A Grave Error?


A Grave Error Regarding Fatima

Introduction: The Debate about the Third Secret

The death of Father Nicholas Gruner, known to many as “The Fatima Priest,” coincided with the publication in the United States of the Carmelite biography of Sister Lucia of Fatima. What the timing of these two events means in the plan of Divine Providence may be unknown to us, but developments since then show that Fatima remains uppermost in the minds of many Catholics throughout the world. Shortly after the English edition of the biography appeared, for example, attorney Christopher Ferrara criticized a passage in the translation involving words of Our Lady, and he interpreted the mistranslated passage as a deliberate attempt to alter the facts relating to the Third Secret. David Carollo of the World Apostolate of Fatima posted a respectful reply to Mr. Ferrara on the WAF web site, and on another site, Catholic Stand, Kevin Symonds provided historical facts relating to the American edition of the biography, showing very clearly why the translation error was simply an honest mistake, not part of a conspiracy to hide the truth.

Since then Christopher Ferrara has published a reply to Mr. Carollo, but not a response to the specific facts of the case as reported by Kevin Symonds. A possible reason for his not responding to Mr. Symonds is that Mr. Ferrara considers these facts to be of secondary importance, when seen in the broader context of the debate about the Third Secret and whether or not the Holy See has published the Secret in its entirety. The underlying assumption of writers such as Mr. Ferrara is this: The Secret by itself is not clear, and even ambiguous, and therefore needs an explanation, and this explanation could only have come from Our Lady through Sister Lucia.

The first problem with this theory is that it is wrong to say that the text of the Third Secret is “ambiguous,” for Catholics have two thousands years of Catholic Tradition to help them understand the Secret. Specific symbols in the Vision are drawn from Scripture and Tradition, and therefore provide evidence of what the Vision represents. The Secret refers, for example, to “a great city [uma grande cidade] half in ruins,” and this city is mentioned in conjunction with a mountain. In A Commentary on The Book of Psalms by St. Robert Bellarmine, which Preserving Christian Publications reprinted, this Doctor of the Church explains that in Psalm 86 the city on the mountain symbolizes the Church. And the Catechism of the Council of Trent[1] teaches us that oftentimes in Sacred Scripture the “great city Jerusalem” represents the Church. The Catholic Church, therefore, is the City of God, and she is a City on a Mountain, because the Mountain in Sacred Scripture is one of the symbols of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Christopher Ferrara’s conclusions, drawn from a mistranslated word, are therefore incorrect. But the mistranslation itself serves as a “happy fault,” a felix culpa, because it provides an opportunity to resolve the question about the text of the Third Secret once and for all.

Christopher Ferrara Replaced a Mistranslation with Another Mistranslation

Mr. Ferrara’s argument is based upon the assumption that a mistranslation of a statement of Our Lady to Sister Lucia was part of a broader effort to hide the true meaning of the Secret – the meaning that would have come from an explanation given by Our Lady Herself – and to replace this explanation with a mere opinion of its meaning attributed to Sister Lucia alone. However, Mr. Ferrara’s own translation is inaccurate, because he leaves out a preposition at the end of the sentence. A complete word-for-word translation from the Portuguese of the key words of Our Lady reads as follows: “. . . write what you were told, not however that which is given you to understand of its meaning [do seu significado].” The word “do” in Portuguese is a contraction of the preposition “de” (of) and the article “o” (the). This omission of the preposition “of” by Mr. Ferrara may seem insignificant, but it is not when examined within the context of his theory, and of his interpretation that comes four paragraphs later, where he writes: “…WAF continues to pretend that in the phrase quoted above the Mother of God was referring to Sister Lucia’s understanding of the vision rather than what the Virgin Herself had given Lucia to be able to understand it.” Mr. Ferrara makes an implicit distinction here between “what” Our Lady had given to Sister Lucia, and Sister Lucia’s being “able to understand” as a result. The original Portuguese and a literal English translation do not contain this distinction. Instead they indicate an altogether different one, a distinction between “that which” and “of its meaning” – that is, between a part (“that which”), on one hand, and the whole (“of its meaning”), on the other hand. To appreciate this distinction, one can think by way of analogy of the angels and saints in heaven. All see God face to face in the beatific vision, but no creature can know God infinitely as He is in Himself. Each saint and angel has a finite knowledge of that divine essence, and each sees that divine essence in a different aspect, so that the totality of all the angels and saints represents a most perfect manifestation of God outside of Himself, but always in a finite and limited way.

What a correct translation of the words of Our Lady indicate is that Sister Lucia was given an understanding of something of the meaning of the Third Secret, an aspect of the Secret that may have been intended primarily for her and her alone. What Our Lady’s words do not indicate is that Sister Lucia was given some means by which, according to Mr. Ferrara, she would “be able to understand” the Secret in all its significance, because, as we shall explain below, it was not the mission of Sister Lucia to interpret the full meaning of the Secret to the world, but rather this was left in some manner to the theologians and ultimately to the magisterium of the Church. Before we demonstrate that this was in fact the case, we should consider something of the background and history of the current debate.

A Brief History of the Controversy

The theory of the missing document of the Third Secret, which acquired the name “fourth secret” after the publication of a book by Italian journalist Antonio Socci in 2006, began to spread almost immediately after the Secret was published on June 26, 2000. With the appearance of Father Paul Kramer’s The Devil’s Final Battle in 2002, individual articles gave way to this book as a principal vehicle for promotion of the theory. When Antonio Socci first entered the controversy sometime later, he did so with the intention of refuting the arguments. But as he pursued the matter he became convinced by the theory, through the argumentation that its proponents had assembled and by the publicity they had generated, with the result that the theory continued to pick up momentum.

However, in spite of all the publicity, and furthermore in spite of the popular international appeal acquired by the addition of a noted Italian journalist to the ranks of its defenders, the theory did not go unchallenged. In the Roman journal Lepanto, edited by lay Church historian Roberto de Mattei, a lengthy essay appeared in October 2007 by Brazilian Fatima scholar Antonio Augusto Borelli. The author challenged one by one a number of the popular arguments that Mr. Socci and his predecessors had advanced. But because the essay was officially published only in Italian, it did not attract worldwide attention until, about two and a half years later, Christopher Ferrara posted a 44-page article on Father Gruner’s web site, in which he attempted to respond to the arguments of Antonio Borelli, doing so at the request of Father Gruner’s Fatima Center.

Since the Brazilian Antonio Borelli had analyzed various arguments of the Italian Antonio Socci, replying to them very systematically, it would have been useful in the debate if Mr. Ferrara had adopted the same scholarly approach, addressing specific historical facts relating to Fatima and its documents. But he chose a different method, one with a perspective that was partly sociological and partly theoretical, rather than primarily historical as Antonio Borelli’s had been. On the sociological level, for example, Christopher Ferrara questioned the influence and importance of the Italian journal in which Antonio Borelli’s essay was published. Similarly, he questioned Antonio Borelli’s own importance and influence as a Fatima scholar, and of his book on Fatima, which had gone through numerous editions in a variety of languages, and of which several million copies had been distributed. Roberto de Mattei published the essay precisely because he knew of the reputation that Antonio Borelli enjoyed as a Fatima scholar, whereas Christopher Ferrara’s article tended to downplay these factors, instead of simply addressing the arguments that Antonio Borelli had presented.

On the theoretical level, Mr. Ferrara challenged, in the very title of his response, Antonio Borelli’s sincerity in naming his own essay “Friendly Reflections for the Clarification of a Debate.” Mr. Ferrara replied with his own title: “Friendly Reflections?” How could they be friendly, Mr. Ferrara reasoned, when Antonio Borelli was simply siding with the Vatican in a cover-up to hide part of the Third Secret? But the central issue, in Antonio Borelli’s mind, was not about siding with the Vatican against the many Catholics who are devoted to Fatima but while promoting a theory that was open to question, regarding the completeness of the Third Secret. For the importance of Fatima and its central significance relating to the crisis in our time was the point on which Antonio Borelli was agreeing. The question of whether or not there is a missing document, on the other hand, is an issue simply of historical fact. Is there or is there not such a document? Antonio Borelli was advocating an objective discussion of the evidence.

One example suffices for now to illustrate what was missing in Christopher Ferrara’s reply. He came into possession of an English translation of Antonio Borelli’s essay just as his own book The Secret Still Hidden was being published in early 2008. Eleven times in his book he attributes to Cardinal Ottaviani the statement that the alleged missing document contains only 25 lines, not the 62 lines of the published text of the Secret. One of the points shown very clearly by Antonio Borelli was that the source for the hypothesis of 25 lines was Frère Michel de la Sainte Trinité, who advanced it as a mere hypothesis, not as a verifiable fact. Cardinal Ottaviani himself never spoke of 25 lines. Nor did Bishop Venâncio, nor Sister Lucia herself, both of whom Mr. Ferrara identified in his book as additional sources for the theory of 25 lines. Here it is a question of historical fact.

As a way around this evidence, Mr. Ferrara cites Cardinal Bertone as also referring to Cardinal Ottaviani and the 25 lines. How did Cardinal Bertone arrive at this conclusion? There is no direct evidence, only circumstantial evidence, to answer this question. There are two transcripts, one in Italian and one in French, of Cardinal Ottaviani’s address on February 11, 1967, and neither mentions 25 lines. Since there are no known documents showing that Cardinal Ottaviani said this, we have only circumstantial evidence, leading to the conclusion that Cardinal Bertone thought this merely because the proponents of the “fourth secret” were insisting that Cardinal Ottaviani had said it, but, unlike Antonio Borelli, Cardinal Bertone did not carefully examine all the documents, and instead was misled by none other than his own opponents. But Mr. Ferrara does not end here. He also cites Bishop Venâncio, but he misquotes him. In citing Frère Michel, who quoted Bishop Venâncio and afterwards added his own hypothesis, Mr. Ferrara confuses the two, leading the reader to the wrong conclusion that Bishop Venâncio himself had said it, rather than simply Frère Michel.

Sister Lucia’s Role and the Interpretation of the Secret

Father Joaquin Maria Alonso, in Part II, Chapter 8 of The Secret of Fatima: Fact and Legend, quotes the Carmelite mother prioress as distinguishing in precise terms the role of Sister Lucia: “The mission of Sister Lucia of the Immaculate Heart was to transmit Our Lady’s message . . . . Do not ask her, however, to interpret what she has written or said. Ask this of the theologians, ask the hierarchy and the apostles of Fatima, whom the Holy Spirit raises up when and where He wills.”

This observation of the Carmelite mother prioress might seem to diminish Sister Lucia’s role, and clearly it establishes an obstacle to those arguing that Sister Lucia most certainly had to have written an explanation of the Third Secret. And yet it was when Sister Lucia was still young, before entering the religious life, that Our Lord made clear to her exactly what her mission was, and how He would provide for its fulfillment. She had been concerned about the limits being placed on the education she was receiving, due to the necessity of her remaining somewhat secluded from the academic world in order to protect her from the curiosity of others. She was concerned that without an adequate education she might not be able to communicate the message of Fatima intelligently. Our Lord assured her by explaining that He would provide her not with knowledge, but with wisdom. All of this is explained in the Carmelite biography, and serves to describe the nature of Sister Lucia’s role.

Father Alonso himself explained it this way: “We may ask Lucia to recall Our Lady’s words; but perhaps we should not ask her to interpret their meaning.” The history of the Church certainly provides us with other examples. St. Margaret Mary Alacoque was given the mission by Our Lord to spread devotion to His Sacred Heart. But she herself was not the theologian of this devotion. She lived from 1647 to 1690, but already before her in the same century came St. John Eudes (1601-1680), who became the Church’s theologian of both the Sacred Heart of Jesus as well as the Admirable Heart of Mary. Then there was her director, Saint Claude La Colombière. And another priest, Father Jean Croiset, also became known as a theologian of the doctrine of the Sacred Heart. Finally, there were the Popes themselves, who had the ultimate authority in explaining that devotion.

St. Paul speaks of the various gifts granted within the Church by the Holy Ghost, distinguishing specifically between wisdom and knowledge. In order to explain doctrine, a theologian must have sufficient knowledge of divine revelation, whereas a seer such a Sister Lucia was able to fulfill her mission simply with the wisdom that Our Lord promised her instead. In yet other centuries one finds ample examples. St. Dominic and St. Francis founded their respective Orders, but it was the theologians of these Orders, St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure, who wrote specific theological treatises explaining and defending the legitimacy of the mendicants against others who did not understand them and criticized them. And in a century still earlier it was St. Benedict who founded the Order named after him, inspiring true learning throughout the Catholic world. But it was a later Benedictine monk, St. Anselm, who perfected this learning and came to be regarded as the Father of Scholasticism.

The role that Mr. Ferrara and other proponents of a “fourth secret” seek to assign to Sister Lucia, and even to Our Lady Herself, is not rooted in sound theology and Catholic Tradition. Our Lady is the Queen of Prophets, Apostles, and Confessors, as the Mediatrix of all grace. She does not replace the role of the doctors and theologians, nor that of the hierarchy, as we can see by examining in greater detail the recent developments in devotion to Fatima.

The Third Secret Vision is not “Ambiguous” – The Role of the Theologians

In late 2002 we received a telephone call from Father Nicholas Gruner. During that conversation the member of our staff who spoke with Father at length mentioned to him that seven times in the initial printing of Father Paul Kramer’s book, The Devil’s Final Battle, the Third Secret was referred to as “ambiguous.” In reply to his comment that it is not appropriate to refer to something from Our Lady as “ambiguous,” Father Gruner agreed that it was not the proper term. In a later printing of the book, all of the seven references to “ambiguous” were either removed or the wording was changed to “obscure,” a more appropriate term. In Christopher Ferrara’s recent article he begins by using “obscure,” but later he uses the word “ambiguous.” In doing so he reverts to the term that Father Gruner had decided against more than a decade ago.

Supernatural revelations cannot be called ambiguous, because God Himself, and, in the case of Fatima, Our Lady, do not speak in equivocations. God does not deceive nor can He be deceived. What God does do at times, however, is reveal Himself within a certain obscurity. In the first question of the Summa, article IX, St. Thomas explains how Revelation oftentimes makes use of metaphors or symbols, and he gives various reasons for their use. Physical symbols are related to the manner in which the human mind works, whereas much of modern culture, which ultimately gave rise to rationalism, drew its inspiration from the “cogito” of René Descartes. For Descartes it was mathematical reasoning that became the model of human thought, not the contemplative understanding of creation characteristic of the medieval theologians. Nature contains its own mysteries because it reflects the mystery of God, but these obscurities can be clarified through faith and reason. This is the attitude that should guide any consideration of the Third Secret of Fatima.

Father Nicholas Gruner displayed this contemplative attitude shortly after the Third Secret was published. While holding to the position now espoused by Mr. Ferrara that there is more to the Secret, he did not dismiss the Vision as ambiguous or unintelligible. “What we have been given,” he stated, “is a very great key…. I will try to help people understand this as best as I know myself.” And then in a manner appropriate to his role as a theologian he proceeded to explain:

… the Pope goes through a great city. What is that city? That city is the City of God. What is the City of God? It is the Catholic Church and the Catholic civilization. It is half destroyed. We can see this taking place, already, before our eyes, spiritually speaking.

… now it is also described as a mountain. And if you look at Isaias 2:3, it says: ‘Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord.’ This mountain is the Catholic Church. . . . You have here a vision of the Pope going towards the Cross; going towards his final destination as it is for all of us to go towards Heaven. But on his way he is going through the city and the city is half desolate.”[2]

Long before Father Gruner interpreted the Third Secret in these terms, St. Louis Grignion de Montfort in his famous Prayer for the Apostles of the Last Times also appealed to this same Biblical symbol that is found in the Third Secret. In a prophecy of Ezechiel the mountain represented Our Lord as the future Messias, as explained by the great commentator Cornelius a Lapide. Father Gruner saw the mountain as a symbol of the Church. And St. Louis de Montfort saw the mountain as a symbol of Our Lady: “Lord God of Truth, Who is this mysterious mountain, of which thou sayest to us such wonderful things, if not Mary, Thy dear Spouse, whose foundations Thou has placed upon the tops of the highest mountains?”

Neither St. Louis de Montfort, nor Cornelius a Lapide nor Father Gruner saw the Biblical symbols such as the city and the mountain as ambiguous, but as clear revelations of the supernatural. Christopher Ferrara criticized Antonio Borelli’s interpretation of the Third Secret as representing the chastisement foretold by Our Lady of Fatima and the triumph of Her Immaculate Heart, dismissing this as mere opinion, rather than as events clearly represented in the Secret. Mr. Ferrara is forced into such a criticism because he insists that the Secret by itself has to be ambiguous. But Father Gruner was not treating it as ambiguous in his summer 2000 interview. It is part of the task of the theologians like Father Gruner to interpret such symbols as spiritual representations in the way explained by St. Thomas in the Summa. The theologians themselves do not provide the explanations in their entirety, however, and it is for this reason that it is necessary to turn also to members of the hierarchy.

The Role of the Hierarchy – Pope Benedict XVI and Bishop Bernard Fellay

Pope Benedict XVI caught the attention of traditional Catholics devoted to Fatima when, at the time of his trip to Fatima in 2010, he spoke of the Third Secret not merely as revealing an external assault against the Church, but also as an internal moral crisis, and in this context he spoke of the passion of the Church. Proponents of the “fourth secret” interpreted Benedict XVI’s remarks not simply as a reference to the published Third Secret, but even more so to the hypothetical missing document. But no “fourth secret” was necessary to speak in these terms about a crisis in the Church as Benedict XVI had done. This passion of the Church had been described exactly five years earlier, in precise detail, by the Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X, Bishop Bernard Fellay, and he was not talking about a missing document but about the Third Secret itself:

I wonder if the released part of the 3rd secret of Fatima does not deal with this Passion. At the end it speaks of a massacre: a procession which follows the pope, with bishops, religious and faithful from all walks of life, and they are all killed. This vision ends with angels offering this blood to God, and this blood will return as graces on those who are left. It looks as if there is an apparent disappearance of the Church. This interpretation is not exactly that given by Rome, but I am doing nothing more than describing purely and simply, the vision.[3]

Bishop Fellay repeated this same interpretation of the Third Secret eight years later during a conference in October 2013 in Kansas City, but while acknowledging that some had objected to this interpretation. It is beyond the purpose of the present article to enter into speculation as to what those objections might have been, for this question must wait for a future article. For now it is simply a matter of recording this interpretation, as well as that of Benedict XVI, as evidence that there is not a general consensus among the theologians, nor among members of the hierarchy, to support Mr. Ferrara’s argument that the Third Secret is ambiguous, and therefore that an interpretation offered by a layman such as Antonio Borelli must therefore be considered purely arbitrary.

Conclusion: Growing Resistance to the Hypothesis of the Fourth Secret

Mr. Ferrara presents his position as that of the virtual unanimity of serious Fatima scholars. In so doing he implies that all those who do not hold to his opinion are simply not to be taken seriously. But there are some recent historical facts that contradict this perspective. It was in 2009 that the English edition of Antonio Socci’s book appeared. In 2012 the same publisher released the English translation of another work, the history of Vatican II by Roberto de Mattei, himself the publisher of the refutation of Antonio Socci by Antonio Augusto Borelli. In this history of the Council Roberto de Mattei mentions the importance of Fatima, and cites the book on Fatima by Antonio Augusto Borelli as the best compendium giving a concise account and history of Fatima’s message. Furthermore, he also cites Antonio Borelli in response to the thesis of Antonio Socci, referring to the former’s essay as a balanced view of the controversy.

In conclusion, we are obliged to observe that Mr. Ferrara’s attempt to claim a general consensus for the position he has taken is not supported by the facts. There is no universal consensus among genuine Fatima scholars that a “fourth secret” exists. Antonio Borelli was the most articulate spokesman in providing a response to Antonio Socci’s book, and was given a forum by a reputable Church historian, Roberto de Mattei, who repeated his acknowledgement of Antonio Borelli’s authority regarding Fatima in two separate references in his history of the Council. Finally, the posted responses both by David Carollo of the World Apostolate of Fatima and Kevin Symonds on the site Catholic Stand, both in reply to Mr. Ferrara, clearly demonstrate that there was not a conspiracy, aimed at falsifying the Third Secret, when the publication of the English translation of the Carmelite biography of Sister Lucia appeared.


[1]English edition of Fathers McHugh and Callan, Part I, art. IX; Latin edition (Ratisbonae: G. J. Manz, 1905), Pars I, Cap. X.
[2]Father Gruner interviewed by Tom Masset, “The 3rd Secret Vision Explained,” The Fatima Crusader, no. 64 (summer 2000), 20-21.
[3]Conference by Bishop Bernard Fellay, Brussels, June 13, 2005, Christendom, no. 1 (September-October 2005), 11-12

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One comment on “A Grave Error?

  1. I doubt that this unfortunate exercise in fiction will go unanswered for too long.

    Meanwhile, this video is from folks who actually KNOW what they are talking about:

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