Feast Day: May 13th
I want to start our tale this week not on May 13th, 1917, when Our Lady first appeared to Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta in the hills outside of Fatima Portugal, but instead in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, on a lovely May 13th 1981. It is just a bit after 5pm and Pope John Paul II has just begun to visit the pilgrims packed between the colonnades before his usual Wednesday Audience. He had been delivering a catechesis on the Sermon on the Mount, but today he was going to begin a new theme. It was the 90th anniversary of Pope St. Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, and JPII was set to carry forward the Church’s work, there outlined, of defending the dignity of every person, especially the poor and degraded. It had only been 60 years since WWI, and 40 years since WWII, and the Iron Curtain still obscured to the world the full horror of what happens when society worships itself and forgets God, but JPII was not going to abandon the Church’s mission of continuing to proclaim with Christ the freedom and dignity and blessedness of all those who were poor.
He was set to announce, along these lines, the creation of a Pontifical Council for the Family, and on top of this later this evening he was going across the city to open a brand new Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. All this was perhaps in his mind as he happily handed the 18 month old Sara Bartoli, back to her mother, but seconds later gunfire rang out and the Holy Father collapsed to the floor of the popemobile, his face strained, the prayer “Maria Madonna” on his lips, and blood staining his white cassock. The horrified security detail sped him out of the square to a brand-new ambulance that the pope had blessed only hours before, providentially praying then for the first person who would ride in it. Providence also directed the ambulance to the Gemelli hospital, miraculously making the 4 mile trip through Roman rush-hour in only 8 minutes. Divine providence was at work through all the moments to come: the second assassin would flee without setting off his bomb; the bullets fired from mere yards away had missed the pope’s main abdominal artery by millimeters; JPII would loose 75% of his blood over the next hour and would receive an infected transfusion of blood yet he would eventually pull through.
65 years earlier, Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta, who were then speaking to Our Lady for the third time had this singular vision: “… at the left of Our Lady and a little above, we saw an Angel with a flaming sword in his left hand; flashing, it gave out flames that looked as though they would set the world on fire; but they died out in contact with the splendour that Our Lady radiated towards him from her right hand: pointing to the earth with his right hand, the Angel cried out in a loud voice: ‘Penance, Penance, Penance!’. And we saw in an immense light that is God: ‘something similar to how people appear in a mirror when they pass in front of it’ a Bishop dressed in White ‘we had the impression that it was the Holy Father’. Other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious going up a steep mountain, at the top of which there was a big Cross of rough-hewn trunks as of a cork-tree with the bark; before reaching there the Holy Father passed through a big city half in ruins and half trembling with halting step, afflicted with pain and sorrow, he prayed for the souls of the corpses he met on his way; 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. Beneath the two arms of the Cross there were two Angels each with a crystal aspersorium in his hand, in which they gathered up the blood of the Martyrs and with it sprinkled the souls that were making their way to God.”
It was only several weeks after his being shot that John Paul II read the above testimony of Sr. Lucia, and it would be a full year before he was able to go on pilgrimage to Fatima, stating there that “one hand pulled the trigger, another guided the bullet”, but by those words he upheld the same sacred freedom that he had meant to speak of during that forgotten General Audience. As Cardinal Ratzinger would put it when the text above was published: “That here ‘a mother’s hand’ had deflected the fateful bullet only shows once more that there is no immutable destiny, that faith and prayer are forces which can influence history and that in the end prayer is more powerful than bullets and faith more powerful than armies.”
– Fr. Dominic Rankin this year has set as a goal to always “pray like I mean it.” That is, to never pray the Divine Office or my Rosary mechanically. Seeing this week a moment when history was changed by prayer, he is strongly encouraged in this effort!