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A book by Italian journalist and essayist Antonio Socci asserts that there are two "third secrets" of Fatima: one that described a vision given to Sister Lucia dos Santos and her cousin Jacinta in 1917 -- and publicly released in June of 2000 by the Vatican -- and the second containing actual words (as opposed to simply an image) from the Blessed Mother explaining the vision.

This one, goes the claim, remains as its name says: a secret.

We maintain our previous position on this explosive, sensational issue:

That as far as the information currently available to us, what the Vatican released in 2000 as the third secret (the vision showing an angel set to torch the world, but for the intercession of Mary, along with a ruined city, martyrdom of priests, and a "bishop in white" felled by "bullets and arrows") appears to be the third secret .

We have taken this position for several reasons, starting with the fact that we don't choose to believe the Vatican would lie.

Moreover, the vision fits perfectly with the other two parts of the secret -- which were composed of actual words from the Madonna addressed largely to the rise of Russia and Communism (along with a vision of hell).

The third-secret vision, in the fire from the angel, seemed to indicate the ultimate danger posed by Communists (nuclear war), and accurately represented the persecutions that were to come under Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler (who decimated cities and nations).

It also seemed to succinctly symbolize the shooting of John Paul II, which some suspect had a link to Communists in Bulgaria and whatever the case occurred on May 13, 1981 -- the anniversary of the first visitation of Mary at Fatima.

The implication that there is another third secret -- if you will, a "fourth secret" (which is the title of Socci's book) -- implies that both Sister Lucia and John Paul II -- who are both almost sure bets for canonization -- fudged the truth, at least by omission, or to put it another way were not totally forthcoming. Sister Lucia indicated there was nothing further to reveal after the third-secret vision was released.

There is no "smoking gun" in Socci's book. And many arguments seem strained -- dissecting statements and imprecisions to imply a collusion when there is the chance of simple mistakes by various Vatican officials and employees in reporting events or dates.

Those discrepancies are used to plant the idea of deception.

But in the wake of recent developments, we'll give the book -- which at several turns is compelling -- its chance to make a case.

That case starts with the premise that one version of the secret -- the one describing the vision, and referred to as the "Bertone secret" (after Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, currently Vatican secretary of state) -- was kept at the Vatican's Holy Office, while the second part of the third secret, the one, allegedly, with actual words from the Madonna -- startling words -- was kept in a wooden safe in the papal apartments, and may never see the light of day. This one is known as the "Capovilla secret" (after a Vatican official named Monsignor Loris F. Capovilla, who read the secret and assisted the popes with its handling).

What makes the notion of a "Capovilla secret"  interesting is that, in her memoirs, while quoting the first two secrets, Sister Lucia ended by quoting the Blessed Mother as saying: "In Portugal, the dogma of the faith will always be preserved, etc."

That is an actual quote, in Sister Lucia's handwriting -- including the "etcetera" -- and does not seem to fit with the first two parts of the secret, which discuss persecution but not a loss of faith.

Most importantly, it seems ready to discuss something further.

What (ask skeptics like Socci) came after the "etcetera"?

"Is it possible that the words of the Madonna, given by the Mother of God in person, can end in an 'etc.'?" he asks  in The Fourth Secret (which is the topic this week of a forum in Rome).

We were invited to that forum. We declined for a simple reason: we're not experts on the third secret. Socci's speculation is that the "Capovilla secret" is text meant to accompany the "Bertone secret" and concerned a crisis in Catholicism -- one that would become "mas claro" (or "clearer," in Sister Lucia's words) after 1960 -- a year she indicated the secret could be released.

Socci implies that the Vatican hushed Sister Lucia into ignoring the actual text of Our Lady's words and focusing solely on the description of the vision (the "Bertone secret"), which has no overt indication of scandal.

The author points out that Cardinal Bertone met with the seer for three hours before the secret was released, and that there is no accounting for everything that was discussed -- implying that the cloistered nun was asked in obedience to go along with the Vatican and for the good of the Church ignoring the rest of the secret.

Could there really be two different pieces of paper concerning the third secret?

According to one Vatican record, Pope Paul the VI read the secret on Thursday, June 27, 1963. The problem: another, more official document says he read the contents on March 27, 1965.

Is it simply bad record-keeping (a mistake in an institution known to be short-handed)?

Socci's theory:  that the pontiff read one version of the secret, the hypothesized "Capovilla" version -- and then the second, the "Bertone secret" -- the description of imagery -- at different times.

There are other pieces of circumstantial argument. Sister Lucia wrote the secret in 1944 -- after undergoing two months of anxiety and a "block" against doing so. What, ask folks like Socci, would have been so upsetting that the seer couldn't bring herself to jot it down?

Could it really have been the image unveiled as the secret in 2000 -- a vision that was no more unsettling that the vision of hell -- or was it upsetting because it had to do with an internal Church crisis?

Again, no "smoking gun": one can see that the vision of a Pope falling under a hail of gunfire would disturb an intensely loyal nun.

But let's move on with this.

In 1957, when a monsignor was delivering the envelope containing the secret to the apostolic nuncio in Lisbon (it had been kept by the Bishop of Leiria, who had authority over Fatima), he examined the contents under a light and determined that inside was a smaller envelope, and in that a normal sheet of paper. On it was what he discerned as Sister Lucia's handwriting, which he calculated to span twenty to 25 lines of text.

Can we rely on what was observed by a monsignor who was trying to see through an envelope?

Perhaps: Sister Lucia told Father Joaquin Maria Alonso, who was charged by the bishop with preparing the definitive study of Fatima, that "she had written [the secret] on a sheet of paper." A Vatican cardinal, Alfredo Ottaviani [left] -- secretary of the Holy Office (now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) -- repeated the same in 1967.

"Here we have already an explosive piece of information," argues Socci. "The third secret was written on a single sheet of paper. It is evident to everyone that that single folio is not the same third secret that was published in 2000, which is written on four pages, comprising 62 lines, which evidently come from a notebook of which Sister Lucia speaks" [our italics].

Father Alonso, in his own book on the secret, speculated that "if it concerned internal struggles in the heart of the Church itself and great pastoral negligence by the highest members of the hierarchy, one can comprehend that Lucia would have had a repugnance all but impossible to overcome by natural means."

The Fatima expert added: "If in Portugal the dogma of the Faith will always be preserved, it can be clearly deduced from this that in other parts of the Church these dogmas are going to become obscure or even lost altogether. It is quite possible that the message not only speaks of a 'crisis of faith' in the Church during this period, but also like the secret of LaSalette, that it makes concrete references to internal strife among Catholics and to the deficiencies of priests and religious. It is also possible that it may imply deficiencies even among the upper ranks of the hierarchy."

Indeed, it took a special appearance of the Blessed Mother to free Lucia's hand in 1944 (or perhaps late 1943: again, the exact date is not known) to write it.

It can get a bit convoluted -- in this era before there was documentation via computer. But let us carry forth and ask: if there were words accompanying the other vision in the Fatima secrets -- the vision of hell (the Blessed Mother had said she was showing them where "poor sinners" go) -- should there not have been words to accompany that vision of an angel, fire, and a "bishop in white" in the third part of the Fatima prophecies?

It seems clear: yes, visions were accompanied by text -- until one recalls that after the formal apparitions ended Jacinta Marto was granted a vision of the Pope in a big house with stones and curses hurled at him.

That vision was not accompanied, as far as we know, by any words of explanation.

Socci cites those who speculated that the secret involved not just an angel ready to torch the world, or persecution but also a great apostasy in the Church "at its summit" and perhaps "that Satan will succeed in infiltrating." Unfortunately, the author relies for this part on speculation by a famous Catholic writer and priest who was laicized by Rome after himself becoming involved in a scandal with the wife of a journalist.

Thus does it all spin in various directions.

Still, why was it it that Pope John XXIII, when he was charged with the secret, sent the document "into one of those archives which are like a well, deep and dark, into which papers go, and no one ever sees anything more of them," in the words of Cardinal Ottaviani? What was it that was so unnerving? Could it have been scandal?

Nothing troubles the hierarchy more than scandal , and the current abuse crisis had much of its germination (mas claro) just after 1960.

When another Fatima scholar, Dr. Solideo Paolini, called Monsignor Capovilla to ask about the discrepancy between a one-page secret and one spanning four pages (and the two different dates for the reading of the secret by Paul VI), the monsignor reportedly replied, "But I am right; perhaps the Bertone envelope is not the same as the Capovilla envelope..."

Immediately -- reportedly -- Paolini interrupted him.

"Therefore, both dates are correct because there are two texts of the third secret?' he asked.

And Capovilla allegedly answered, "Precisely so!"

A smoking gun.

Or is it?

During that exchange, Monsignor Capovilla, -- an elderly man -- alluded to lapses of memory and defended his own lucidity -- implying that there might be those who questioned it. And so we must ask: can an entire conspiracy theory be based on what may be recording errors and misstatements?

Or did the Vatican present the public with just one aspect of the secret?

It would not be a direct lie. The vision was indeed the thrust of the secret.

But neither, if true, is it a complete reckoning.

Claims Socci: "Evidently, John XXIII sent back the part relative to the vision, deciding to keep to himself, in his bedroom, the other part. He must have held it so 'explosive' and shocking as to justify such an anomaly. But there is another reason: because Pius XII had done the same thing."

Indeed, in Cardinal Bertone's introduction to official release of the secret in 2000, the Vatican official -- now secretary of state -- recounted that John XXIII had the secret brought to him from the Holy Office.

If he had the secret in his bedroom, one might ask, how could he order it brought to him from the congregation (unless it had later been relocated)?

Meanwhile, former Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls once said that John Paul II had read the secret for the first time within days of assuming the papacy, while later on others such as Cardinal Bertone said that the pontiff read it for the first time while recovering from the assassination attempt in 1981. Again: a discrepancy.

Just "imprecisions"?

Or were there two different aspects to the final secret?

A final prelate, Cardinal Mario Luigi Ciappi [above, right] -- theologian from the pontifical household from 1955 to 1989 -- is quoted as notating that "in the third secret is predicted, among other things, that the great apostasy in the Church will begin at the top." Others have even speculated that it has to do with anti-christ. One fallacy: that Sister Lucia instructed that the secret be opened in 1960.

What she said is that it should not be revealed before then -- and that the Pope could reveal it after 1960, if he chose to; there was not a demand.

At times, it is all circumstantially compelling. At other times, it seems like tortured parsing and interpretations in which phrases are juggled with sources that are questionable. No final proof here. But at a time of turmoil, it all makes for interesting reading and a question: If there is another part of the secret and if it spelled out this scandal, might revelation of it in the Sixties prevented what the Church now suffers? Might the Blessed Mother have attempted to prevent that? Or is this just another polemic and diversion -- at a time of turmoil.

[resources: Fatima is Forever

[see also: The message of Fatima]

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