Monday, May 14, 2007

The Many Visions of Bertone

Ninety years ago yesterday, three shepherd children in a small town of the Portugese countryside looked upward, and the place changed forever.

The apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima, which took place over six months in 1917, have since served as a lodestar the world over. By the thousands, pilgrims continue to flock to the Basilica and shrine erected at the site where the cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto and Lucia dos Santos were visited by "a lady, clothed in white, brighter than the sun," and its impact on the church only increased in the pontificate of John Paul II, who credited his survival from the assassination attempt on the anniversary of the first apparition in 1981 to the Virgin of Fatima, in whose crown the late Pope placed the bullet that struck him.

What many don't realize, however, is that Fatima ties in the new pontificate remain prominent.

As secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone served as the Vatican's lead intermediary with Lucia, the last of the surviving visionaries, who had entered a Carmelite convent in the years following the apparitions. Sr Lucia attended the beatifications of her cousins in 2000, and on her death in February 2005 at age 97 -- as John Paul reflected on his "bonds of spiritual friendship" with the visionary "that grew stronger with time" -- Bertone, a Portugese speaker who had since become the cardinal-archbishop of Genoa, was dispatched to celebrate her funeral as papal legate.

Now Secretary of State to Benedict XVI, Bertone commemorated the 90th anniversary of the apparitions last week with the release of a book recalling his meetings with Lucia -- and reiterating again, as he did at her death, that following the revelation of the long-guarded "Third Secret" at the 2000 beatifications, no more Fatima messages remain undisclosed.
The continuing rumors that the Vatican is still hiding something puzzle Cardinal Bertone and, he said, they irritated Sister Lucia, who died in February 2005 at the age of 97.

In the book, Cardinal Bertone said, "The most diehard 'Fatimists,' like those who follow Father Nicholas Gruner's Fatima Crusader magazine, remain disappointed."

Father Gruner, a priest based in Canada, repeatedly has said that the Vatican's text does not match other accounts by Sister Lucia and, basically, does not contain anything worrying enough to have prevented Popes John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II from publishing it earlier.

The strange thing, Cardinal Bertone said in the new book, is that Pope John Paul decided to publish the secret precisely to put an end to the wild speculation that had surrounded it.

"The pressure from the 'Fatimists' was extremely strong," the cardinal said.

"The most absurd theses" were being spread, mainly presuming that the secret predicted catastrophic world events or widespread heresy at the top levels of the church, Cardinal Bertone said.

"Clearing up the question was a pastoral concern," he said.

Pope Benedict's letter, written in late February, reflects that concern.

The publication of the third secret "was a time of light, not only because the message could be known by all, but also because it unveiled the truth amid the confused framework of apocalyptic interpretations and speculation circulating in the church, upsetting the faithful rather than asking them for prayers and repentance," Pope Benedict wrote.

The pope, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said he wrote the Vatican commentary "after having prayed intensely and meditated deeply on the authentic words of the third part of the secret of Fatima, contained on sheets written by Sister Lucia."

Pope Benedict said that for him the secret can be summarized "by the consoling promise of the Most Holy Virgin: 'My immaculate heart will triumph.'"
The visionary aspect of his meetings with Lucia clearly rubbed off on Bertone. After his appointment as the Vatican's premier last summer, the cardinal announced that, amidst his own anxieties on taking the job, no less than John Paul appeared to him in a dream, blessing Bertone and telling him to "be not afraid." And last week, the San Damaso chief told Vatican Radio of yet another vision he's had, this time one of the church's "purification and renewal" that would save it from a further "exodus" of Catholics.

The message's articulation isn't so much a supernatural occurrence in this go-round as just another triumph of tact from the non-diplomat head of the Holy See's diplomatic corps:
"The problem -- and I always say this to bishops and priests -- is a problem of bishops and priests being able to welcome and listen to people."...

[The cardinal] encouraged "being close to people, being welcoming -- as the great saints who were bishops have taught us, and as Pope John Paul II spoke about in his autobiography when he said: 'I have tried and I try to be welcoming, to be near people.'

"And how Pope Benedict XVI teaches us in his ability to listen, his closeness to people -- the people he meets, even just for a moment, during audiences, feel transfigured because they have the perception of being treated as a friend, as if you were meeting with old friends."

"This is a very beautiful thing. It is a teaching," Cardinal Bertone said. "It is also a simple but effective way to stop this exodus of our Catholic Christians."