Mary, as “Our Lady of Fatima,” is forever tied to the Russian people — and even more so since events in 1917 and 1929.
This Oct. 13, we mark the centennial of the final vision at Fatima. From May through October in 1913, the Blessed Mother appeared to three shepherd children at Cova da Iria, near Fatima in Portugal. The children were Lucia Santos (who lived until Feb. 13, 2005) and her cousins, who are now SS. Jacinta and Francisco Marto.
Before Mary’s appearances, the children saw an angel, now called the “Angel of Fatima” and the “Angel of Peace.” This angel appeared three times: in spring, in summer and again in fall, all in 1916. He prepared the children to see Mary.
The first apparition of the Virgin occurred on May 13, 1917. Five other visions followed, on the 13th of each month — except in August. On Aug. 13, the children were prevented from going to Cova da Iria. They later reported that Mary appeared to them on Aug. 19.
The final vision — on Oct. 13 — was accompanied by the famous “miracle of the sun.” Tens of thousands of people gathered to pray with the children and many reported that the sun changed color, size and even “danced” on that day.
The Virgin of Fatima is often associated with Russia, because it was reported by the children that, at the July 13 appearance, Mary asked that Russia be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart. Lucia Santos later became a Sister of St. Dorothea and had other visions. She reported that the Blessed Mother appeared to her on June 13, 1929, at Tuy, Spain, holding her Immaculate Heart in her hand. (Sr. Lucia later became a Carmelite Sister and took the name of Sr. Maria Lucia of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart.)
Sr. Lucia later recorded this 1929 vision in her memoirs, writing that she heard Mary say: “God asks the Holy Father to make, in union with all the bishops of the world, the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, promising to save it by this means.” These words were later interpreted to mean that Russia would be saved from communism through the prayers of Mary’s heart.
Whether or not Russia was consecrated to the Immaculate Heart has long been debated. On March 25, 1984, Pope John Paul II offered a prayer of consecration “for the world and for the human race.” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke with Sr. Lucia after that event and said she had confirmed this act by St. John Paul fulfilled “what our Lady wished.”
Today, Archbishop Paolo Pezzi is the Catholic metropolitan of Moscow. In September, he told Catholic News Service that he believed that he had witnessed Russia’s conversion.
“I thank our God that I became one of the witnesses of the return of Russia to Christ,” the archbishop said. He added that Mary “still calls Russia to convert to Christ, but she did not say what form this conversion should take.”
One visible link of Russia to Our Lady of Fatima can be seen in a recent icon of Our Lady of Fatima. It was created by Ivan Lvovich, a Russian iconographer, and Fr. Aleksandr Burgos, a Byzantine Catholic priest based in St. Petersburg. The Russian icon of Our Lady of Fatima was started by the two men in 2002 and completed in 2005.
While the icon is similar to many icons — a large-eyed figure with a long face and hands, adorned with gold to represent heaven, and bearing Greek letters — there are some unique things about it, according to Fr. Burgos.
Mary’s clothing is bright white. An icon’s clothing is more often red and/or blue. Here, white serves two purposes: one is to show the glory which Mary enjoys in heaven. Orthodox icons use white clothing only for Christ — such as at his Transfiguration — or other heavenly beings. The second reason for white clothing in the Fatima icon is to represent how Mary was seen by the three children: dressed entirely in white. Her appearance was “more brilliant than the sun, and radiated a light more clear and intense than a crystal glass filled with sparkling water, when the rays of the burning sun shine through it,” Sr. Lucia’s memoirs state.
The children had reported that the “Lady in white” asked them to pray the rosary daily, “in order to obtain peace for the world, and the end of the war.” Most images of Our Lady of Fatima show her holding a white rosary. The Russian icon shows Mary holding a purple rosary.
Fr. Burgos said the icon’s purple rosary represents Fatima’s call to prayer and penance, and “the cross that every Christian must accept to follow the Lord.”
One other thing distinguishes this icon from other images of Fatima, which often show Mary’s Immaculate Heart on her chest or — based on the vision of Tuy — in her hand. The Russian icon shows a white circle where Mary’s heart would be. This circle holds the Russian word sertse, meaning “heart,” written in gold and surrounded by thorns. The white circle is used because showing the image of an actual heart is considered too literally physical and even irreverent in Russian icons. Fr. Burgos said the thorns around the circle show the love Mary has for people and the pain produced by sins.
The Fatima icon also bears two unique Russian inscriptions: One is its title: “Image of the Holiest Virgin of Fatima.” The second — “Toboyu Yedinstvo” — roughly translates to mean “In you is Unity.”
Fr. Burgos has also said that, as the Fatima icon was being written (the proper term for icon-making), he checked with Sr. Lucia — through photographs — to be certain the icon met with her approval and was true to the apparitions. Through her prioress, he said, Sr. Lucia responded several times: “We like it.” (Sr. Lucia died shortly before the icon was complete.)
While this Fatima icon is not as well-known as Russia’s ancient icon of Our Lady of Kazan — which dates to at least the 13th century — it still shows what the Kazan icon also shows: the love Mary has for her children.
Sources: catholicnews.com; Epiphamiusblog.com; “The Mystery of the Light that is God” at the Ecclesial Peace blog; russianicons,wordpress.com; Fatima.org; marypages.com; ourladyoffatima.org; and “Fatima in Lucia’s Own Words, Sister Lucia’s Memoirs”