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Our Lady of Fatima | Photographer: istockphoto.com

Pope John Paul II spoke yesterday with Lucia de Santos, 93, a Carmelite nun, who believers say was the main recipient of prophecies from the Virgin Mary that included the spread, and then the collapse, of Communism.

The Vatican today disclosed the so-called third secret of Fátima, which for decades has kept this shrine of the Virgin Mary at the center of conspiracy theories and doomsday cults. The Vatican described the secret as a vision of the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, explained that the one concealed part of the prophecies said to have been revealed to three Portuguese shepherd children by an apparition of the Virgin in 1917 was a vision of an attempt to kill a pope.

The "bishop clothed in white," who is the pope, "makes his way with great effort toward the cross amid the corpses of those who were martyred," Cardinal Sodano said as he described what he called an interpretation of the vision to 600,000 pilgrims gathered at the sanctuary where John Paul II had just beatified two of the shepherd children, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, and thanked the Virgin for saving his life on May 13, 1981.

"He too falls to the ground, apparently dead, under a burst of gunfire," the cardinal said.

Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish gunman, shot the pope as John Paul drove through a crowd in St. Peter's Square in 1981 on the anniversary of the 1917 apparition. Among the explanations the gunman gave prosecutors at a trial in 1985 was that his attempt was "connected to the third secret of the Madonna of Fatima."

The cardinal's announcement was an effort by the Vatican to put an end to the kind of fevered speculation that has at times overshadowed the shrine's spiritual importance to hundreds of millions of Catholics.

Versions of the secret, broadcast on hundreds of Web sites (usually under headlines like, "Third Secret Revealed!") range from worldwide nuclear annihilation to deep rifts in the Roman Catholic Church that lead to rival papacies.

The following are excerpts of the statement by Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano revealing the so-called third secret of Fatima:

"On the solemn occasion of his visit to Fatima, His Holiness has directed me to make an announcement to you. As you know, the purpose of his visit to Fatima has been to beatify the two "little shepherds." Nevertheless, he also wishes his pilgrimage to be a renewed gesture of gratitude to Our Lady for her protection during these years of his papacy. This protection seems also to be linked to the so-called "third part" of the secret of Fatima.

"That text contains a prophetic vision similar to those found in the sacred scripture, which do not describe with photographic clarity the details of future events, but rather synthesize and condense against a unified background events spread out over time in a succession and a duration which are not specified. As a result, the text must be interpreted in a symbolic key.

"The vision of Fatima concerns above all the war waged by atheist systems against the Church and Christians, and it describes the immense suffering endured by the witnesses to the faith in the last century of the second millennium. It is an interminable Way of the Cross led by the Popes of the 20th century.

"According to the interpretation of the "little shepherds," which was also recently confirmed by Sister Lucia, the "Bishop clothed in white" who prays for all the faithful is the Pope. As he makes his way with great effort towards the cross amid the corpses of those who were martyred (bishops, priests, religious men and women and many lay persons), he too falls to the ground, apparently dead, under a burst of gunfire.

"After the assassination attempt of 13 May, 1981, it appeared evident to His Holiness that it was a "motherly hand which guided the bullet's path," enabling the "dying Pope" to halt "at the threshold of death." On the occasion of a visit to Rome by the then Bishop of Leiria-Fatima, the Pope decided to give him the bullet which had remained in the jeep after the assassination attempt, so that it might be kept in the shrine. At the behest of the bishop, the bullet was later set in the crown of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

"The successive events of 1989 led, both in the Soviet Union and in a number of countries of Eastern Europe, to the fall of the Communist regime which promoted atheism. For this too His Holiness offers heartfelt thanks to the Most Holy Virgin. In other parts of the world, however, attacks against the Church and against Christians, together with the burden of suffering which they involve, tragically continue. Even if the events to which the third part of the Secret of Fatima refers now seem part of the past, Our Lady's call to conversion and penance, issued at the beginning of the 20th century, remains timely and urgent today.

"In order that the faithful may better receive the message of Our Lady of Fatima, the Pope has charged the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith with the making public the third part of the secret, after the preparation of an appropriate commentary."

Fatima fanatics have held hunger strikes - one even hijacked a plane - to try to force the Vatican to disclose the secret. During John Paul's first visit to the shrine in 1982, on the first anniversary of the assassination attempt, a knife-wielding Spanish priest tried to kill the pope, but was wrestled to the ground by security officers.

John Paul has always credited the Virgin of Fatima with saving his life. After he visited the shrine in 1982 to give thanks for his survival, a bullet extracted from his body was placed alongside diamonds in a gold crown worn by a statue of the Virgin.

In 1991, on the 10th anniversary of the attack, he returned again to give thanks for his life as well as for the collapse of Communism, which believers say the Virgin of Fatima also predicted in 1917.

The cardinal said the secret in its entirety would soon be published by the Vatican "after the preparation of an appropriate commentary."

The pope did refer to the prophecies today, speaking of "Fátima, where these times of tribulation were foretold," but he made no mention of the "third secret." Instead, he once again gave thanks "for the goodness of God toward me, when severely struck on that May 13, 1981, I was rescued from death."

The pope first learned of the secret a few days after he was elected in 1978, the Vatican said. He did not announce it himself today, said his spokesman, Dr. Joaquín Navarro-Valls, because he was "personally involved." Vatican officials did not say why the secret was not revealed sooner after the assassination attempt in 1981.

In a new tribute at a prayer service at the shrine on Friday night, the pope donated to the shrine the ring given to him by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the late primate of Poland. Cardinal Wyszynski, whose long fight against Communism in Poland inspired the present pope and millions of their countrymen, told John Paul after his election in 1978 that he would lead the church into the new millennium.

Dr. Navarro-Valls dismissed speculation that the gift was a signal that the pope was set to resign as "150 percent wrong." He described the ring as "one of the pope's most precious possessions," given as an offer of thanks.

The fact that the pope put the two dead witnesses to the Virgin's apparitions on the path of sainthood today was another sign of his devotion to Fátima. The two, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, are the first children ever beatified by the Roman Catholic Church who were not martyrs. Beatification, which is bestowed only on the dead, is the penultimate step before sainthood.

Before the ceremony, the pope, who turns 80 on Thursday, met privately inside the basilica near the children's tombs with the third surviving witness to the apparition, Lucia de Jesus dos Santos, 93, a Carmelite nun, who believers say was the main recipient of prophecies from the Virgin about 20th century debacles. The Vatican said that it had consulted with Sister Lucia before making its announcement today.

The Virgin of Fátima was said to have appeared before three shepherd children on May 13, 1917, and on five later occasions. Lucia was 10. Her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta, who were 8 and 7, died in the influenza pandemic a few years later. Believers say two of the Fátima secrets were revealed in writing by Lucia in the 1940's. The third secret was put in a sealed envelope and sent to Rome more than 40 years ago.

Interpretations of the secrets vary, but generally believers think that the first foretold the end of World War I and the start of World War II, and that the other predicted the spread, then the collapse of Communism and the conversion of Russia.

The latter prophecy, which came with a request that the church consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, made Fatima an ideological shrine for anti-Communists during the cold war. John Paul II finally consecrated the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1984.

Fatima, like the rest of Portugal, also had fascist links during World War II, when Portugal was neutral under the right-wing dictatorship of António Salazar but traded with the Nazi regime. This month, the rector of the sancutary, Luciano Guerra, confirmed news reports that in 1976 Fátima received Nazi gold bars bearing the Third Reich insignia looted from Jews during the war, and sold them in 1982 and 1986 to finance construction at the sanctuary.

Today, many pilgrims, some wearing baseball hats emblazoned with the names of Jacinta and Francisco, cheered after Cardinal Sodano delivered his message.

"It's wonderful that the pope knew the prophecy and survived it," said Lucia Dias, 31, a lawyer from Sintra, who added that she had once believed that the third secret was a prophecy of World War III. She made her own prediction about the pope: "I think now he will die soon."

Until today, besides John Paul and Sister Lucia, the only other living person believed to be privy to the secret was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In 1996, he told Portugal's main Catholic radio station that there was nothing worrisome in the message, and that it remained secret because the Vatican wanted to avoid "confusing religious prophecy with sensationalism."

Whether today's announcement will appease some of the more fanatical devotees of the "third secret" mystery is unclear. Some of those believers, who choose to view the reforms of the Second Vatican Council as heresies predicted by the Virgin of Fatima, may dismiss the Vatican's announcement as a cover-up.

Even some who attended Mass today seemed let down. "What they said all happened in the past," Julio Estela, 33, a car salesman from northern Portugal, said after the cardinal spoke. "This isn't a prediction. It's disappointing. I think there's more."

information courtesy of crystalinks.com/fatima.html