Fatima and the Conversion of Russia
Joanna Bogle FAITH MAGAZINE September-October 2013
Joanna Bogle is the author of several historical biographies. Her latest is Courage and Conviction, about Bridgettine nuns who hid Jewish refugees in Rome during the Second World War. She is active within the Association of Catholic Women, chairs an ecumenical Christian group running a nationwide Schools Bible Project, and was appointed a Dame of St Gregory by Pope Benedict XVI. In this article she reflects on the message of Fatima and the current situation of the Catholic church in Russia.
One of the first people to congratulate Pope Francis on his election as successor of St Peter was a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, with a message of great goodwill. It’s a measure of how much things have changed in Russia over the past two and a half decades, following the collapse of Communism, that his statement did not seem particularly remarkable. Just think about it: for most of the 20th century Christianity in Russia was persecuted, the Orthodox Church was often a tool in the hands of the Soviet government, and relations between Catholicism and Orthodoxy were either tense or frozen in the ice of Cold War realities. But here was the Orthodox Church enthusiastically hailing a new Pope – and in due course it was announced that the State Duma representative SergeiNaryshkin would be attending the inaugural Mass in Rome.
Next year, 2014, will see the centenary of the start of the First World War, the war which shaped the 20th century. Millions of young men were killed, thrones were toppled, and Communism was established in Russia in what was to become a 60-year regime involving misery on a massive scale, with famine, secret police, concentration camps and the ruthless stamping out of any attempts at opposition.
The same year will mark another notable anniversary, for it will be 30 years since Blessed John Paul consecrated the world, including Russia, to Mary’s Immaculate Heart, as requested at Fatima, ushering in the collapse of Communism five years later, and the great wave of conversion to Christianity that has since swept the country.
The Situation in Russia
Today, Russia’s churches – many of which had been turned into museums of atheism under Communism – are in very active use, and are often packed. Visitors from the West are impressed, but also sometimes almost embarrassed: people are praying, lighting candles, and venerating icons with an intensity that is tangible. The new enthusiasm for the Christian faith is not without its tensions: Catholic/Orthodox relations in this heartland of Orthodoxy have not been easy. But Russian Orthodox leaders were among the first to pay gracious tributes to Pope Benedict on his retirement and these were followed by the expressions of warm goodwill towards Pope Francis.
Of course there is a certain amount of politicking in all this. In a bizarre twist of history, the Russian newspaper Pravda, which used to be the mouthpiece of Soviet atheism, now attacks America for restricting religious freedom, citing Obama’s Affordable Care Act and the problems it is causing for Catholics. Russia’s Christianity is very much bound up with Russian pride and Russian identity, and politicians in Russia know how to capitalise on this: they can pick up on the public mood, and denouncing America suits them very well. A current campaign has focused on the need to ban the adoption of Russian orphans by American couples: Pravda has been running stories about how these children may end up in lesbian or homosexual households. Promotion of same-sex marriage by President Obama hasprovided plenty of scope for anti-American speeches and feature articles.
Russia’s grim Soviet-era housing, high rates of abortion and of alcoholism and substance abuse, crime syndicates controlled by the Mafia and widespread corruption – all these help to make Christianity deeply attractive. The tenderness of motherly care in Mary, the knowledge that there are saints in heaven praying and interceding and a sense of God’s justice and mercy all combine to offer something that speaks to the soul with a ring of truth and of hope.
Evidence of Russia’s conversion is causing a problem for one specific group that most Russians probably don’t know about: the diehard “Fatimists”. These are the campaigners – American-led but with a wedge of support in Britain – who insist that Blessed John Paul did not carry out the consecration, and that both he and Pope Benedict lied about Fatima and that the truth of the whole story has been kept from us by a sinister group of plotters with whom successive Popes have colluded.
When the Church published Sister Lucia’s letter revealing the final secret in 2000 the Fatimists were dismayed, especially when its original was included in a Vatican document and displayed on the internet. Hand-written on old-fashioned four-fold notepaper, it revealed an extraordinary vision that the children had seen, involving a “Bishop dressed in white” whom they took to be the Holy Father, who was shot and fell to the ground as he climbed over a ruined city filled with corpses. Small wonder that Blessed John Paul, shot in a crowded St Peter’s Square in 1981, recognised himself as the Pope in this vision: the vast numbers of Christian martyrs of the bloodstained 20th century were epitomised here, with Mary’s plea for prayer and penance echoing authentically across the ruins of so manycities in two world wars and other conflicts.
The Fatimists have found the going a bit difficult in recent years: evidence of Russia’s conversion, which Mary promised would happen after the consecration, is now overwhelming. Mary did not give a timescale to events. Reconciliation between Orthodoxy and the Catholic Church will be slow, but it will clearly mark the fullness of conversion. Blessed John Paul, the “Fatima Pope”, went to the shrine in Portugal in 1982 to give thanks for his miraculous survival after the shooting, and the bullet that should have killed him is now in Mary’s crown on the statue there. His visit was not without incident.
A Lefebvrist priest – members of the Society of St Pius X have long been fervent supporters of the Fatimist conspiracy theories – tried to stab him while he was at the shrine. He was wounded but the attack did no lasting damage, as the priest was overpowered before he could plunge the knife in deeply. Pope John Paul, man of courage, carried on with the ceremonies and it was only later that the blood on his inner clothes revealed that he had indeed been wounded in the attack.
Today, in the former USSR, a great Catholic cathedral has been built in honour of Our Lady of Fatima in Kazakstan. The bishop of the diocese, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, is known for his devotion to the Eucharist – and this places the Fatimists in a tricky position. Much of their time is spent denouncing modern liturgy, and they ought to be among this Bishop’s supporters. But they are reluctant to support a Bishop whose actions have so obviously rendered void their assertions that nothing in Russia changed after 1984 and Blessed John Paul’s consecration.
The Fatima visions of 1917 were among the most extraordinary and poignant of any Marian event at any time in the Church’s history. The reference to Russia – very puzzling to three country children in Portugal, who had never been to school or studied any geography books – stood out starkly in Mary’s message. For decades, Catholics prayed for Russia. When a Polish Pope was elected, a Slav from a country under Russian domination, there was a sense of something stirring in history – and then it all came to fruition. There were human political events – brought about through Gorbachev, Reagan and Thatcher – but essentially the events of the final two decades of the 20th century were about great spiritual realities.
With the canonisation of Blessed John Paul, the saga will in a sense reach its climax. The conversion of Russia will continue, as must our prayers and penances, and events will continue to roll on. Probably the conspiracy theorists will roll on, too. Some tried to campaign against Blessed John Paul’s beatification; some spent a lot of energy trying to read into Pope Benedict’s words at Fatima all sorts of coded hints at untold secrets. They have long been asserting that these two Popes were liars – the argument runs that they were both in the grip of a great conspiracy from which they were unable to extricate themselves (Freemasons, all that sort of thing) and that only the Fatimists’ own websites and pamphlets can be trusted to tell the real story.
This looks set to run and run. There will always be people ready to lap up conspiracy theories. “Oh, don’t read the Vatican website – that’s been tampered with,” I was told by one who had been initiated into the Fatimist ideas. It’s all grist to their mill: papers kept by Masonic clergy, popes obliged to lie, and then there’s the Great and Terrible Secret Which They Won’t Tell Us.
The Conversion of Russia?
The reality is being played out, in the dramatic events of John Paul’s reign, in the renewed Catholic/Orthodox friendships, in the conversion of Russia that is happening before the eyes of the world (including the eyes of this writer, who visited the former USSR in the 1990s and then again, more recently). The Fatima drama, with its spiritual insights into the great and tragic events of the 20th century, in the end rests on something of universal importance: prayer and penance. This was what Cardinal Ratzinger, as he was then, emphasised when the final Fatima secret was revealed as the 21st century opened: he explained that the vision revealed a message which in the end is about loving and trusting in God, about hope conquering despair and anger and confusion. It’s a message for usall.