10 May 2021, The Tablet

Pope Francis is ensuring that prayers to the Mother of God circle the globe this May

Pope Francis is ensuring that prayers to the Mother of God circle the globe this May

Pray for the end of the pandemic and the resumption of our social and economic life May 31, 2021.
CNS photo/Paul Haring

On Saturday 1 May, at 6pm, in the Gregorian chapel in St Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis turned to Our Lady to ask her to help see off the Covid pandemic. Specifically, he turned to the Madonna of Succour icon above the altar of St Leo, along with 100 or so guests who joined him to pray the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary and launch a “prayer marathon” that will take in 30 Marian shrines before returning on 31 May to the Vatican Gardens. There, Francis again will pray the Rosary with the assembly, so ending the Marian month. 

The Pontifical Council for Evangelisation and Pope Francis himself are the inspiration behind the  global initiative. Our Lady has appeared in any number of locations from Mexico to Rwanda, from France to Argentina, from Japan to Portugal, and while the world is still captive to the pandemic, the Vatican decided to seek her supernatural help.

At the ceremony on May1, Francis sat in a chair at the front of the aisle before the altar, with his back to the congregation, facing with them the replica of the seventh-century icon. The preeminent Marian icon in St Peter’s, it was restored under Francis in 2013. 

The heartfelt nature of the Pope’s participation in this appeal to the Virgin Mary was evident throughout the ceremony. Apart from reverently telling the beads, he read prayers with his head down, glasses on, before and after the recitation of the Glorious Mysteries, but looked up with reverence to the icon when he mentioned “Madonna of Succour” in the prayer at the start of the ceremony, and again in a prayer at the end, when he spoke the words Madre di Dio (Mother of God). He gave the same reverential attention to the icon for the singing of the Salve Regina.

The whole idea of the Rosary is to reach Jesus through Mary. For 18 of the 20 mysteries divided between the Joyful Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, the Mysteries of Light and the Glorious Mysteries, we meditate on the life, death and Resurrection of Christ Himself. The last two Glorious mysteries are given over to Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, and her crowning as Queen of Heaven. These are preceded by meditations with their corresponding decade of Hail Marys on the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

In all this there are few concessions to Protestantism. Many of its churches regard the very name “Mother of God” as a scandal. In the three Hail Marys at the start of each Mystery, and in every one in each of the five decades, Mary is named as Mother of God, making 53 times in all. Moreover, after each decade, in explicit recognition of the authenticity of the Fatima apparitions between May and October of 2017, the Fatima prayer is recited, as requested by Mary to the three Portuguese shepherd children to whom she appeared. 

“Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of your mercy.”

When she asks the faithful to pray the Rosary, then, as she does in most if not all of her apparitions, the Blessed Virgin clearly does not have a problem with being named “Mother of God”.

There may not be a division in the Church regarding the Rosary but there is certainly a spectrum of opinion and observance. Traditionalists tend to affirm the importance of compliance with Our Lady’s repeated requests. Progressives tend to be sceptical or even scornful of what some at least see as mindless repetition. If they had seen Pope Francis telling his beads on Saturday, they might have recognised something more like humility in the devotion.

This said, a closer scrutiny of the 30 shrines chosen for special recognition in the Marathon reveals much about the Church in the world today. England’s own Walsingham was given first place on 1 May, the day of the launch, but the kindest thing that can be said of the overall English response is that the honour was barely noticed. Our Lady of Knock on 10 May will probably fare better. Nigeria, where the Catholic faith is taken seriously, weighed in on Day Two and then Poland’s Black Madonna of Czestochowa was the focus for Day 3. The Polish Church gave the moment its due. 

However, no shrine in Mother Russia will receive one of the 30 rosaries that Francis blessed at the end of the St Peter’s ceremony, not even Our Lady of Kazan, a copy of which icon was given to the Russian Orthodox Church by St John Paul II in 2004. Our Lady of Kazan is also called Mother-of-God of Kazan. 

The nearest the marathon comes to acknowledging Russia’s devotion to Our Lady is via Cuba (20 May) and Ukraine (27 May): welcome inclusions but ones that draw attention to, rather than disguising, the sensitive nature of Vatican-Russia relations.

This sensitivity will be particularly apparent on 13 May, the date of the first Marian apparition at Fatima, when the marathon reaches Portugal. Pope John Paul II believed that he survived the assassination attempt of 13 May 1981 because Our Lady Of Fatima diverted the bullet fired by Mehmet Ali Agca by the millimetre necessary to ensure the assault was not fatal. The bullet is now placed in the crown of Our Lady at Fatima. On the esplanade of the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima on 12 May 2010, Pope Benedict prayed to Our Lady: 

“The Venerable Pope John Paul II, who visited you three times here in Fatima and thanked the “unseen hand” that rescued him from death
in the assassination attempt on 13 Mayin Saint Peter’s Square almost thirty years ago, wanted to offer to the Shrine of Fatimaa bullet which gravely wounded him and was placed in the crown of the Queen of Peace. It is a profound consolation to know that you are crowned, not only with the silver and gold of our joys and hopes, but also with the ‘bullet’ of our anxieties and sufferings.”

Russia features largely in the Fatima apparitions. In one of the two fully revealed secrets that Our Lady shared with the three shepherd children is a request that Russia be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart. Sensitivities about offending the Russians mean this may not have  been properly done, despite a gesture towards it in a ceremony in Rome on 25 March 1984 by Pope John Paul II. There are varying accounts on whether Sr Lucia, the older and then living visionary, believed that this consecration had been done according to the precise wishes of Our Lady. John Paul II did not name Russia per se but said: “In a special way we entrust and consecrate to you those individuals and nations that particularly need to be thus entrusted and consecrated.” 

The question is important because the consequence of failing to do this, Our Lady insisted, would be that Russia’s errors – in other words, communism – would be spread across the world. While John Paul II’s consecration was implicit, it was not explicit.

An indicator that the question still merits attention is found in the Prayer Marathon’s shrine designation for 24 May. The programme simply says “to be determined”. As it happens this is the feast day of the most important Chinese shrine, Our Lady of Sheshan. Last year the Chinese Communist Party suspended all pilgrimages to the shrine. Communist persecution of Catholics and other Christians and religions has continued in China despite the secret accord of September 2018 between the Vatican and the ruling Communist Party. The twenty-fourth of May, then, is a date to watch. 

Intriguing in a different way is the allocation of Japan’s Rosary day on 21 May to Our Lady of Nagasaki.  When the Pope celebrated Mass in Nagasaki on 24 November 2019 a sculpture of Mary that survived the explosion of the atomic bomb on 9 August 1945 was placed near the altar. Called the Virgin of Nagasaki or the Burnt Virgin it was at the altar of the former Urakami cathedral when the bomb dropped at 11.01am. Catholics were praying the novena of the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary. Everyone in the cathedral was incinerated, more than 35,000 people died in the city within hours, and thousands more died subsequently. The cathedral was left in ruins, and the damaged but intact sculpture was found in the ruins. Also known as the Virgin of Urakami, it is now kept in the new cathedral that was built on the site of the old one in 1959.

Bypassed in Japan, however, will be the shrine to Our Lady of Akita. Sr Agnes Sasagawa, who was deaf, experienced a series of apparitions and wounds associated with a statue of Mary beginning on 12 June 1973.

On 13 October 1973 the woman speaking from the statue, subsequently recognised by the local bishop as a genuine apparition of Our Lady, said: “My dear daughter, listen well to what I have to say to you. You will inform your superior.”

Sr Agnes, though deaf, was able to hear every word: “As I told you, if men do not repent and better themselves, the Father will inflict a terrible punishment on all humanity. It will be a punishment greater than the deluge, such as one never seen before. Fire will fall from the sky and will wipe out a great part of humanity, the good as well as the bad, sparing neither priests nor faithful. The survivors will find themselves so desolate that they will envy the dead. The only arms which will remain for you will be the Rosary and the Sign left by My Son. Each day recite the prayers of the Rosary. With the Rosary, pray for the Pope, the bishops and priests.

“The work of the devil will infiltrate even into the Church in such a way that one will see cardinals opposing cardinals, bishops against bishops. The priests who venerate me will be scorned and opposed by their confreres...churches and altars sacked; the Church will be full of those who accept compromises and the demon will press many priests and consecrated souls to leave the service of the Lord.

“The demon will be especially implacable against souls consecrated to God. The thought of the loss of so many souls is the cause of my sadness. If sins increase in number and gravity, there will be no longer pardon for them … 

“Pray very much the prayers of the Rosary. I alone am able still to save you from the calamities which approach. Those who place their confidence in me will be saved.”

On 22 April 1984, after eight years of investigations, Bishop John Shojiro Ito, of Niigata, Japan, recognised “the supernatural character of a series of mysterious events concerning the statue of the Holy Mother Mary” and authorised “throughout the entire diocese, the veneration of the Holy Mother of Akita”.

Which brings us back to Fatima, and the mysterious Third Secret. Two of the shepherd children, Jacinta and Francisco, died not long after witnessing the apparitions, as Mary said they would, promising them they would go straight to Heaven. However, the older girl, Lucia, became a nun and lived until 2005. Notwithstanding that one of the secrets was a vision of a populated hell, she appears to have been so horrified by the content of the Third Secret that she would not talk about it. She wrote it down and her note or a copy or both are reputedly in a drawer in the papal apartments at the Vatican. It was supposed to be revealed in 1960 but Pope John XXIII refused to comply. All the subsequent popes have refused, though in the year 2000 the Vatican made a partial revelation, saying the Third Secret contained an image of a ruined city and a man in white, presumably the pope, crawling up a hill towards a Cross and praying for the dead around him. 

“Having reached the top of the mountain, on his knees at the foot of the big Cross he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him, and in the same way there died one after another the other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious, and various lay people of different ranks and positions.” 

However, the Vatican did not reveal Our Lady’s explanation of this vision, even though Mary had offered explanations of the earlier ones, and one exists in Sr Lucia’s note. The one offered at the time by the Vatican – that the vision referred to the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, and everything had now been revealed - was widely regarded as unworthy of belief and inconsistent with what was already known.

So speculation on the content of the Third Secret is still rife. The best clue has been offered by now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

In the 1980s when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he let slip that the secret was akin to that revealed by Our Lady at Akita.

Then decades later, when he visited Fatima in 2010, he was asked about the secret when he took selected questions in an interview on the plane. 

On Tuesday 11 May 2010, at the start of his four-day visit to Portugal, he was asked:

“Your Holiness, what meaning do the Fatima apparitions have for us today? In June 2000, when you presented the text of the third secret in the Vatican Press Office, a number of us and our former colleagues were present. You were asked if the message could be extended, beyond the attack on John Paul II, to other sufferings on the part of the Popes. Is it possible, to your mind, to include in that vision the sufferings of the Church today for the sins involving the sexual abuse of minors?”

Pope Benedict replied: “I would say that, here too, beyond this great vision of the suffering of the Pope, which we can in the first place refer to Pope John Paul II, an indication is given of realities involving the future of the Church, which are gradually taking shape and becoming evident.

“On the new things which we can find in this message today, there is also the fact that attacks on the Pope and the Church come not only from without, but the sufferings of the Church come precisely from within the Church, from the sin existing within the Church. This too is something that we have always known, but today we are seeing it in a really terrifying way (my emphasis): that the greatest persecution of the Church comes not from her enemies without, but arises from sin within the Church, and that the Church thus has a deep need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn forgiveness on the one hand, but also the need for justice.” 

This answer tends to corroborate a theory, backed up by the Akita testimony, that the Third Secret relates to apostasy in the Church and the events it will trigger.

We do not know whether the intentions of the Prayer Marathon extend beyond a prayer for deliverance from the Covid pandemic, although we do know that, perhaps coincidentally, it will end in the Vatican Gardens where the Pachamama statues of naked pregnant women were venerated on 4 October 2019, ahead of the 6-27 October Synod of Bishops on the Amazon.

We do know that both Paul VI and John Paul II celebrated a solemn Mass in Fatima and used the same passage from Sacred Scripture: Revelation 12, about a woman adorned with the sun, fighting a decisive battle with the ancient serpent, the devil, Satan.

We also know that in his homily in the Church of the Holy Trinity at Fatima on 13 May 2010 Pope Benedict XVI said: “We would be mistaken to think that Fatima’s prophetic mission is complete. …  Mankind has succeeded in unleashing a cycle of death and terror, but failed in bringing it to an end… In sacred Scripture we often find that God seeks righteous men and women in order to save the city of man and he does the same here, in Fatima, when Our Lady asks: “Do you want to offer yourselves to God, to endure all the sufferings which he will send you, in an act of reparation for the sins by which he is offended and of supplication for the conversion of sinners?’” (Memoirs of Sister Lúcia, I, 162).

As the recitations of the Mysteries of the Rosary echo from one shrine to another across the globe during the month of May, and the appeals to “Holy Mary Mother of God” to “pray for us sinners” accumulate exponentially, it will not only be the two men who do know the Third Secret, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, who will be hoping Mary is listening and, as always, interceding with Her Son on our behalf. 







What do you think?


You can post as a subscriber user ...

User comments (0)

  Loading ...