It was certainly one of the first religious stories that I heard. It was probably around the same time that I first saw The Sound of Music. I was going around humming My Favourite Things. When I wasn’t humming the big songs from the film I was taking pop shots at the Germans. I think at one stage I even fancied myself as Captain Von Trapp strumming Edelweiss. These were the days when I was just beginning to love books and movies, the days when my parents were trying to get me to go asleep rather than read all night. It is very difficult to give in to sleep when Lassie has battled over a hundred miles trek home, or Little John is propping up Robin Hood to fire his last arrow. These were the days of the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, these days were a good bit before I got to Narnia and even before I met Bilbo Baggins. This was before I got into Walt Disney never mind my love of Westerns. Yes, somewhere in these early sacred days I was told the Story of Fatima. I remember it well. I remember my Aunt Lily giving me the little book, I remember the little coloured pictures that accompanied each decade of the Rosary, and I remember the little synopsis of the Fatima apparitions in the first few pages at the front.
Of course growing up in West Belfast I knew very little about sheep, but I had heard that the three children at Fatima, Lucia Santos, and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto, were all involved in minding sheep. To be honest I made no connection at the time between these little shepherds and Jesus, the Good Shepherd. I now know of course it’s one of the special titles Jesus gives to himself, along with the Light of the World, the Bread of Life and others. Recently I was on a television programme and the presenter was poking fun at the title, the Good Shepherd, suggesting that it insults people’s intelligence, linking it with the idea that we are all blind sheep just aimlessly following the shepherd. He suggested that this image does us no service. In fairness to the said presenter I think some of this mock ridicule was mindful of the viewers and in particular the ratings. Having said that I think there is a poor enough understanding of the titles of Jesus. The Good Shepherd gives consolation and comfort to hosts of people but perhaps the real benefit of Jesus, the Good Shepherd is not fully appreciated until we are lost, sick or feeling abandoned. Of course a lot more of the message of Fatima was lost on me back then, including the call to conversion and the need for world peace. Much later on in my life one of my favourite lines was to become Ronald Reagan’s iconic invitation, ‘Tear down this wall, Mr Gorbachev!’ By this time I knew a little more about communism and unfortunately a lot more about conflict.
For the purpose of this column I am perhaps being over simplistic with regard to Fatima but I hope I will be forgiven for focussing on the Call to Conversion and the call to pray for world peace. One of my most vivid early experiences happened around this time. It was an experience that both shaped my pilgrim journey and in some ways ignited my vocation story. Into the riots and shootings and bombings of the Falls road arrived a Dominican priest complete with a most beautiful statue of Our Lady of Fatima. This priest was promoting the praying of the Rosary for Peace, in the world yes, but specifically in Northern Ireland. I remember these days so clearly. There was many a long bright summer evening when people gathered around this beautiful statue that was being carried from street to street and prayed their hearts out for a better day. We prayed for a day when we would stop hating each other. We prayed we would stop blowing up bridges and begin building them again. We prayed for a day when we would stop tearing our little part of the world apart, for a day when it would no longer be talked about across the world because of bloodshed.
It’s almost Summer 2017. It’s almost one hundred years since Our Lady Appeared in Fatima. Surely no one can argue with the idea that we are once again in need of conversion and that the world urgently needs renewed prayer for global peace? Sound Marian devotion is rooted in Scripture. The Mary of the Gospels is the Mary to put our trust and confidence in. Mary always leads us to Jesus. Mary will never lead us astray. Mary leads us to the Crib, to Cana, to the Cross, to the Empty Tomb and to the Upper Room. The message of Fatima, both in its call to conversion, and its call topeace, is in complete harmony with the Gospel message. In all the threats of conflict, all the terror, all the fear there is no greater advocate than Mary the Mother of Jesus.