“I saw the sun as a disc with a clean-cut rim, luminous and shining, but which did not hurt the eyes. … It was a clearer, richer, brighter, color, having some of the luster of a pearl. I felt it to be a living body. It looked like a glazed wheel made of mother of pearl. It was a remarkable fact that one could fix one’s eyes on this brazier of light and heat without any pain in the eyes or blind of the retina.”
“The sun’s disc did not remain immobile. This was not the sparking of a heavenly body, for as it spun round upon itself, it made a whirl. It spun like a firewheel, taking on all the colors of the rainbow. It looked like a ball of snow, revolving upon itself.”
These are not the words of an Old Testament prophet, but rather of Dr. Almeida Garrett, professor of the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. On October 13, 1917, he had come to Fátima, Portugal with at least 70,000 other people, including priests, scientists, secular media, skeptics and the faithful.
According to three local shepherd children, it was the date on which the Virgin Mary had promised to perform a miracle.
As the crowd watched the sun dancing in the sky, the landscape began to take on the colors of the rainbow. “During the solar phenomenon, there were changes of color in the atmosphere,” Dr. Garrett reported. “I looked first at the nearest objects and then extended my glance further afield as far as the horizon. I saw everything in amethyst color. Objects around me, the sky and the atmosphere, were of the same color.”
“Soon, I heard a peasant who was near me shout out in tones of stupefaction: ‘Look, that lady is all yellow!’” he continued. “And, in fact, everything both near and far had changed to yellow.”
Another eyewitness, Mario do Carmo, said, “The sun took on all colors of the rainbow. Everything took on the same colors: our faces, our clothes, the earth itself.”
Avelino de Almeida, a Freemason and an atheist, was there as editor-in-chief of O Século, a daily Lisbon newspaper. He expected to document the “non-fulfilment” of the miracle. Instead, he wrote that “the sun trembled, the sun made incredible movements outside all cosmic laws … It shook and trembled; it seemed like a wheel of fire.”
Finally, the crowd cried out as “the sun, whirling wildly, seemed to loosen itself from the firmament and advance threateningly upon the earth, as if to crush us with its huge and fiery weight.”
Mothers threw themselves over their children, some tried to run, others stood paralyzed with fear, and others confessed their sins and prepared for death.
According to Alfredo de Silva Santos, “The sun … at a certain moment appeared to be detached from the sky and about to hurtle upon us like a wheel of flame.”
At last, the sun returned to the heavens, leaving the crowd – which had been soaked by a downpour moments before – warm and dry. Hundreds of unbelievers, including the captain of the regiment of soldiers meant to break up the crowd, were converted instantly.
“This enormous multitude was drenched, for it had rained unceasingly since dawn,” said Father Joaquim Lorenço, who witnessed the miracle as a boy. “But – though this may appear incredible – after the great miracle everyone felt comfortable, and found their garments quite dry, a subject of general wonder.”
“The truth of this fact,” he emphasized, “has been guaranteed with the greatest sincerity by dozens and dozens of persons of absolute trustworthiness, whom I have known intimately from childhood.”
The miracle was visible for miles around. The poet Alfonso Lopes Viera watched from the balcony of his home thirty miles due west from Fátima. “On October 13, 1917, I had quite forgotten about the prediction of the three shepherd children, when I was surprised and charmed by a spectacle in the skies,” he recounted. “It was truly astounding, and I’ve never so much as heard of anything similar to what I watched from that balcony.”
The three shepherd children, meanwhile, saw something more: Jesus, Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Joseph blessing the people.
Keeping her promise
The Miracle of the Sun – declared to be of “supernatural character” by the Church in 1930 – was the culmination of a series of Marian apparitions witnessed by Lúcia dos Santos, Francisco Marto and Jacinta Marto.
On May 13, 1917 – exactly six months before the Miracle of the Sun – the three shepherd children were taking their flocks to pasture in Fátima. Suddenly, on a clear spring day, a flash like lightning lit up the blue sky, not once but twice. Then, in the words of Lúcia dos Santos, there stood before them “a lady clothed in white, brighter than the sun, radiating a light more clear and intense than a crystal cup filled with sparkling water lit by burning sunlight.”
The lady smiled and told them, “Do not be afraid, I will not harm you. I come from Heaven.” She told Lúcia and her cousins to return each month on the thirteenth day for six months, promising to reveal her nature during that time and instructing them to pray the rosary daily.
Over the course of the summer, Our Lady made a series of mysterious and terrifying promises. On her second visit, she promised to take Francisco and Jacinta to heaven soon, though Lúcia would have to stay behind and establish a devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Indeed, Francisco and Jacinta would die at ages 10 and 9 from the Spanish flu, while Lúcia lived to the age of 97, dying in 2005.
On her third visit, the children saw a vision of hell, called the First Secret of Fátima. The Second Secret was that God would punish the world by means of war, hunger and persecution, presaged by a night illuminated by an unknown light. The Third Secret – a complex and cryptic vision of martyrdom, apocalypse and God’s might – was sealed from the public by the Vatican until 2000 and is still open to interpretation to this day.
Our Lady also taught the children prayers, including the Fátima prayer, now customarily recited after each decade of the rosary. Later, as a Discalced Carmelite nun, Sister Lúcia would witness the largest aurora borealis in over two centuries blazing in the sky, brilliant in Europe and visible as far south as Bermuda. She immediately informed her superior and bishop that the prophecy of the second secret had been fulfilled – one month before Hitler marched on Austria, the opening act in World War II.
In 1950, Pope Pius XII would witness the Miracle of the Sun from the Vatican gardens four times during the week that he declared the Assumption of Mary to be infallible Catholic dogma. In 1981, Pope St. John Paul II survived an assassination attempt on the Feast of Our Lady of Fátima. He placed the bullet that pierced him in the crown of her image, crediting her with his survival.
Francisco and Jacinta were canonized by Pope Francis on May 13, 2017, the centennial of the first apparition, at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima. Sister Lúcia was declared venerable by Pope Francis on June 22, 2023.
‘Our Lady is coming’
Before they were venerated and the visions were approved by the Church, Lúcia and Jacinta stood, crowned with flowers, before the restless crowd in the rain on that October morning. While the rain poured down, Lúcia ordered the crowd to shut their umbrellas. Doubt was making the masses restless, even as the clouds began to break at last.
Men, women and children had been walking for miles, many of them barefoot, on muddy roads. Soldiers, armed with bayonets, attempted to prevent the crowd from assembling. One priest, convinced that the children had been lying, began to shout, “You see, it’s all a delusion!”
Lúcia rebuked the impatient man, then turned to the east and began to weep. “Jacinta, kneel down,” she said. “Our Lady is coming. I saw the lightning.”