they would set the world on fire; but they died out in contact with the splendor that Our Lady radiated toward him from her right hand: pointing to the earth with his
right hand, the angel cried out in a loud voice: Penance, Penance, Penance!"
the vision continued with a:
"bishop dressed in white...afflicted in pain and sorrow...he prayed for the souls of the corpses he met on his way; having reached the top of the mountain, on his knees at the foot of the big cross he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him, and in the same way there died one after another, the other bishops, priests, men and women religious."
Lucia Santos died in 2005 and is said to be on her way to sainthood.
What I'd like to see in the Comments section that follows is a discussion of why anyone would continue to believe in a prophet after his or her prophecy fails. And please respond ASAP, as the world will end (this time fer sur) in 2012