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Our Lady of Fatima and the Pilgrim Pope

Michael J. Miller
From the May/Jun 2007 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

It was the 13th day of the month dedicated to Our Lady in the year of Our Lord 1981. Pilgrims had gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the Wednesday audience with the Holy Father. Punctually at 5 PM the popemobile began to drive slowly through the crowd along a course marked off by wooden barriers. The Vicar of Christ, Pope John Paul II, was blessing the multitudes.

At 5:17 two shots from a semiautomatic pistol rang out. The bullets, fired at close range, struck the Pope in the abdomen. He was rushed to an ambulance, which brought him through evening traffic to the Policlinico Gemelli, a hospital six kilometers away.[1]

The horrified crowd began to pray the Rosary. A group of Polish pilgrims had brought an image of Our Lady of Czestochowa. They placed it on the pontiff ’s empty chair. A gust of wind blew the painting over, and bystanders noticed the words previously inscribed on the back: "May Our Lady protect the Holy Father from evil."[2]

This prayer was heard that day and answered.

"Mama’s Boy"

Karol Wojtyla always had a fervent devotion to the Blessed Mother. When he was a child his parents took him to the Jasna Góra Monastery (in English, "the Bright Mountain") to see the Black Madonna. As a young man during the Nazi occupation, he was one of three university students delegated to continue secretly the custom of making an annual pilgrimage to Czestochowa.[3] Karol read St. Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary while working at the Solvay utilities plant and from it learned to see Mary as a model of discipleship.[4]

Immediately after being consecrated Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow in 1958, he traveled again to Jasna Góra and celebrated Mass in the chapel of the miraculous image of Our Lady.[5] Bishop Wojtyla included in his episcopal coat of arms the motto "Totus Tuus" from St. Louis de Montfort’s prayer: "I am all Thine and all that I have is Thine, O my sweet Jesus, through Mary, Thy holy Mother."[6] Even under communist rule, he made a yearly retreat in Czestochowa together with the other bishops of Poland.[7]

After being appointed Archbishop of Krakow in 1964, Wojtyla continued to promote devotion to Mary among priests, both in his own archdiocese and at the 1971 Synod of Bishops in Rome on the subject of priestly ministry and spiritual life. He held up as a shining example the Polish Franciscan friar Maximilian Kolbe, the Apostle of the Immaculata, whose cause for beatification he promoted at the diocesan stage.[8]

When Cardinal Wojtyla was elected Pope in October 1978, he kept the episcopal motto "Totus tuus." His papal coat of arms show the letter "M" beneath a simple cross, symbolizing the presence of Mary at Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary. During the third year of his pontificate, as a result of the attempted assassination, Pope John Paul II drew very near to Our Lord and Our Lady on Calvary. It is best to let him explain in his own words the meaning of that event for him as a believer and for the Church that he was called to shepherd.

Stronger than a Bullet

On October 7, 1981, John Paul II was able to resume the custom of holding a weekly general audience. He recalled several passages from Sacred Scripture on which he had meditated during his hospitalization and convalescence.

While "Peter was kept in prison . . . earnest prayer for him was made to God by the Church" (Acts 12:5). I experienced, dear brothers and sisters, in a way similar to Peter, who was confined and destined for death, the efficacy of the prayers of the Church. . . . For this prayer I am grateful to men, my brothers and sisters. I am grateful to Christ the Lord and to the Holy Spirit, who, through this event which took place in St. Peter’s Square on 13 May at 5:17 pm, inspired so many hearts to common prayer. . . .

"Debitores facti sumus" (Rom. 1:14).

It is so. I have become even more indebted to everyone. I am indebted to those who directly contributed to saving my life and who helped me to return to health. . . . At the same time I am indebted to those who surrounded me with that wave of prayer, stretching all over the world. . . .

And again I have become indebted to the Blessed Virgin and to all the Patron Saints. 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 to the poor peasant children has been remembered for over sixty years 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.

Today is the memorial of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. . . . I want these first words that I address to you to be words of gratitude, love and deep trust, just as the Holy Rosary is and always remains a prayer of gratitude, love and trustful request: the prayer of the Mother of the Church.[9]

True Consecration

On May 13, 1982, the first anniversary of the attempt on his life, the pilgrim Pope, who had spent almost all his adult years living under atheistic regimes, visited Fatima to thank Our Lady for her protection. His homily on that occasion was an extended meditation on Christ’s words on Calvary to His mother and to His beloved disciple: "Woman, behold your son! . . . Behold, your mother!" (Jn. 19:26–27).

As he left this world, Christ gave to his Mother a man, a human being, to be like a son for her: John. He entrusted him to her. And, as a consequence of this giving and entrusting, Mary became the mother of John. The Mother of God became the Mother of man. . . . In John every human being became her child. . . .

The solicitude of the Mother of the Savior is solicitude for the work of salvation: the work of her Son. It is solicitude for the salvation, the eternal salvation, of all. . . .

In the light of a mother’s love we understand the whole message of the Lady of Fatima. The greatest obstacle to man’s journey towards God is sin, perseverance in sin, and, finally, denial of God. The deliberate blotting out of God from the world of human thought. The detachment from him of the whole of man’s earthly activity. . . . The eternal salvation of man is only in God. Man’s rejection of God, if it becomes definitive, leads logically to God’s rejection of man (cf. Mt. 7:23; 10:33), to damnation.

Can the Mother who, with all the force of the love that she fosters in the Holy Spirit, desires everyone’s salvation keep silent on what undermines the very basis of their salvation? No, she cannot. And so, while the message of Our Lady of Fatima is a motherly one, it is also strong and decisive. . . . It invites to repentance. It gives a warning. It calls to prayer. It recommends the Rosary.

The message is addressed to every human being. The love of the Savior’s Mother reaches every place touched by the work of salvation. Her care extends to every individual of our time, and to all the societies, nations and peoples. Societies menaced by apostasy, threatened by moral degradation. The collapse of morality involves the collapse of societies. . . .

The power of the Redemption is infinitely superior to the whole range of evil in man and the world. The Heart of the Mother is aware of this, more than any other heart in the whole universe, visible and invisible.

And so she calls us. She not only calls us to be converted: she calls us to accept her motherly help to return to the source of Redemption.[10]

This, the Holy Father explained, is the true meaning of consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Two years later, the Pilgrim Virgin of Fatima statue traveled to the Vatican for a ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica on March 25, 1984, in which the Holy Father, in union with the bishops throughout the world, consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, especially those nations in most need of that consecration.

On May 13, 1991, the pilgrim Pope once again traveled to Portugal and prayed in front of the shrine statue of Our Lady of Fatima. A fragment of the bullet that had critically wounded him 10 years before had been placed within Our Lady’s jeweled crown.[11]

Upon his return to Rome, the Holy Father explained at his weekly audience the twofold purpose of his journey. First, "to give thanks for saving the Pope’s life exactly ten years ago. I consider this entire decade to be a free gift, given to me in a special way by Divine Providence—a special responsibility was given to me that I might continue to serve the Church by exercising the ministry of Peter."[12]

The second purpose was "to thank Our Lady for the protection given the Church in these years, which have witnessed rapid and profound social transformations . . . "[13] such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Empire and the reemergence of the underground Church in Eastern Europe.

"Totus Tuus" to the End

Divine providence allowed Pope John Paul II to bless the multitudes for many more years. Finally, on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday in April 2005, a crowd again filled St. Peter’s Square and prayed the Rosary for the dying pontiff. At his funeral an open Gospel book, recalling the ceremony of his episcopal consecration, was placed on the wooden casket. A gust of wind closed the book, as though heaven itself were exclaiming, "Well done, good and faithful servant!"

May we, like John Paul the Great, enthrone the Mother of God in our hearts!

Michael J. Miller translated Married Saints and Blesseds Through the Centuries for Ignatius Press.


[1] Joseph Ratzinger, The Legacy of John Paul II: Images and Memories (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), p. 38.
[2] George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1999), pp. 412–413.
[3] John Paul II, Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004), p. 53.
[4] Weigel, Witness to Hope, p. 57.
[5] John Paul II, Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, p. 51.
[6] St. Louis-Marie de Montfort, True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Bay Shore, NY: Montfort Publications, 1980), p. 175f.
[7] John Paul II, Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, p. 53.
[8] Karol Wojtyla (Giovanni Paolo II), Massimiliano Kolbe: Patrono del nostro difficile secolo (Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1982), p. 17.
[9] John Paul II, General Audience, October 7, 1981, as found in "Like Peter, I too have experienced the efficacy of prayers of the Church," The Teachings of Pope John Paul II on CD-ROM (Gervais, OR: Harmony Media, Inc.).
[10] John Paul II, Homily, Mass at the Shrine of Fatima, May 13, 1982, available from The Teachings of Pope John Paul II on CD-ROM.
[11] "Papal Door to New Dawn of History," Fatima Family Messenger, July-September 1991, pp. 2–4, citation on p. 4.
[12] John Paul II, General Audience, May 15, 1991, "Thank you, Mary, for Fatima!" available from The Teachings of Pope John Paul II on CD-ROM.
[13] John Paul II, Arrival speech in Lisbon, Portugal, May 10, 1991, as cited in "Papal Door to New Dawn of History," p. 4.

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