The recent Fatima movie, favorably reviewed here, reaches its climax with the Miracle of the Sun, which took place at the final apparition on Oct. 13, 1917. The first (May 13) and last apparitions are now the principal commemorations of Fatima, the former being the feast day, the latter falling suitably in the month of the Holy Rosary.
The Fatima movie highlights one aspect of the apparitions that is often overlooked, as major attention is understandably given to the message of Our Lady and its historical context. Yet in highlighting how the children and their families experienced the apparitions, Fatima reminds us of something that is before us in every book of the Bible, namely that to be in the presence of God is a fearful and disruptive thing. The eruption of God in our lives disrupts everything else.
Christians living long after biblical times are shaped in large part by the comforting image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and innumerable serene images of the Madonna and Child. The idea of God’s presence being in some measure awesome and awful is can be startling. We sometimes speak of the “awful grace of God” — it comes from Aeschylus, who lived long before Jesus presented himself as the Good Shepherd — but it is not how we customarily think.
Some years ago in his Catholicism series, Bishop Robert Barron reminded us of this by presenting the figure of Jesus in light of Mark 10:32, which tells us that the disciples were “amazed and afraid” in his presence.
Bishop Barron reminded us that in the Scriptures this is the usual reaction to the Divine Presence, though often enough people are just afraid, not amazed.
To be in God’s presence — or of his messengers, the angels — is a fearful thing. Hence the frequency — it is repeated hundreds of times — of the biblical exhortation: Be not afraid! Even the Blessed Virgin hears these words from the Archangel Gabriel.
As the Catholicism series warned, we tend to domesticate God and his works. There are many Fatima statues and scenes that make it seem as if the children were having a picnic when the Blessed Mother and 70,000 other people dropped by. The Fatima movie corrects this false impression.
Our Lady’s appearances are massively disruptive to the quiet shepherd lives of Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco. The children are anxious and bewildered, though they trust in what they have seen and heard. It requires enormous and admirable courage for them to face the suspicion of their own families, and the opposition of the atheistic civil authorities, who go so far as to imprison the children and threaten them with death (though the threats are not included in the movie).
As the wonders continue over the summer of 1917, there are not a few — both friends and enemies of the young visionaries — who echo the Gadarene townspeople who beg Jesus to leave them alone (Matthew 8:34) after he healed the demoniac in their midst. Fatima captures the reality that the Divine Presence evokes not only faith, but opposition, and that heavenly messages are as often rejected as accepted. As Jesus frequently reminds his listeners, their ancestors killed the prophets sent to them.
That this is all happening to children makes Fatima all the more dramatic. We would admire adults who stood fast in the face of doubt and slander, but to see children do so is more remarkable still.
Amazed though moviegoers might be about the children’s courage, the idea of civic officials being petty, bullying and then life-threatening is not hard to imagine. The local mayor is a character all too common in the 20th century, whether in anti-clerical Portugal (or Mexico or Spain) or in the fascist and communist totalitarian regimes. What makes Fatima sobering is that it would not be difficult to imagine a mayor in a European or American city acting altogether differently today.
Fatima can be watched as a movie about overcoming fear through faith. The children overcome their fear of their families and the crowds due to the strength of their faith in God and the “beautiful lady”. More profoundly, the message of Fatima is that there are terrible realities to be afraid of, namely hell and the suffering of sinners who are damned. Terrible persecutions are abroad too in this world, including the attempt to assassinate the Holy Father and the making of millions of martyrs.
Fatima the movie captures well the reality that Fatima was about fear, but fear overcome by hope. The faith of the children is sufficient to withstand the “fires of hell” as we pray in the Fatima Prayer during the Rosary. And if the children, so engagingly acted in this film, can overcome their fear with faith, why not adults too?