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Pat MurphyOne afternoon when I was eight, we were marched off to see The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. Several hundred schoolboys walking two abreast surely interfered the flow of local pedestrian traffic but we weren’t bothered. Getting the afternoon off school was the main thing, even if the movie we were going to see was religiously-themed rather than an action-packed western.

The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima was made by Warner Bros. in 1952, and claimed to accurately reflect the 1917 events at Fatima, Portugal. Respectful religious movies were a thriving genre. The Song of Bernadette – the story of the 19th century French Catholic Bernadette Soubirous – was one of its year’s top money-makers.

The key Fatima figures were three Catholic children – 10-year-old Lucia dos Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto, aged seven and nine respectively. While tending the family sheep on May 13, 1917, they claimed to see a “lady all dressed in white” who told them she was “from heaven.”

More apparitions were promised for the 13th of each month and five more followed, the last on Oct. 13, 1917. On that occasion, the figure revealed her identity as Our Lady of the Rosary. For those unfamiliar with Catholic terminology, this is the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus.

As word of the apparitions spread, there was plenty of skepticism. And the secular authorities intervened. Anti-clericalism had been a feature of Portugal’s 1910 revolution, so the authorities attempted to close off public access to the site and allegedly threatened the children.

But it was no use. The children were unshakable and Portugal was still a deeply Catholic country.

On the day of the final apparition, tens of thousands converged on the site for what has been dubbed the “Miracle of the Sun.” According to many attendees, the sun danced in the sky, gave off multi-coloured lights and temporarily appeared to be careening towards the earth.

Officially, the Catholic church was cagey about Fatima. It wasn’t until 1930 that formal recognition was given.

Then, acting through the Bishop of Leiria (the diocese in which Fatima is located), the apparitions were deemed “worthy of belief.” This didn’t require Catholics to believe that the children had seen the Blessed Virgin but it gave them permission to do so.

However, clergy on the front lines were less nuanced. In the Ireland of my childhood, Fatima was taught as established fact.

And the Hollywood-assisted elevation of Fatima coincided with the canonization of other juvenile saints. There was the 12-year-old Maria Goretti, who was murdered while protecting her virtue, and the heroically pious Dominic Savio, who died from pleurisy at the age of 14. Catholic children were presented with a plethora of fervently self-sacrificing role models.

But this near-mystical dimension could cause difficulties for Catholics seeking high office in countries where they were a minority. For instance, Americans accustomed to religiously bland presidents like Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman or Franklin D. Roosevelt might have been tempted to balk at John F. Kennedy.

Yes, Kennedy projected a modern secular image. But there was still something a little exotic about Catholics. With the miracles and such, you might think they were just a bit weird.

Kennedy recognized this. Hence his famous meeting with an assembly of Protestant ministers, where he assured them that “outside religious pressures or dictates” wouldn’t impinge on his presidential decision-making.

But as commentator William F. Buckley Jr. observed, Kennedy was careful to avoid noting that his own conscience would inevitably be influenced by his Catholicism. Given the political imperative, that statement of the obvious would have been a bridge too far.

Jacinta and Francisco Marto perished in the 1918-20 influenza pandemic. Lucia dos Santos became a nun and lived until 2005. As the keeper of the three secrets purportedly entrusted to the children by the Blessed Virgin, she was a special figure. The last of these secrets, revealed in 2000, is interpreted as having foretold the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II.

This May 13, 100 years after the first apparition, Pope Francis will canonize Jacinta and Francisco at the Fatima site. Having only died a dozen years ago, Lucia will have to wait a while.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

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