By Kristen L Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Maureen Hayes didn’t know what to expect; she only knew she was grateful to be there. She had traveled thousands of miles from Norfolk, Virginia, to Fatima, Portugal, to stand in the same spot the Virgin Mary is said to have stood. “It was incredible,” Ms. Hayes said, “Just the idea of being some place where Mary had appeared. . . To be in that square in front of the shrine was so incredibly moving as a Christian, as a Catholic, to be part of the universal church.”

She described a scene with thousands of pilgrims from all over the world. It didn’t matter that they didn’t speak the same language; they were all on a spiritual journey that led them to this same place, a place where, 100 years ago, the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children.

On May 13, 1917, Lucia Santos, age ten, and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto, age nine and seven, were tending their flock of sheep when they said they saw a great flash of lightning and then a lady radiating white light with a rosary in her hand. The lady, whom the children believed to be the Virgin Mary, told the children to return on the 13th of each month, which they did.

While they first agreed to keep the apparitions a secret, Jacinta told her mother about what happened, and soon the whole town knew. Not everyone believed them, including Lucia’s own mother, who tried to force her daughter to proclaim the story a lie. This was a dangerous time in Portugal, as the country had been thrown into the chaos of World War I.

The new Portuguese Republic government, founded only in 1910, worked to secularize all facets of society, imprisoning some clerics and trying to diminish the influence of the Catholic Church. The children were even put in jail briefly on August 13, 1917, making them delay their monthly meeting with Mary. The children were threatened and ordered to recant their story, but they refused and were later released. Fear was no match for their faith.

Their story continued to spread, though people wanted proof of Mary’s presence. Mary promised to perform a miracle on October 13, 1917, for everyone to witness. Tens of thousands of people descended on Fatima, believers and skeptics alike, curious to see if a miracle would truly occur.

At high noon, Mary appeared to the children. It is said the clouds parted and the sun shone bright. The ground, which had been wet and muddy from heavy rain, suddenly became dry. People stared directly into the sun, yet claimed it did not hurt their eyes.

Then, according to many, something amazing happened. Some saw the sun dance, others saw it spin and radiate bright colors. Some saw the sun zigzag back and forth, at times seeming like it would crash into the earth. Though there are different versions of the event, thousands of people claimed to have seen something.

There is no photographic evidence, and some scientists have tried to explain the event as mass hysteria or local meteorological phenomena. Regardless, this event became known as The Miracle of the Sun and was officially recognized as a miracle by the Catholic Church in 1930.

Lucia claimed that they asked Mary if they would go to heaven on June 13,1917, and she responded that they would. She also foretold that two of the children, Francisco and Jacinta, would soon die, but Lucia would remain on earth to spread Mary’s message. This prophecy would come true, as Francisco and Jacinta both succumbed to the Spanish flu at the ages of ten and nine. Lucia went on to become a nun, dedicating her life to the Virgin Mary. She claimed to have apparitions of Mary and Jesus several times throughout her life. Lucia was asked by her bishop to write down everything she could remember about Mary’s visits. It is through her memoirs, written decades after the apparitions, that the world finally learned of the secrets Mary had revealed to the children.

During the July 13, 1917, visit, Lucia claimed Mary revealed three secrets. First, Mary showed what they believed to be Hell: “a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form. . . amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear.”

The second secret involved World War I. Mary told the children that World War I would soon end, “but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out.” Many understand this to be a prophecy of World War II, which left tens of millions of people across the world dead. Mary continually preached the need for penance and prayer to bring about peace and salvation.

Lucia also described Mary’s desire that Russia be consecrated. The Virgin warned that, “If my requests are not granted, Russia will spread her errors throughout the world, raising up wars and persecutions against the Church. The good will be martyred, the Holy Father will have much to suffer, various nations will be annihilated.” Many see this as a warning of the Cold War that was to come. Some say it can also be applied to today’s political climate.

The third secret would not be revealed until the year 2000. Until then, it was kept in a sealed envelope in the Vatican. It foretold the death of a “bishop dressed in white, afflicted with pain and sorrow” who “was killed by a group of soldiers.” Many believe this prophecy to be referring to the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981, which was also the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima. The pope believed he survived because of divine intervention from the Virgin Mary. He even donated the bullet that struck him to Fatima, where it was used in the crown of a famous statue of the Virgin Mary.

Over the years, several popes have visited Fatima, as well as millions of pilgrims. Miracles have also been attributed to the intercession of the shepherd children, including one of a Brazilian boy who fell 21 feet and suffered severe head trauma and two heart attacks. His parents prayed to the shepherd children of Fatima for help and their son inexplicably made a full recovery, with no brain damage or lasting injuries. On May 13, 2017, Pope Francis spent the 100-year anniversary in Fatima with 500,000 believers. He declared Francisco and Jacinta saints of the Catholic Church and said we must “tear down all walls and spread peace and justice.” Lucia, who died in 2005, is on her way to being canonized as well.

A century later, the events at Fatima still captivate the world. Mary’s universal message of peace, prayer, and penance lives on. Candlelit processions honor the miracles that happened there, and the rosary is recited often – each decade in a different language, so the whole world can come together in prayer.