Writing in 2000, the future Pope Benedict underlined, "Our Lady's call to conversion and penance, issued at the start of the twentieth century, remains timely and urgent today."
As we continue to examine the enduring relevance of the apparitions of Our Lady in Fatima in anticipation of their centenary later this year, we can note the particular Lenten resonance of Mary's appeal to the world through the three shepherd children.
When St. John Paul II visited Fatima in 1982, he remarked that Our Lady's words in the Cova da Iria can be summarized by the two-fold imperative with which Christ began his public ministry and which we hear as we'r marked with ashes: "Repent and believe in the gospel."
"These are the first words," the Pope said, "that the Messiah addressed to humanity. The message of Fatima is, in its basic nucleus, a call to conversion and repentance, as in the Gospel. ... The call to repentance is a motherly one, and at the same time it is strong and decisive."
We need to listen to that ardent maternal call to penance and conversion with a fitting trepidation, he emphasized, because we can easily see "how many people and societies--how many Christians--have gone in the opposite direction to the one indicated in the message of Fatima. Sin has thus made itself firmly at home in the world, and denial of God has become widespread in the ideologies, ideas and plans of human beings. But for this very reason the Gospel call to repentance and conversion, uttered in the Mother's message, remains ever relevant. It is still more relevant than it was [in 1917]. It is still more urgent."
Our Lady's message has a particularly Lenten relevance and urgency.
In her first apparition, on May 13, she asked Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta, "Do you wish to offer yourselves to God, to endure all the suffering that He may please to send you, as an act of reparation for the sins by which he is offended and to ask for the conversion of sinners?"
At the beginning of Lent, Mary could well ask each of us the same question.
On July 13, she repeated the appeal, telling the pastorinhos, "Sacrifice yourselves for sinners, and say often this prayer, especially during any sacrifice: 'O my Jesus, I offer this for love of you, for the conversion of poor sinners, and in reparation for all the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.'"
Then she showed them a vision of Hell, a clear reminder of the stakes involved in whether sinners, whether we, convert and begin to choose God. It was, as Lucia recalled, a "great sea of fire" in which "were demons and souls in human form," emitting "shrieks and groans of pain and despair," which Lucia said "horrified us and made us tremble with fear." It was so frightening that had Our Lady not promised to take them to heaven they "would have died of fear and terror."
"You have seen Hell," our Lady commented, "where the souls of poor sinners go. To save future souls, God wishes to establish in the world the devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If people do what I tell you, many souls will be saved."
Devotion to Mary's heart is to a heart that is pure, a heart that says "let it be done to me according to your word," a heart that treasures God's word within. It's the opposite of the heart we're warned about throughout Lent in Psalm 95, "If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts." To consecrate ourselves to Mary's heart is not just to entrust ourselves to Mary's intercession but to enter into the essence of Christian discipleship. Mary indicates that doing so is a matter of life and death, of heaven and hell.
Mary also showed the shepherd kids in the July apparition another vision -- the famous "third secret of Fatima" -- in which Our Lady pointed toward an Angel with a flaming sword who cried out in a loud voice, "Penance! Penance! Penance!," a summons that beyond the symbolism needs little interpretation.
She also taught them a prayer known to many of us that we should say with particular fervor this centennial year. "When you recite the Rosary," she said to them, "say at the end of each decade: 'Oh My Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Your Mercy.'"
That prayer would make a fitting Lenten aspiration, especially this year. Lent, after all, isn't a period of spiritual self-help training. It's a time of prayerful supplication, for ourselves and others, to be forgiven and saved. Mary taught us this prayer through the shepherd children not for our edification but because she's concerned as a knowing mother about our and others' eternal destiny.
In August, Mary repeated the summons with a holy candor that's impossible to sugar coat: "Pray, pray a lot and offer sacrifices for the sinners. You know that many souls go the hell because there is none who pray for them."
In her last appearance in October, she repeated her appeal for people to recite the Rosary "every day" and emphasized, "It is necessary that they ask pardon for their sins" and "don't offend our God and Lord."
Just like St. John Paul interpreted the Fatima message in a Lenten key, so did his successor.
Writing in 2000, the future Pope Benedict underlined, "Our Lady's call to conversion and penance, issued at the start of the twentieth century, remains timely and urgent today." Her "insistent invitation" to penance, he said, "is nothing but the manifestation of her maternal concern for the fate of the human family, in need of conversion and forgiveness."
The key words of what Mary revealed, he added, was prayer and sacrifice "to save souls" and the "threefold cry 'Penance, Penance, Penance!'" This, he said, is a repetition of the call to repentance and faith that began Jesus' public ministry and began our Lent. To understand Fatima and our own day, he said, "means to accept the urgency of penance, of conversion, of faith."
In future columns, we will have a chance to look at the Fatima message from other angles, but we should not miss the way what Mary revealed a century ago is calling us to live Lent and life with greater seriousness and urgency.
In response to Mary's appeal, Lucy, Francisco and Jacinta prayed with fervor, fasted heroically, and offered themselves and their sufferings as alms for the conversion of others. What will we do?
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.