by Brooke Sales Lee
You might certainly wish for divine intervention, were you a right-wing dictator, circa 1946, who had spent the war making deals with both the Americans and the Germans. For Portugal, that was exactly what the regime got, facilitated by certain eager Americans.
In 1954, Bishop Fulton Sheen announced to Americans across the eastern
seaboard that the ‘birth of the modern world’ took place on 13 October 1917. His popular television show, Life is Worth Living, showed the auxiliary bishop of New York striding grandly across his small set in full clerical dress, explaining that on that day in Moscow, horsemen had charged in on a catechism class in the Church of the Iberian Virgin, destroyed the altar, and attacked the children.[i] ‘At the same hour,’ in Rome, Eugenio Pacelli was consecrated archbishop; he later survived an assassination attempt in Munich by communists and became Pope Pius XII. And finally, on 13 October 1917, in a village in Portugal, three children surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers witnessed an apparition. The apparition revealed herself to be the Virgin Mary, warned them of danger, and made the sun appear to ‘dance in the sky.’
In 1954, Portugal had been under the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar for twelve years. He had come to power as the prime minister in 1932 and written a constitution ending the military dictatorship that had replaced the unstable First Republic in 1926. His regime, the Estado Novo (New State) would outlive him and end only with a military coup in 1974.
But how did Fulton Sheen’s assertion that the modern world began in October of 1917 relate to the workings of a 42-year dictatorship? The answer may be found in Fátima. In 1942, Pope Pius XII announced that Our Lady of Fátima, as the apparition had come to be known, told the children on 13 October 1917 that a war worse would come and that atheistic Communism would spread; the only way to save the world from
annihilation, and the wrath of an angry God, was to repent earnestly, pray the rosary, and consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.[ii]
Salazar was more than familiar with Catholicism; he had attended seminary as a teenager before studying law and economics. His friend and roommate in university, Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira, had quickly risen through the Church to become Cardinal Patriarch of Portugal. And after 1945, the traditional Catholicism of Portugal was a godsend to an authoritarian dictator who had flirted with fascist aesthetics through the thirties, and traded with Germany through the forties.
Fighting against a potential destabilizing shift in both in domestic and foreign public opinion, , Salazar turned to Catholicism and specifically, to Fátima. While Portugal’s leaders could not claim to represent a land of democratic rights, they argue that it was devoutly Catholic and therefore anti-Communist. Fátima was no accident, they could argue; God had given Portugal a special role in saving the world from atheistic Communism.
The Portuguese government made sure to emphasize their Catholic legacy. As part of the construction of a glorious ‘Golden Age’ by the regime, the state renovated and restored historic buildings and encouraged tourists and locals alike to think of Portugal as a country born out of a Catholic struggle to claim land and souls for Christendom, first in Moorish Iberia and then in colonies around the world.[iii] Fátima showed that God smiled upon this mission and wished it to continue. After all, Portugal had remained neutral throughout the Second World War, and the Estado Novo had ended the anticlerical policies of the First Republic.
Fulton Sheen was one of dozens of prominent Catholics from around the world invited by the Portuguese government to witness the ceremonies for the closing of the Holy Year on 13 October 1951. He alluded to this event in his 1954 television show as he
claimed that a million people crowded into the square in Fátima. Footage from this event was shown on Sheen’s program, filmed not for news coverage but for a Warner Brother’s feature film about Our Lady of Fátima and the seers.
All things considered, Fulton Sheen essentially jumped on the bandwagon when it came to Fátima and Portugal. As early as 1946, The Catholic World published an essay by Hungarian Catholic convert Eugene Bagger entitled ‘Portugal: Anti-Totalitarian Outpost.’ The piece argued that the Catholicism of Portugal meant it was not totalitarian, and instead a benevolent dictatorship. In 1950, the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society in Canada published William C. McGrath’s short book Fatima or World Suicide which argued that nuclear war was imminent if Catholics did not take heed; it was one of several books on the topic published between 1947 and 1955. Sheen had been a prominent Cold Warrior from the start, and his popular reach in America made him an attractive mouthpiece for the holiness of Fátima and Portugal’s government. He only began writing and speaking of Fátima after he was hosted by the Portuguese government in 1951.
In 2017, we should remember that while Fulton Sheen and other prominent Catholics seemed to readily broadcast the message of an authoritarian regime, most Catholics in the Anglophone world latched onto Fátima through the Church and their understanding of the metaphysical world. Of the several books written about Fátima, most focused not on Portugal or any kind of special blessing from God upon the place where the apparitions occurred, but on the message of hope in the face of grave danger. Even though Sheen was quick to suggest parallels between a ‘white square’ in Fátima and the Red Square of Moscow, he was speaking of the faith he had devoted his life to and what he saw as the greatest contemporary threat to his Church. It was not that he had been bribed with a free trip to Portugal, but that in this matter, the regime’s interests and his own aligned neatly. The Church wished to increase piety and fight Communism. Salazar and his government needed a godsend, which it found in 1917.
Bio: Brooke Sales-Lee has a Master’s Degree in History from York University in Toronto. Her work there focused on the use of Our Lady of Fátima as a transnational political tool of the Estado Novo and the intersection of secular politics and Catholicism during the Cold War more widely. She is currently an independent researcher and can be found on tweeting about politics, the Church, and extremism at @BrookeSalesLee
[i] The entire episode of Life is Worth Living is viewable on YouTube: https://youtu.be/YWzPU1oeViM Fulton Sheen wrote up the themes and topics of his show as a series of essays published in Volumes under the same name, Life is Worth Living. They were published by McGraw-Hill in the 1950s and can sometimes be found in Catholic libraries.
[ii] The full text of the “secrets of Fátima” are available in translation on the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000626_message-fatima_en.html
[iii] This project began during a period of nationalist activity by the state that echoed the Italian Fascists and German National Socialists in their attempt to write a more heroic history of the nation. A key example of this in Portugal was the Portuguese World Exhibition of 1940. Several monuments were rebuilt to last and remain popular tourist attractions to this day: http://www.padraodosdescobrimentos.pt/en/monument-to-the-discoveries/1940-portuguese-world-exhbit/
Full image attributions
Image 1: By Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: Provided by the author, scanned image from Torre do Tombo archives in Lisbon
Image 3: Provided by the author, scanned image from Torre do Tombo archives in Lisbon