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The Pope's trip to Portugal and Fatima is already remarkable in two ways. First, it was on the plane ride Tuesday from Rome that he made the strongest statement to date on the abuse scandal (acknowledging that it came not so much as an outside persecution as from "terrifying" sin from within). Indeed, Fatima is known for a "third secret" that some claim has not been fully released and addressed such a crisis. Secondly, it is remarkable because we are watching a supremely academic pontiff -- one with a distinctly professorial countenance -- approach the site of an apparition.

Might it be that the cerebral approach to religion will meld with the profoundly mystical (or at least touch, and at least this week)?

First, the issue of the third secret: Sister Lucia dos Santos had said that it could be opened, but only after 1960, when it would become "clearer."

One can readily explain that the secret had to do with Russia and nuclear war (the angel with a torch) and that after 1960 the threat of nuclear war would indeed become more clear (see: Cuban missile crisis). Or, one could see the Sixties as causing a crisis of faith related to a phrase in the Fatima secrets that said, "In Portugal, the dogma of the faith will always be preserved" -- indicating that it would not be elsewhere.

One could also argue -- if one believes in an unreleased text accompanying the vision (one that has to do with scandal and problems in the hierarchy, and was meant to accompany the vision) that the current abuse crisis had its main genesis in the roaring Sixties and the sex "revolution."

One of those who claims the secret has not been fully released is essayist Antonio Socci of Italy, who points out that the 1960s were also the decade of Vatican II and the onset of not only  non-mystical but an anti-mystical mindset. In fact, the preparatory commission for the Council began its work precisely in 1960. At the inauguration two years later, the Pope, remarking on prophecy, commented that "to us it seems necessary to disagree with these prophets of doom who are forever forecasting calamity, almost as if the world's end were imminent."

Pope John XXIII, claims Socci, was antagonistic to Sister Lucia and chose not to meet with her. Was this the beginning of the modern Church's stance on seers? "Evidently, he felt that his 'prophetic spirit' was much more acute than the 'Queen of Prophets,'" snipes Socci, who has written a bestseller called The Fourth Secret and who is described as a former friend of high Vatican official Cardinal Tarcisio  Bertone. "In fact," adds this author, "[the Pope] announced a splendid springtime for the Church, and we have seen that a dark and freezing winter arrived."

This is Socci's view. We believe it always does us best to honor the view of a pontiff, no matter our personal opinions. And we certainly believe that obedience is key. But we will also grant the essayist his say at a time when what he has to say now resonates more than in previous decades. The question: Had the Church decided that its own views -- intellectually wrought -- were more prophetic than any private revelation?

Claims Socci: "The decisions and choices of John XXIII were also followed by his successor Paul VI, who -- for his own part -- added the annoyed and public rejection of Sister Lucia: 'It is said that Lucia that day at Fatima asked for a meeting with the Pope,' recalls John Guitton, who was his friend and confidante. The Pope responded brusquely: 'Address yourself to the bishop.' According to his French friend, 'Paul VI had a sort of generic aversion for visionaries. He maintained that, since revelation is complete, the Church has no need of these things, to which one must not give exaggerated importance.

"Are the 'little ones' chosen by Mary despised?" asked the author. "Are prophecies despised? [Portuguese journalist] Aura Miguel has observed that on the day he rejected a meeting with Sister Lucia, the last living visionary of Fatima, at the Portuguese sanctuary, Paul VI 'received that evening civil and military authorities, members of the government, and the diplomatic corps. The Pope also held an audience with the Portuguese episcopate, with representatives of Catholic Action and with other Christian churches. Returning to the Monte Real Airport, he found time to make a visit to the monastery of Batalha. Why did he have time for everyone except she whom the Madonna had chosen as her messenger?

"On September 13, 1964, Pope Paul VI confided to the same French friend that he expected to see 'lay people animated by the spirit of prophecy,' but he expected them as 'fruits of the Council,' not by election (and gift) of Heaven as with the children of Fatima," adds Socci.

It is a harsh assessment -- too harsh (we must respect the way of our popes, and appreciate their discernment) -- although it is true that this was when Paul VI made his famous remark that "the smoke of Satan" had entered the Church, an allusion, it turns out, to worldliness and the infiltration of scientism with which we still grapple. The majority of Western bishops seem to have adopted the pontiffs' view of seers.

Will that change when Benedict XVI -- the most intellectual of recent popes -- touches down this week at Fatima?

For despite an intellectual approach, Pope Benedict has a real fondness for the Blessed Mother. And he was mentored by John Paul the Great -- who was both a mystic and an intellectual.

We should not be hard, meanwhile, on John XXIII or Paul VI.

We should never be hard on any pope. They are in an impossible situation.

But dramatic are our times.

Pope Paul VI himself once fretted -- prophetically -- that "the opening to the Church became a true and proper invasion of the Church by worldly thinking."

Take a look at the vast majority of Catholic universities, high schools, grammar schools, news outlets, parish ministries, charitable organizations, or diocesan offices and this worldliness is greatly in evidence. Too often, there is an institution without the Spirit.

This is the root of the current crisis.

Did the third secret have a text that addressed problems in the Church?

Intriguingly, there were claims in the 1960s that a German publication called Neues Europa had glimpsed the alleged text accompanying the vision and reported that it foresaw "a time of hardest trials for the Church" when "cardinals will be against cardinals and bishops against bishops."

Experts denounced that "secret" as a fraud (it even got the wrong date for the secret) and Sister Lucia herself said that version of the secret was not true. If nothing else, it was overly apocalyptic.

Intriguing it was, however, that parts of it seemed repeated verbatim in an alleged message on October 13, 1973, to a nun at Akita, Japan, who said Mary told her that "the devil will infiltrate the Church even into the Church in such a way that one will see cardinals opposing cardinals, bishops against other bishops. The priests who venerate me will be scorned and opposed by their confreres."

Years later, when asked about the third secret by Howard Dee -- Filipino ambassador to the Vatican -- then-Cardinal Ratzinger reportedly told him to read the Akita message.

So is there another part of the third secret -- one that has to do with the crisis and one that was not released because -- perhaps -- it was too "terrifying"?

There is no "smoking gun" indicating that the Vatican has hidden anything.

There are, however, ironies. Just last week, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Austria publicly castigated former Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal  Angelo Sodano for allegedly mishandling and covering up the abuse crisis). It is also Cardinal Sodano whom Socci alleges to have taken part in a cover-up of the text of the third secret.

Cardinal versus cardinal.

This gets as dangerous as it is intriguing. What does it have to do with spirituality? And does it not head on the slippery slope of criticality, the hypothetical, and disobedience? At the same time: is it not ironic that on the way to Fatima the Pope has addressed the abuse issue as never before? And do we not now see the Pope siding with Cardinal Schönborn (a very Marian, mystical prelate -- who recently visited, and endorsed, another apparition site)?

Is the Church about to get a bit more mystical?

Let us watch this week. Let us watch in the days ahead. Mostly, let us pray that the Blessed Mother, Our Lady of the Rosary, touch our dear Pope (and Church) in a new and special way.

[resources: Memories of Sister Lucia]

[see also: Despite bookish appearance, Pope has 'deep interest' in apparition, Visit to the shrine of secrets, Pope in strongest words yet on abuse crisis, Fatima forum: was third secret revealed? and Behind the Pope's stance: a Vatican power struggle?]

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