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The Church’s Duty in the Face of
the Fatima Message

by Father Joseph de Sainte-Marie, O.C.D.

Father Joseph de Sainte-Marie is a Carmelite theologian who has studied the Fatima Message. In this passage of his talk at Fatima on October 12, 1981, Father Joseph brings to our attention recent theological research which focuses on “The Church’s Duty in the Face of the Fatima Message.” In the light of the Holy Father’s recent visit to Fatima as well as the increasing advances of the forces of evil, this study is especially important for our times. Because when enough of us listen and obey Our Lady of Fatima, then true peace and security will be established throughout the world.

Father Joseph presented his theological study on Fatima to Pope John Paul II on March 14, 1982. It would appear that the Pope had in mind the many bishops and priests and millions of Catholic laymen who signed petitions asking for the Collegial Consecration as well as the theological explanation offered by this part of Father Joseph’s talk when His Holiness referred to the Church feeling obliged to respond to the Fatima Message. (See this issue “13 May: Pope John Paul’s Homily at Mass in Fatima”, section 10). We are indebted to Approaches magazine for publishing Father Joseph’s talk.

As I’ve said, there are three questions to be considered. The first concerns the Church’s obligation to listen and respond to the demands of Our Lady of Fatima. I know that here we are on rather delicate ground. I hope I have not been lacking in theological and pastoral prudence and that I have said nothing that is not grounded with certainty in the most certain doctrine of Tradition and in the Church’s Magisterium. You will understand the need for these somewhat solemn precautions when you read the text of my book for the question at issue is relatively new and still under discussion.

Does the Church have an obligation to listen to the demands of Our Lady: Yes or No? If you ask an ordinary member of the Church he will probably reply with the common sense of faith: “But of course.” And he will be quite right. For after all if the Mother of God goes out of her way to speak to us, the very least we must do is to obey Her as Our Mother. Whether we be humble lay brothers, or office clerks, or even the Pope himself, in relation to the Mother of God we are all equally Mary’s children, and if She gives us instructions we should obey them. That is precisely how it is.

There is nevertheless a difficulty in demonstrating this obligation of obedience to the Blessed Virgin. It derives, first of all, from the fact that these messages from Mary are something relatively recent in the history of the Church. They date back only to the 19th Century. Before then, it is true, there was the Message of the Sacred Heart. And going still further back through history, it can be seen that, ever since the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ there have been ‘prophecies’ in the Church. And if we use this word “prophecies” we may find an answer to our first question, and a fresh approach to resolve the problem.

The Question of Private and Public Revelation

For up to now the difficulty experienced in this matter consisted in the fact that everything outside the Gospel revelation, the deposit of faith, which alone is the object of theological faith, of baptismal faith, all else was thought of as being in the category of “private revelations” made to “privileged souls”. And, concerning these private revelations one was more or less free to believe or not to believe, to accept or reject them. The privileged person concerned may have an obligation to believe what has been revealed to him, but certain theologians would not insist even on this, astonishing though this may seem. And that is as far as theologians would go. The teachings of the Popes from Benedict XIV to Pius X was that the Church “allows” one to believe, with human faith only, the messages of these revelations given in private apparitions.

For some time, however, Deo Gratias, theologians such as Père Balic, President of the International Marian Academy in Rome, and Bishops and Cardinals, such as Cardinal Cerejeira, Patriarch of Lisbon (and thus responsible for Fatima) — in short voices of considerable authority — have been heard to say: “But that is not enough; if God speaks in this way, something more is needed than simple human faith and freedom of choice as to the response.” How to formulate this “something more” theologically: that is the difficulty. These may be “private revelations” communicated to individuals for their personal good. But there are also “public prophecies” given to the Church, affecting its conduct and the conduct of its members.

Duty of Pope and Bishops

If we now turn to the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of St. Paul, we find astonishing words like the following from the Letter to the Ephesians (2:20) where the Church is referred to as “Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone.” Now the content indicates that what is meant here is prophets of the New Testament. And if we take the Acts as a whole, and if we re-read the history of the Church, we notice that alongside Apostolic Charismata (that is to say of the hierarchical priestly ministry) there have always been prophetic charismata to back up, guide and direct the apostolic ministry in its mission.

Such is the essential truth. Let us add that the hierarchy and the prophet are both subordinate to the Word of God, to the Gospel of Christ, but in different and complementary ways. It is true that ultimate authority belongs to the hierarchy, to the Bishop, to the Pope. However the Pope must listen to the Prophet. St. Paul says (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21): “Extinguish not the spirit. Despise not prophecies; but prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”

Such are the words of the New Testament. Such is the will of God on the basis of which one can and must affirm that prophecy is integral to the economy, to the conduct of the people of the New Covenant, and that prophecy is essential to the life of the Church. It is so in the following manner: the priest, the Pontiff must discern — that is his duty — whether the words of the prophet are of God. But once he has judged and recognized that a given prophecy is indeed from God, then he must obey, not as obeying the prophet but as obeying God, whose instrument the prophet is. This, I think, is the theological way of showing that one is not free when faced with a prophetic message once it has been recognized as divine in origin, but on the contrary that it is a duty to receive it and submit to it. That is why, very reverend Fathers and dear friends, it is the duty of the Pope and the Bishops to obey Our Lady and to fulfill the demands She made at Fatima. Which duty is none other than integral to their pastoral and apostolic obligations. These problems, as I have said, have as yet been little studied. Theological reflection on this matter is still exploratory. That is why the thesis proposed in my written text seems to me of great importance both for its general implications and for its bearing on the message, that is to say the public prophecy of Fatima. If this message comes from God, the Church must receive it and submit to it. But since the Church has for some time recognized the Message of Fatima as coming from God, it must therefore fulfill its demands as a matter of urgency.

This then is the first question to be clarified. And we find ourselves on the side of good Christian common sense: if Our Lady has indeed spoken, then we must obviously obey her. But let us not forget the weight of responsibility resting on Authority which has to weigh its actions carefully and must act only when it has the assurance of obeying God. It is the humble but indispensable work of the theologian to propose to the Hierarchy his considered opinion, of which the Hierarchy is also the judge — the object of theological reflection being to help the Hierarchy in its work of arriving at this assurance of truth.