Miracle of the Sun
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The Miracle of the Sun (Portuguese: O Milagre do Sol) was an event that occurred on 13 October 1917, attended by a large crowd who had gathered near Fátima, Portugal in response to a prophecy made by three shepherd children that the Virgin Mary, referred to as Our Lady of Fatima, would appear and perform miracles on that date. Newspapers published testimony from reporters and other people who claimed to have witnessed extraordinary solar activity, such as the sun appearing to "dance" or zig-zag in the sky, careen towards the earth, or emit multicolored light and radiant colors. According to these reports, the event lasted approximately ten minutes.
The local bishop opened a canonical investigation of the event in November of 1917, to review witness accounts and assess whether the alleged private revelation from Mary were compatible with Catholic theology. The local priest conducting the investigation was particularly convinced by the concurring testimony of extraordinary solar phenomenon from secular reporters, government officials, and other skeptics in attendance. Bishop José da Silva declared the miracle "worthy of belief" on 13 October 1930, permitting "officially the cult of Our Lady of Fatima" within the Catholic Church. At a gathering on 13 October 1951 at Fátima, the papal legate, Cardinal Tedeschini, told the million people attending that on 30 October, 31 October, 1 November, and 8 November 1950, Pope Pius XII himself witnessed the miracle of the sun from the Vatican gardens. The early and enduring interest in the miracle and related prophesies has had a significant impact on the devotional practices of Catholics.
There has been much analysis of the event from critical sociological and scientific perspectives. According to critics, the eyewitness testimony was actually a collection of inconsistent and contradictory accounts. Proposed alternate explanations include witnesses being deceived by their senses due to prolonged staring at the sun and then seeing something unusual as they had expected.
Beginning in the spring of 1917, three Catholic shepherd children living near Fatima reported apparitions of an Angel, and starting in May of 1917, apparitions of the Virgin Mary, whom the children described as the Lady of Fátima. The children reported a prophecy that prayer would lead to an end to the Great War, and that on October 13th of that year the Lady would reveal her identity and perform a miracle "so that all may believe." Newspapers reported the prophesies, and many pilgrims began visiting the area. The children's accounts were deeply controversial, drawing intense criticism from both local secular and religious authorities. A provisional administrator briefly took the children into custody, believing the prophecies were politically motivated in opposition to the officially secular First Portuguese Republic established in 1910.
Estimates of the number of people present range from 30,000 and 40,000, by Avelino de Almeida writing for the Portuguese newspaper O Século, to 100,000, estimated by lawyer Dr. José Almeida Garrett, the son of a professor of natural sciences at the University of Coimbra.
Various claims have been made as to what actually happened during the event. According to many witnesses, after a period of rain, the dark clouds broke and the sun appeared as an opaque, spinning disc in the sky. It was said to be significantly duller than normal, and to cast multicolored lights across the landscape, the people, and the surrounding clouds. The sun was then reported to have careened towards the earth before zig-zagging back to its normal position. Witnesses reported that their previously wet clothes became "suddenly and completely dry, as well as the wet and muddy ground that had been previously soaked because of the rain that had been falling". Not all witnesses reported seeing the sun "dance". Some people only saw the radiant colors, and others, including some believers, saw nothing at all. The only known picture of the sun taken during the event doesn't show anything unusual.
The three children (Lúcia dos Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto) who originally claimed to have seen Our Lady of Fátima also reported seeing a panorama of visions, including those of Jesus, Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and of Saint Joseph blessing the people. In the fourth edition of her memoirs, written in 1941, Lúcia said that on the occasion of their third visit to the Cova da Iria, on July 13, 1917, she asked the lady to tell them who she was, and to perform a miracle so that everyone would believe. The lady told to her that they should continue to come to the Cova each month until October, when the requested miracle would occur.
De Marchi accounts
Descriptions of the events reported at Fátima were collected by Father John De Marchi, an Italian Catholic priest and researcher. De Marchi spent seven years in Fátima, from 1943 to 1950, conducting research and interviewing the principals at length. In The Immaculate Heart, published in 1952, De Marchi reports that, "[t]heir ranks (those present on 13 October) included believers and non-believers, pious old ladies and scoffing young men. Hundreds, from these mixed categories, have given formal testimony. Reports do vary; impressions are in minor details confused, but none to our knowledge has directly denied the visible prodigy of the sun."
De Marchi authored several books on the subject, such as The True Story of Fátima. They include a number of witness descriptions.
- "The sun, at one moment surrounded with scarlet flame, at another aureoled in yellow and deep purple, seemed to be in an exceedingly swift and whirling movement, at times appearing to be loosened from the sky and to be approaching the earth, strongly radiating heat."―Dr. Domingos Pinto Coelho, writing for the Catholic newspaper Ordem.
- "... The silver sun, enveloped in the same gauzy grey light, was seen to whirl and turn in the circle of broken clouds ... The light turned a beautiful blue, as if it had come through the stained-glass windows of a cathedral, and spread itself over the people who knelt with outstretched hands ... people wept and prayed with uncovered heads, in the presence of a miracle they had awaited. The seconds seemed like hours, so vivid were they."―Reporter for the Lisbon newspaper O Dia.
- "The sun's disc did not remain immobile. This was not the sparkling of a heavenly body, for it spun round on itself in a mad whirl, when suddenly a clamor was heard from all the people. The sun, whirling, seemed to loosen itself from the firmament and advance threateningly upon the earth as if to crush us with its huge fiery weight. The sensation during those moments was terrible." —De Marchi attributes this description to Dr. Almeida Garrett, Professor of Natural Sciences at Coimbra University. Theologian Father Stanley L. Jaki wrote that it was actually given by Dr. José Almeida Garrett, a young lawyer, and is often mistakenly attributed to his father, a professor of natural sciences at the University of Coimbra, named Dr. Gonçalo de Almeida Garrett.
- "As if like a bolt from the blue, the clouds were wrenched apart, and the sun at its zenith appeared in all its splendor. It began to revolve vertiginously on its axis, like the most magnificent firewheel that could be imagined, taking on all the colors of the rainbow and sending forth multicolored flashes of light, producing the most astounding effect. This sublime and incomparable spectacle, which was repeated three distinct times, lasted for about ten minutes. The immense multitude, overcome by the evidence of such a tremendous prodigy, threw themselves on their knees."―Dr. Manuel Formigão, a professor at the seminary at Santarém, and a priest.
- "I feel incapable of describing what I saw. I looked fixedly at the sun, which seemed pale and did not hurt my eyes. Looking like a ball of snow, revolving on itself, it suddenly seemed to come down in a zig-zag, menacing the earth. Terrified, I ran and hid myself among the people, who were weeping and expecting the end of the world at any moment." —Rev. Joaquim Lourenço, describing his boyhood experience in Alburitel, eighteen kilometers from Fátima.
- "On that day of October 13, 1917, without remembering the predictions of the children, I was enchanted by a remarkable spectacle in the sky of a kind I had never seen before. I saw it from this veranda ..." —Portuguese poet Afonso Lopes Vieira.
De Marchi also drew on the newspaper account written by Avelino de Almeida, a journalist sent by the newspaper O Século ("The Century"), who described in detail the reactions of the crowd.
Catholic Church recognition
The event was declared of “supernatural character” by the Catholic Church in 1930. A shrine was erected near the site in Fatima, which has been attended by thousands of faithful. Pope Pius XII approved the "Fatima apparitions" in 1940. In 2008, a note was discovered which Pius XII wrote in 1950 that says that he saw the miracle while he walked in the Vatican Gardens at various times.
In 2017, Pope Francis approved the recognition of a miracle involving two of the children, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, who were involved in the Fatima event of 1917, which paved the way for their canonization.
Within Catholicism, the event is seen as the fulfillment of a promise by Mary, mother of Jesus to the shepherd children she appeared to several times before October 13, 1917. According to the children's accounts, Mary, referred to as the Lady of Fátima, promised them she would perform a miracle to show people they were telling the truth, and so caused the crowds to see the sun make "incredible" movements in the sky. Catholics have regarded Mary as a "miracle worker" for centuries, and this view has continued into the 21st century. Various theologians and apologetic scientists have discussed the limits of scientific explanations for the event and proposed possible mechanisms through which divine intervention caused the solar phenomenon.
Fr Andrew Pinsent, research director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University, states that "a scientific perspective does not rule out miracles, and the event at Fatima is, in the view of many, particularly credible." He states that a usual prejudice involves a lack of understanding of the scope of scientific laws, which merely describe how natural systems behave isolated from free agents. Concluding that the event is "a public miracle of the most extraordinary kind and credibility", he sees the year of the event, as connected to significant historical milestones that call for Fatima's message of repentance: Protestantism in 1517, Freemasonry in 1717 and Atheistic Communism in 1917.
Theologian, professor, and priest Stanley L. Jaki, concurs, concluding that by divine intervention, a coordinated interplay of natural meteorological events, an enhancement of air lens with ice crystals, was made to occur at the exact time predicted, and this is the essence of the miracle. He assumed as fact that the sun didn't move since observatories did not perceive any solar movement and the vast majority of the earth's populace didn't notice it either.
Jaki described the phenomenon thus:
- ...a sudden temperature inversion must have taken place. The cold and warm air masses could conceivably propel that rotating air lens in an elliptical orbit first toward the earth, and then push it up, as if it were a boomerang, back to its original position. Meanwhile the ice crystals in it acted as so many means of refraction for the sun’s rays... Only one observer, a lawyer, stated three decades later that the path of descent and ascent was elliptical with small circles superimposed on it. Such an observation would make eminent sense to anyone familiar with fluid dynamics or even with the workings of a boomerang. There is indeed plenty of scientific information on hand to approach the miracle of the sun scientifically... The carefully co-ordinated interplay of so many physical factors would by itself be a miracle, even if one does not wish to see anything more in what actually happened. Clearly, the “miracle” of the sun was not a mere meteorological phenomenon, however rare. Otherwise it would have been observed before and after, regardless of the presence of devout crowds or not. I merely claim, which I did in my other writings on miracles, that in producing miracles God often makes use of a natural substratum by greatly enhancing its physical components and their interactions.
According to Jaki, the faithful should believe that a miracle occurred at Fatima, and "those who stake their purpose in life on Christ as the greatest and incomparably miraculous fact of history", need to pay attention to facts that support miracles.
Father De Marchi believed that related miraculous phenomena, such as the Sun's effect on standing water from heavy rains, that immediately preceded the event to be genuine. According to De Marchi, "...engineers that have studied the case reckoned that an incredible amount of energy would have been necessary to dry up those pools of water that had formed on the field n a few minutes as it was reported by witnesses." De Marchi wrote that the prediction of an unspecified "miracle", the abrupt beginning and end of the event, the varied religious backgrounds of the observers, the sheer numbers of people present, reports of sightings by people up to 18 kilometres (11 mi) away, and the lack of any known scientific causative factor make a mass hallucination or mass hysteria unlikely. De Marchi concludes that "given the indubitable reference to God, and the general context of the story, it seems that we must attribute to Him alone the most obvious and colossal miracle of history."
Leo Madigan, a former psychiatric nurse and local journalist at Fátima in the late 20th century, also dismisses suggestions from critics of mass hypnosis, and believes that astonishment, fear, exaltation and the spiritual nature of the phenomenon explain any inconsistency of witnesses descriptions. Madigan wrote that what people saw was "the reflection of the Lady's own light projected on the Sun itself".
Theologians, scientists, and skeptics have responded to claims that conflict with established scientific knowledge regarding the behavior of the Sun. Science writer Benjamin Radford maintains that "the sun did not really dance in the sky. We know this because, of course, everyone on Earth is under the same sun, and if the closest dying star to us suddenly began doing celestial gymnastics a few billion other people would surely have reported it". Radford wrote that psychological factors such as the power of suggestion and pareidolia can better explain the reported events. According to Radford, "No one suggests that those who reported seeing the Miracle of the Sun—or any other miracles at Fátima or elsewhere—are lying or hoaxing. Instead they very likely experienced what they claimed to, though that experience took place mostly in their minds."
In The Evidence for Visions of the Virgin Mary Kevin McClure wrote that the crowd at Cova da Iria may have been expecting to see signs in the sun, since similar phenomena had been reported in the weeks leading up to the miracle. On this basis, he believes that the crowd saw what it wanted to see. McClure also stated that he had never seen such a collection of contradictory accounts of a case in any of the research that he had done in the previous ten years.
According to theologian Lisa J. Schwebel, claims of the miracle present a number of difficulties. Schwebel states, "not only did not all those present not see the phenomenon, but also there are considerable inconsistencies among witnesses as to what they did see". Schwebel also observes that there is no authentic photo of the solar phenomena claimed, "despite the presence of hundreds of reporters and photographers at the field" and one photo often presented as authentic is actually "a solar eclipse in another part of the world taken sometime before 1917".
Supernatural explanations, such as those by Father Pio Scatizzi who argues that observers in Fátima could not be collectively deceived, or that the effect was not seen by observatories in distant places because of divine intervention have been dismissed by critics who say those taking part in the event could certainly be deceived by their senses, or they could have experienced a localized, natural phenomenon.
Others, such as professor of physics Auguste Meessen, suggest that optical effects created by the human eye can account for the reported phenomenon. Meessen presented his analysis of apparitions and "miracles of the sun" at the International Symposium "Science, Religion and Conscience" in 2003. While Meessen felt those who claim to have experienced miracles were "honestly experiencing what they report", he stated sun miracles cannot be taken at face value and that the reported observations were optical effects caused by prolonged staring at the sun. Meessen contends that retinal after-images produced after brief periods of sun gazing are a likely cause of the observed dancing effects. Similarly Meessen concluded that the color changes witnessed were most likely caused by the bleaching of photosensitive retinal cells. Meessen observes that Sun Miracles have been witnessed in many places where religiously charged pilgrims have been encouraged to stare at the sun. He cites the apparitions at Heroldsbach, Germany (1949) as an example, where many people within a crowd of over 10,000 testified to witnessing similar observations as at Fátima. Meessen also cites a British Journal of Ophthalmology article that discusses some modern examples of Sun Miracles. Prof. Dr. Stöckl, a meteorologist from Regensburg, also proposed a similar theory and made similar observations.
Critics also suggest that a combination of clouds, atmospheric effects and natural sunlight could have created the reported visual phenomena. Steuart Campbell, writing for the edition of Journal of Meteorology in 1989, postulated that a cloud of stratospheric dust changed the appearance of the sun on 13 October, making it easy to look at, and causing it to appear to be yellow, blue, and violet, and to spin. In support of his hypothesis, Mr. Campbell reported that a blue and reddened sun was reported in China as documented in 1983. Paul Simons, in an article entitled "Weather Secrets of Miracle at Fátima", stated that it is possible that some of the optical effects at Fátima may have been caused by a cloud of dust from the Sahara.
Skeptical investigator Joe Nickell wrote that the "dancing sun" effects reported at Fátima were "a combination of factors, including optical effects and meteorological phenomena, such as the sun being seen through thin clouds, causing it to appear as a silver disc. Other possibilities include an alteration in the density of the passing clouds, causing the sun’s image to alternately brighten and dim and so seem to advance and recede, and dust or moisture droplets in the atmosphere refracting the sunlight and thus imparting a variety of colors". Nickell also suggests that unusual visual effects could have resulted from temporary retinal distortion caused by staring at the intense light of the Sun, or have been caused by a sundog, a relatively common atmospheric optical phenomenon. Nickell also highlights the psychological suggestibility of the witnesses, noting that devout spectators often come to locations where Marian apparitions have been reported "fully expecting some miraculous event", such as Lubbock, Texas, in 1989, the Mother Cabrini Shrine near Denver, Colorado in 1992, and Conyers, Georgia in the early to mid-1990s.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Miracle of the Sun.|
- Newspaper article in Portuguese that came out shortly after the alleged miracle.
- Picture of the sun during the alleged miracle. (archive)
- Apparitions and Miracles of the Sun
- Phil Plait. "When self-fulfilling prophecies Knock", Discover Magazine
- BBC News article on sun miracles at Knock
- The Fatima Message