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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: Past, Present, and Future

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Sydney pilgrims join thousands in the rosary and candlelight procession around the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima. Photo: Mathew De Sousa
Sydney pilgrims join thousands in the rosary and candlelight procession around the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima. Photo: Mathew De Sousa

Past, Present, and Future—Homily for Votive Mass of Our Lady of Fatima, Post-WYD Retreat, Chapel of the Apparitions, Fatima Portugal, 7th August 2023

Having lost his only sibling, his mother and then his father before he reached adulthood, Karol Józef Wojtyła knew the importance of family. It would be one of his chief areas of teaching as pope, running like a watermark throughout his 27-year pontificate. Pope John Paul II believed the family is the school for a deeper humanity, the nursery of faith and discipleship, the place to cultivate character, holiness and love. Healthy families are key to human flourishing, to well-functioning societies, and to the Church.

In 1981 he published Familiaris Consortio, his great exhortation about Christian family life, he established a Vatican department to promote and support it (the Pontifical Council for the Family), and he founded the worldwide John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family to engage in research and teaching about it. That exhortation, council and institute proved hugely important for advancing the Church’s understanding of the marriage-based family and support for this crucial institution.

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But it nearly didn’t happen! Upon entering St Peter’s Square on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, 13 May 1981, on his way to announcing his great pro-family initiative to the world, Pope John Paul II was shot repeatedly by Mehmet Ali Ağca. Although critically injured, he miraculously survived the assassination attempt. John Paul suspected it was Mary herself who was his protector, and so he asked to see a message she relayed to the children of Fatima that had been kept in a sealed envelope since the apparitions in 1917. This ‘Third Secret of Fatima’ prophesied that a white-robed bishop would be mortally wounded in a hail of gunfire. Now convinced it was indeed Our Lady of Fatima who had interceded for him, John Paul sent one of the bullets extracted from his abdomen to be placed in the crown of the Virgin’s statue here in Fatima.

At the following Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, John Paul II reconsecrated the world to Mary’s Immaculate Heart. He asked her to embrace this world of ours in her loving maternal arms, for this would best heal a world rife with sin and division, that so often turns its back on God.[i]

Yet the story of Mary’s protection of the modern world started decades before. It is a story have been learning here in Fatima, in equal parts romantic and confronting, of little Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta. At this very spot, on 13 May 1917, three young shepherds were playing while tending their flock. Their game that day was to pretend to be in a Eucharistic procession, and they were strewing petals in each other’s path. But they were stopped in their tracks by the appearance of a Beautiful Lady in dazzling white, brilliant as the sun. She promised them revelations, miracles, visitations and, above all perhaps, the triumph of innocent faith in a world of hostilities and bloodshed.

In the coming days, you will hear more about the miracles and revelations. It’s a romantic story but also, as I said, a somewhat confronting one. After all, it was in the middle of the terrible First World War. No wonder, then, that much of the Virgin’s talk was apocalyptic, end-of-the-world stuff, the kind of thing we tend to bracket out of our thinking, unless we are watching sci-fi movies. But the truth is that there are many who experience hell on earth, including those afflicted by the horrors of war or other violence, by totalitarianism and its disregard for human life, or by spiritual emptiness and moral chaos: that was so in the Europe of 1917, that is so in the Ukraine and Russia of 2023, and it is objectively fearsome. And there are those who experience the even greater horror of permanent separation from God. Such scary revelations might seem worthy of an R-rating, not G-for-children as young as the seers of Fatima. But the Beautiful Lady’s first words were words of realism and of reassurance, words of Christ Himself, the same first words of John Paul II as Pope, words pope Francis repeated in his homily for us yesterday: “Be not afraid”.

For it was to a world at war and in the face of the rise of atheistic communism, where there was much of which to be afraid, that the Virgin of Fatima came. Not to princes, prelates or pope, but to three ordinary children. Lucia was hyperactive and mischievous, more interested in playing than praying. Francisco was timid and slow, no great shakes academically or athletically, inclined to truancy and more likely to be playing with lizards than doing his schoolwork. Even the youngest and most pious of the three, Jacinta, was possessive and known to sulk if she didn’t get her way; she would truncate the Rosary so there’d be more time for leisure. It was these run-of-the-mill young people that God chose to be the recipients of revelation, encouragement, miracles.

Sure, the razzmatazz of miracles captivates us, and there were plenty here at Fatima, as there was for John Paul II in Rome. But behind the razzle-dazzle is the brute fact that God cares deeply for all humanity, and perhaps young people in particular. God wants to talk and listen to us, to hear our anxieties and needs, to comfort us in our darkness and despair. He wants to reveal Himself to us. And we should be unsurprised that He shares His mother with us, as an extra help, a powerful intercessor, another sign of His love. For in today’s Gospel He entrusts each of us to her care—“Woman, behold your child” (Jn 19:25-27).

But before receiving her mandate to look after us, Mary had fulfilled her promise to protect the God-man, Jesus. She gave Him her very flesh and blood at His conception and the hospitality of her womb, the milk of her breasts, her loving hugs and kisses. She gave Him the protection of her husband and home, the wisdom she long pondered and shared at her knee, the spirituality of her people, forming His character after the pattern of her own. And she shared Him with others in anticipation of His public ministry: first, at the Visitation, she took Him to meet her relatives, even one still in the womb; then, at the Nativity, she offered Him for adoration to shepherds and kings; and again, at the Presentation, she took Him to meet priests and prophets. She brought Him back to teach the teachers, at the Finding in the Temple; and she told the stewards and all of us at the Wedding Feast to “Do whatever He tells you.” Having prepared Him, then, to go out to others, Mary was there when He proclaimed the Good News to the multitudes, supporting Him in His mission. She was with Him to the end, even as He was tortured and crucified. Now her care for Him was over, her care for us could begin.

After being charged with bearing and caring for Jesus, you might expect she’d give herself some time to take it all in, to digest the angelic message. Yet rather than resting on her laurels as Mother of God, “she arose and went with haste” (Lk 1:39) to help her cousin Elizabeth. So, too, on Jesus’ death, rather than taking some time out to reflect on her Son’s death and resurrection or resting on her laurels as Mother of the Church, she arose again and went straight to work for us. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that she joined the apostles and the holy women as they prayed for the coming of the Spirit of Pentecost.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP celebrates a Votive Mass of Our Lady of Fatima at the Chapel of Apparitions in Fatima, Portugal, on 7 August. Photo: Mathew De Sousa
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP celebrates a Votive Mass of Our Lady of Fatima at the Chapel of Apparitions in Fatima, Portugal, on 7 August. Photo: Mathew De Sousa

So, what Mary did at Fatima should not surprise us, as she has always been at the service of the Incarnation, in her life and ours. Her words to Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta two millennia later are also words to us: Be not afraid. Trust in God. Offer yourselves to Him. Bear sufferings patiently. Atone for failings. Pray for an end to war, dictatorship, cruelty. The Rosary is for all these needs. Prayer and penance. Prayer and conversion. Prayer and peace.

Mary appeared to young people, here in Fatima, as at Lourdes the century before. She was comfortable with small-town kids like she was at the time of the Annunciation. And she knew her Son regularly sought out the company of young people.[ii] More importantly, she heard Him call to us all to become like children—in our trust, docility, imagination, humility, forgiveness.[iii]

Some of you might know Victor Hugo’s epic Les Miserables—if you haven’t yet seen the stage musical you must put it on your bucket list. The story is set in the tumultuous decades after the French Revolution. Early in the tale, the young heroine Cosette is orphaned and left abandoned in a cruel and exploitative world. She sings her dream of a Castle on a Cloud:

There is a castle on a cloud; I like to go there in my sleep… There is a room that’s full of toys; there are a hundred girls and boys… There in the place where no-one cries… there is a lady all in white. She holds me and sings a lullaby… she says Cosette: “I love you very much.”

That young dream of heaven can die as we grow into adulthood. As we encounter sin, suffering and death, disillusionment and doubt can consume us. When our news is dominated by war, bloodshed and the worst of human sin, it can hang over us like a menacing cloud. In the battle between life and death, of light and darkness, it can seem like goodness is doomed and we are consigned to a brutish and anxious existence.

Enter the beautiful lady all in white. The story of Fatima turns our temptation to cynicism on its head. It boldly and joyously reminds us that we are made for heaven. That God’s reason for giving us life is perfect love. That although our bodies might be beaten, and our lives fractured at times, our proper destiny is to be with our Blessed Mother, with the children of Fatima, and with all the saints in glory. That true home and that extended family are waiting for us. Until then, we pray earnestly for God’s protection and for the intercession of His Mother and ours. Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us!


[i] https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/papal-consecrations-to-the-immaculate-heart-7140

[ii] Jesus called the youthful John to be His ‘beloved’ disciple: Jn 1:35-39; 13:23-25; 20:1-10; 21:20-23; Mt 4:18-22. On encountering the rich young man, Jesus “looked at him and loved him”: Mk 10:17-31. Jesus called a child to him and stood the kid in front of them to give them a lesson: Mt 18:2. Jesus healed a mute boy, an epileptic boy, and the gravely ill son of an official: Mt 17:14-21; Mk 9:14-29; Jn 4:46-54. Jesus raised a widow’s son and an official’s daughter from the dead: Mt 9:18-26; Lk 7:11-17. Jesus laid hands on and blessed the young ones: Mt 18:2-3; 19:13-15; Mk 10:13-15. A boy provided the bread and fish for Jesus’ great miracle: Jn 6:9. The religious authorities were outraged because children were openly singing Jesus’ praises: Mt 21:14-17. But, as Jesus recalled, the Psalmist had prophesied that “Out of the mouths of babes and children come perfect praise”: Ps 8:2.

[iii] Jesus amongst the doctors in the Temple: Lk 2:41-52. Jesus speaks of “children of God”: e.g. Mt 5:45; 13:38; Lk 6:35; Jn 1:12; 11:52. Jesus says he desires to gather the children of Jerusalem together “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings”: Mt 23:37. Jesus calls the disciples “children”: Jn 13:33; 21:5. Jesus tells the disciples to assume the posture of the junior: Mt 23:11-12; Lk 14:7-24; Jn 13:5-17. Jesus says that welcoming and showing hospitality to ‘little ones’ and ‘the least’ is showing hospitality to Him and will be rewarded: Mt 7:9-11; 10:40,42; 18:1-5; 25:40; Lk 11:11; 14:5. Jesus says that it is better to be cast into the sea with a millstone around the neck, than to lead the young astray and He scolds His men for blocking the children from attending Him: Mt 18:6; 19:14-15; 23:15; 25:45-46.

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