The 20th century was one of the most horrific periods in human history. We saw the rise of bloodthirsty despots and the deaths of millions of innocent people. Yet in it all, many found a message of peace – and that message brought down dictatorships and continues to give us hope as we move into an uncertain future.
The message was first revealed in the small Portuguese village of Fatima in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution and another year of carnage in the First World War.
In Fatima, a woman appeared to three small children, telling them that the war would end but another would follow, and that Russia would spread her errors. She said that people needed to pray and to reform their lives, and she promised peace. The woman became known as Our Lady of Fatima.
What is extraordinary is the accuracy of these predictions. What is even more amazing is the impact of her message. Events that seemed impossible happened. People who seemed powerless became forces of great social and political change.
At the end of the Second World War, the four main Allied powers occupied Germany and Austria, and divided them into zones. While the Soviet Union set up a separate state in East Germany, they didn’t do the same in Austria. There, a populist movement called for people to pray the rosary, a traditional Catholic prayer using beads and honouring the mother of Jesus, for the conversion of sinners and for peace in the world. Thousands responded and the result was almost unbelievable. At the height of the Cold War, when superpowers were flexing their military muscles and staring each other down, the mighty Soviet Union simply withdrew from eastern Austria in 1955.
Perhaps Russia spreading her errors also referred to dictatorships set up in reaction to Soviet expansion.
In 1986, there was a similar populist movement in the Philippines, a staunch American ally. Dictator Ferdinand Marcos had ruled the country for decades, using martial law, violence and bribery. The Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia and there devotion to Our Lady has always been strong.
After an election result that many believed was fraudulent, throngs of people took to the streets, rosaries in hand, peacefully demonstrating.
Within days, Marcos left the country and peace was restored.
Elsewhere in the world, similar movements in Catholic countries were creating strong resistance to dictatorships.
Significant cracks in the Iron Curtain, for example, began to appear in the early 1980s in Poland, a country where many took solace in the message of Fatima. Peace movements grew in Poland and spread throughout eastern Europe, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall by the end of the decade and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It can certainly be argued that none of these events have anything to do with the mother of Jesus Christ, or a message spoken to three peasant children 100 years ago. It would be short-sighted, however, to dismiss the spiritual aspect of peace movements in the 20th century.
Spirituality gives people hope in hopeless situations. The message of Fatima gave people a course of action when they didn’t know what to do and it brought them together. The believers also had faith that they were making a difference and that things would change.
If we look at other movements of the last century where peace and justice prevailed despite insurmountable odds, we see the same faith, the same confidence that all would be well.
As the world continues to move toward an uncertain future, we need to remember that we have been here before. We also need to remember what got us through the difficult times.
When we stand together in faith and peace, we move forward, knowing we will make it to the other side.