In August 2015, I led an amazing pilgrimage to Poland. Nearly 40 pilgrims and I were following in the footsteps of Saints Faustina, Maximillian Kolbe and, especially, John Paul II, visiting the many places of importance to their lives and the various shrines, centers, and museums that commemorate them. I had begun the journey by sharing with the pilgrims the connection between John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB) and pilgrimage itself: TOB teaches us how physical realities communicate spiritual realities, and that’s what happens on a pilgrimage – the physical realities we encounter can be the occasion of profound spiritual experiences.
I simply was not prepared, however, for the experience I would have later in the week when I unexpectedly encountered a relic of great significance to John Paul II’s life, and to my own. Seeing this astounding piece of history with my own eyes was utterly overwhelming. No words can do it justice, but I’ll try nonetheless to paint the picture for you in this blog post and the next.
On the bus throughout the week, I had been sharing with the pilgrims the connection between the “secrets of Fatima” and John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. As most Catholics know, between May 13 and October 13, 1917, Mary appeared to three peasant children in Fatima, Portugal delivering a three-part message – the “three secrets” of Fatima, as they’ve come to be known. The first secret presented a horrifying vision of hell. The second involved a prophecy of World War II and the warning that “Russia would spread her errors throughout the world.” However, Mary assured the children, “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”
Mary also told the children that “the Holy Father will have much to suffer.” This brings us to the “third secret” of Fatima, which was not publicly revealed until the year 2000. In 1917, the children saw a vision of bullets and arrows fired at “a bishop dressed in white.” Sixty-four years later, while driving through the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, a “bishop dressed in white” was gunned down by Turkish assassin Ali Agca … on the memorial of Our Lady of Fatima: May 13, 1981.
Many years later John Paul II reflected: “Agca knew how to shoot, and he certainly shot to kill. Yet it was as if someone was guiding and deflecting that bullet.” That “someone,” John Paul believed, was the Woman of Fatima. “Could I forget that the event in St. Peter’s Square took place on the day and at the hour when the first appearance of the Mother of Christ … has been remembered … at Fatima in Portugal? For in everything that happened to me on that very day, I felt that extraordinary motherly protection and care, which turned out to be stronger than the deadly bullet” (Memory and Identity, pp. 159, 163).
The fact that John Paul was shot on the memorial of Fatima is well known. What few people know is that the Pope was planning to announce the establishment of his Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family on that fateful afternoon. This was to be his main arm for disseminating his teaching on man, woman, marriage, and sexual love around the globe. Could it be that there were forces at work that didn’t want John Paul II’s teaching to spread? (In fact, by May 13, 1981, John Paul II was only about half way through delivering the 129 addresses of his TOB. Had he died, obviously, the full teaching never would have been presented.) And could it be that, by saving his life, the Woman of Fatima was pointing to the importance of his teaching reaching the world?
It would be over a year later that John Paul officially established his Institute (of which I’m a proud graduate). On that day, Oct. 7, 1982 – not coincidentally the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary – John Paul II entrusted his Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family to the care and protection of Our Lady of Fatima. By doing so, he himself was drawing a connection, at least indirectly, between his miraculous survival and the importance of the Theology of the Body.
As I shared with the pilgrims, digging deeper, the precise link, I believe, between John Paul II’s TOB and Fatima lies in Mary’s mysterious words about the “errors of Russia” and the promised triumph of her Immaculate Heart. John Paul II’s TOB is like weed-killer sprayed on the deepest roots of the “errors of Russia.” As such, I believe the TOB plays a critical role in preparing our hearts for her triumph.
But what does it mean to speak of “the triumph of the Immaculate Heart”? What are the “errors of Russia” and how does John Paul II’s TOB combat them? We’ll explore these questions in Part II of this blog post. And, of course, I’ll let you know what this astounding relic I encountered was.
Photo from Creative Commons.
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