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The news that high Vatican officials played roles in aspects of the current abuse crisis (however indirect the roles may have been) could cause skeptics to cast a new look at the third secret of Fatima -- one of the greatest mysteries of the Twentieth Century.

The reason is simple: these officials were also involved in the preparation, interpretation, and public revelation of that famous prophecy, which some still doubt was revealed in full, as too abuse cases were shielded from full public perusal.

We don't think that's the case. We believe it was revealed in full. Moreover, there is absolutely no reason to believe that high Vatican officials ever did anything untoward in priest-abuse cases.

But if nothing else, it has provided fodder for those who wish to revisit assertions that the Fatima secret was never revealed in full and who long have believed that it may have had to do precisely with a coming Church crisis or scandal.

Those notions are put forth most poignantly by Italian journalist Antonio Socci, who is described as a "former friend" of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (current Vatican secretary of state, above, left) and is author of a highly controversial and speculative book entitled The Fourth Secret of Fatima.

The book hypothesizes that there was unrevealed text that accompanied the vision, revealed by the Vatican in 2000, that ended up constituting the third "secret" of Fatima as described by the sole surviving seer, Sister Lucia dos Santos, who said after the first two parts of the prophecy she was shown images as in a mirror of martyred priests, a Pope being killed, and an angel set to torch the world (with a flame quenched by the Blessed Mother).

No text was ever revealed by Rome to accompany that vision, nor is there any firm evidence whatsoever that such a text ever existed.

It is Socci's contention that words Sister Lucia once mentioned as the sentence ending the first two parts and leading into the third secret ("In Portugal, the dogma of the faith will always be preserved etc..") implies that more text was to follow and relates to a Church crisis.

"For a long time this beginning of the third secret has led to the conviction that the natural sequel is something catastrophic for the Church, and also for the world," writes the author, whose book was a European bestseller and also popular among certain segments of English-speaking Catholics. "Father Joaquin Alonso, the official archivist of Fatima, considered the greatest expert on the subject (who died in 1981), commented thus on the opening words of the Madonna: 'This phrase clearly implies a critical state of the faith from which other nations will suffer, and thus a crisis of the faith. If 'in Portugal the dogma of the faith will always be preserved,' it can clearly be deduced that in other parts of the Church these dogmas will be obscured or even lost... It is therefore probable that the text refers concretely to the crisis of faith in the Church and to the negligence of the pastors themselves.' Some years later Father Alonso will even write that the secret speaks of 'internal struggles in the womb of the Church and of grave pastoral negligence by the upper hierarchy,' and 'deficiencies of the upper hierarchy of the Church.'"

That much is true: Father Alonso [below, right], who was assigned the task of preparing a definitive study of Fatima for the local bishop, believed that the phrase about Portugal clearly implied a grave Church crisis, and in fact this is being witnessed across Europe, where church attendance has plummeted and where the very role of Christianity in European history is being obscured.

"One conclusion does indeed seem to be beyond doubt," said Father Alonso. "The content of the unpublished part of the secret does not refer to new wars or political upheavals, but to happenings of a religious and intra-Church character, which of their very nature are still more grave."

When the secret was revealed in 2000, it was done after an extensive meeting between Sister Lucia and Cardinal Bertone and with an interpretation fashioned by then-Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, who is now dean of the College of Cardinals.

"Was it desired that she give her approval to a partial revelation that would bury the part with words of the Madonna and would interpret the vision as a reference to the past?" asks Soccio in his polemic. "Is it perhaps obedience that was requested of the sister during that meeting of April 2000?"

These are very dangerous speculations -- in a faith that demands our respect and faith for that same hierarchy. To speak of it in the same way as we speak of politics or celebrities is a mistake.

Whatever occurs, we are called to obedience (which Scripture tells us is more important that sacrifice).

Moreover, there has never been reason to anything but respect men such as the two cardinals.

An intriguing notion is also in the timing of release. Sister Lucia had said that the secret should not be revealed until after 1960 -- when it would become "mas claro" (more clear). It was in the Sixties and then the Seventies that most abuse cases occurred. And it remains confusing why the sentence ended with "etc" but was followed by no further text.

Moreover, a part of the secret of LaSalette, France, in 1846 -- one that warned of a loss of faith, of the devil inserting "sinners" into "religious orders," and of priests who would become "cesspools of impurity" -- was sequestered and at some points condemned by the Church (although, curiously, the first part, predicting famine due to secular irreligion, was approved).

"The Vicar of my Son will suffer a great deal, because for a while the Church will yield to large persecution, a time of darkness and the Church will witness a frightful crisis," said the rejected part of secret from seer Melanie Calvat.

Add to that a comment on the third Fatima secret by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, Prefect of the Holy Office who read the third secret text to Pope John XXIII in 1957 and who reportedly said that "the secret has to be buried in the most hidden, the deepest, the most obscure and inaccessible place on earth."

That all seems like compelling material for those who see a conspiracy, but Cardinal Ottaviani's next sentence was that "if there was one dominant element to the third secret, it is Russia."

Indeed, the first two parts of the Fatima prophecy had to do with wars and the rise of Communism -- and except for persecution, not Church crisis. Those themes were reiterated in the third secret. Meanwhile, it was after 1960 that the threat of nuclear weapons -- seemingly represented by the angel about to torch the earth -- became clearer.

In 1963 a German publication called Neues Europa claimed to have seen the third secret and after foreseeing huge global calamities (in language that seemed awkward, and with apocalyptic prophecies that were not fulfilled in the time frame noted) quoted the secret as saying in part that "there will also come a time of hardest trials for the Church. Cardinals will be against cardinals, and bishops against bishops. Satan will put himself in their midst. In Rome, also, there will be big changes. What is rotten will fall, and what will fall must not be maintained. The Church will be darkened and the world plunged into confusion."

Similar language ("cardinals opposing cardinals") was quoted by a nun at Akita, Japan, who claimed to hear the Blessed Mother (and who also has been largely rejected by the official Church).

If nothing, it is a fascinating time -- and a confusing one. Unfortunately, most theories of a conspiracy to sequester the secret come from extremist or anti-Pope camps, diminishing the prospect of legitimacy. One should be extremely careful about even considering their allegations.

Those, in themselves, can be part of a persecution.

Bottom line: the reasons for questioning Socci's allegations and hypotheses are too extensive to list here. For example, to dismiss John Paul II's shooting as having nothing to do with the secret -- when the pontiff was shot on the very anniversary of Fatima -- is perplexing (Socci believes it pertains to the killing of a future pope, perhaps even the current one). Was there a Vatican cover up? Unlikely. But in the current environment whereby concealment of Church problems and particularly by the Curia (which was said to have pressured John Paul II into shielding abuse cases) has grabbed international headlines, it is natural to revisit an apparition that indicated Church problems, at least in the statements pertaining to persecution and Portugal.

"One has the impression that Father Alonso and [another Fatima scholar and writer] Frère Michel were led to deny the hypothesis of a material chastisement because they feared that the emphasis placed on prophecies of disaster would overshadow the core of the prophecy -- the darkness that descends upon the Church -- which would be the one cause of these tragedies," writes Soccio, who claims that it was Cardinal Sodano [left] who interpreted the secret as pertaining to John Paul II and the attempt on his life on May 13, 1981.

In recent days Cardinal Sodano has been linked in the media to Father Marcel Maciel, the Legionaries of Christ founder, who before his death had been banished to a monastery, but who before that was defended by Sodano; while Cardinal Bertone has been accused of blocking the case of a Wisconsin priest that began the current media frenzy. Cardinal Bertone is currently spearheading the Vatican's response to attacks from the secular media.

[Maryland-D.C.-Virginia Michael Brown retreat and Mass: apparitions, spiritual protection]

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