This past week we celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. (And, given my mention of Fatima, you may wonder why I have Our Lady of Guadalupe pictured here, but more on that in a moment). But as for Fatima, with all the emphasis on the magnificent teaching and prophetic fulfillment of that apparition, something that has always intrigued me is that she would appear of all places in a town called Fatima. Why Fatima, a town that recalls the daughter of Mohammed?
Indeed, I have often heard that Muslims hold our Blessed Mother Mary in high regard. This reverence may stop short of our devotion but there is said to be a respect for her in the Muslim tradition.
Now, I first learned this from the great Archbishop, Fulton Sheen in his book, The World’s First Love. I read it 25 years ago and have pondered it ever since. I would like to present excerpts from the chapter entitled “Mary and the Moslems” [sic], reflect on its significance and ask a few questions. Please note that the book was written in 1952 and therefore some of the spellings are not the modern ones. Here are the excerpts:
The Koran, which is the Bible of the Moslems, has many passages concerning the Blessed Virgin. First of all, the Koran believes in her Immaculate Conception, and also, in her Virgin Birth…..The Koran also has verses on the Annunciation, Visitation, and Nativity. Angels are pictured as accompanying the Blessed Mother and saying, Oh Mary, God has chosen you and purified you, and elected you above all the women of the earth. In the 19th chapter of the Koran there are 41 verses on Jesus and Mary. There is such a strong defense of the virginity of Mary here that the Koran in the fourth book, attributes the condemnation of the Jews to their monstrous calumny against the Virgin Mary.
Mary, then, is for the Moslems the true Sayyida, or Lady. The only possible serious rival to her in their creed would be Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed himself. But after the death of Fatima, Mohammed wrote: Thou shalt be the most blessed of women in Paradise, after Mary. In a variant of the text Fatima is made to say; I surpass all the women, except Mary.
This brings us to our second point; namely, why the Blessed Mother, in this 20th Century should have revealed herself in the significant little village of Fatima, so that to all future generations she would be known as “Our Lady of Fatima.” Since nothing ever happens out of Heaven except with a finesse of all details, I believe that the Blessed Virgin chose to be known as “Our Lady of Fatima” as pledge and a sign of hope to the Moslem people, and as an assurance that they, who show her so much respect, will one day accept her divine Son too.
Evidence to support these views is found in the historical fact that the Moslems occupied Portugal for centuries. At the time when they were finally driven out, the last Moslem chief had a beautiful daughter by the name of Fatima. A Catholic boy fell in love with her, and for him she not only stayed behind when the Moslems left, but even embraced the Faith. The young husband was so much in love with her that he changed the name of the town where he lived to Fatima. Thus the very place where our Lady appeared in 1917 bears a historical connection to Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed.
Missionaries, in the future will, more and more, see that their apostolate among the Moslems will be successful in the measure that they preach Our Lady of Fatima. Mary is the advent of Christ, bringing Christ to the people before Christ himself is born. In any apologetic endeavor, it is always best to start with that which the people already accept. Because the Moslems have devotion to Mary, our missionaries should be satisfied merely to expand and develop that devotion, with the full realization that our Blessed Lady will carry the Moslems the rest of the way to her divine Son. She is forever a “traitor,” in the sense that she will not accept any devotion for herself, bit will always bring anyone who is devoted to her to her divine Son.
A beautiful reflection by Archbishop Sheen and one we can surely hope will come to pass. Relations are much more tense however between Christians and Muslims today than in 1952.
This leads to my first question.
Do Muslims today still manifest the reverence to Mary that Sheen described in 1952? I have seen a few people in Muslim garb at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception here in D.C., but I was not sure if they came to pay homage to Mary or just tour. I think we Catholics ought to be careful before we presume too much of what Muslims today think of Mary. The lines in the Quran quoted by Sheen are impressive but that does not mean that Muslims either know them well or interpret them as we would wish? Hence, I am merely posing a question here. If any of you know of good sources that answer the question of the Muslim stance on Mary I would be grateful if you can point it out. The answer to this question has a lot of bearing on my speculations to follow.
Astonishing Fact – I have already noted that it nothing less than astonishing that Mary should appear in a town called “Fatima.” Surely this is no mere coincidence and, as Sheen aptly points out, heaven does nothing without purpose. That we are not to merely pass over this detail, is very clear to me. “Our Lady of Fatima,” has a different ring when we think that Fatima is more that a place, Fatima is the Daughter of Muhammad, and the greatest woman in Islam. “Our Lady of Fatima” sounds and feels so different when it is heard in this context of person not place. It is hugely significant.
Third Secret of Fatima? For many years, before its revelation, I was sure that the Third Secret of Fatima had something to do with the Muslim question. Frankly I figured it likely described a great conflict with the Muslim world that would arise and lead to great suffering for the Church, even a kind of Babylonian captivity, but that ultimately Mary’s Immaculate Heart would triumph by the power of God. Imagine my chagrin when the third secret was finally revealed with a less than worldwide, apocalyptic content. Granted, the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II was a serious and significant matter but it was less than the worldwide conflict I had expected. It is also true that his would-be assassin was Muslim, but the plot was likely more communist and Russian in origin. In the end my theory was rocked back on its heels and fell flat.
But still we are left with Fatima. Why Fatima? Why a town bearing the namesake of Muhammad’s daughter? It seems clear that Mary will play an important role in the years ahead as the Muslim/Christian conflict likely grows sharper. Perhaps, as Sheen notes, she will be the bridge that connects two vastly different cultures, the common mother who keeps her children talking. Right now this connection seems little pursued, even, as far as I can tell, by the Vatican. But here too allow a question from me. Are there any of you who know if Our Lady of Fatima has any role in Vatican-Muslim dialogue?
The Guadalupe connection – I wonder too if the history of Our Lady of Guadalupe presents some historical parallels to our current struggle with the Muslim world. In the early 16th Century in Mexico, missionaries had made only meager progress in bringing the Aztec people to Christ. It was a combination of the sometimes rude and cruel treatment of the indigenous people by the Spanish soldiers, and also of the fearful superstition surrounding the Aztec gods. These gods required horrific human sacrifices and kept the people locked in with this fear that, unless they fed these gods, their greatest god, the sun, would no longer shine.
Into this fearful and suspicious setting entered Mother Mary. The miraculous image she left in 1531 was richly symbolic: Her face is a mother’s face, gentle and compassionate, unlike the frightful Aztec gods who wore fierce masks. Her features seem to be both an Aztec and European, two cultures are combined in kindness and peace. Her attitude is one of humble prayer, so she is clearly not a god. She is a merciful mother who consoles and prays for us. She is to be honored but not adored. The black band around her waist means that she is with child and offers Jesus to the people. Her message is about him. The sun was the greatest of the Aztec gods and, by standing in front of the sun, Mary shows that she is greater than all their gods. The moon represented to them the god of darkness and death. That she is standing on the moon is a sign that these powers too have been defeated by the son she bears.
Mary brought the breakthrough. Within ten years over 12 million Mexicans came to Christ and entered the Catholic Church.
This history is paralleled in many ways today in the current tensions with the Muslim World. In many Muslim lands today conversions are few. Part of the reason for this is a strong aversion for the western culture from which Catholicism comes. Another reason includes many alleged grievances that Muslims have of American and Western “mistreatment.” Finally, a large factor is fear. Leaving the Muslim faith is likely to get you killed in many parts of the Muslim world. So, it is a combination of a wide cultural gulf, alleged grievances, and fear, that keep conversions low. All not unlike 16th Century Mexico.
Is Mary key? It took Mary to bridge all these similar gaps between the Aztecs and the Christian Missionaries. Might Mary also be that bridge today when similar gaps divide? Time will tell, but one of her greatest Modern titles is Our Lady of Fatima. And then, there is the crescent moon upon which Mary stands in the image of Guadalupe. In modern times the crescent moon is the symbol of Islam. Mother Mary of Guadalupe, by God’s grace, was victorious and overcame the false religion of the Aztecs with love and humility.
Might this crescent moon on which Our Lady of Guadalupe stands also point to our times, and the crescent moon of Islam? Might it indicate that her victories, by God’s grace, are not at an end. Perhaps we can hope that what our Lady of Guadalupe was to the Aztec people of Mexico, Our Lady of Fatima will be to the Muslim people of the world.
As always, I invite your comments and answers to my questions.
I also want to invite any of you who would like to accompany me and some other folks from my Parish and Washington DC as we go to Gaudalupe in in October 8-15. For more info contact my parishioner, Deborah Vanzego at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-408-4641. We’d love to have you come and still have space available.
Here is “Immaculate Mary” sung in Arabic