Illuminating the Fatima "Miracle of the Sun"

Did three children miraculously predict a dancing sun in Portugal in 1917?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Ancient Mysteries, Religion

Skeptoid #110
July 22, 2008
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Today we're going to go back in time nearly a century, to the day of one of the Roman Catholic Church's greatest miracles; indeed, an event cited by some religious scholars as not merely our greatest miracle, but perhaps the most important event in history. This was the incident known as the "Miracle of the Sun", an inexplicable solar phenomenon predicted by three children to the day, and witnessed by tens of thousands of gathered worshipers and journalists. How can one be skeptical of something with so many eyewitnesses, so much printed news coverage, so many photographs, and such a specific prediction?

Three shepherd children, ten-year-old Lucia Santos and her two cousins, worked in a field called Cova da Iria near Fátima, Portugal, in 1917, during the first World War. Over a period of six months, the children reported a long series of religious apparitions, the most extraordinary of which were six visits from the Virgin Mary herself. Mary told the children many things, including three famous secrets; but the most extraordinary revelation was that on October 13 of that year, they would witness a miracle. The children's reports of these apparitions in the village church attracted the attention of a local newspaper or two, which in turn attracted the attention of a regional newspaper or two; and soon the Cova da Iria fields turned into something of a Grand Central Station of miracle seekers. And, on October 13, as many as 100,000 believers packed the area, and just as the Virgin Mary foretold, they witnessed an inexplicable miracle in the sky: From behind the rain clouds, the sun came out, danced, changed colors, spun like a pinwheel, and made a most sensational demonstration. Photographs and articles plastered the newspapers of the world, and thirteen years to the day later, it was officially recognized as a miracle by the Roman Catholic Church.

It's hard to argue with the facts of this event. The day was predicted in newspapers by a ten-year-old girl, and this is thoroughly proven. Tens of thousands of people personally witnessed exactly what the prediction said would happen. The sun's behavior was clearly unique, and couldn't have been mistaken for some chance atmospheric oddity. You add all this together, and the only reasonable conclusion is that Lucia Santos' vision and prediction was a genuine miracle.

Unless, of course, you set a reasonable standard for evidence, and start looking for things like alternate explanations. Let's point our skeptical eye at some of these details one by one, and see if they hold up to scrutiny. I'll start with the children's reports of six months of religious apparitions. These were three kids, ages 7 to 10, and came back home each night with wild tales. Is this surprising? Is the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary really the most probable explanation for stories told by small kids? The two youngest, Lucia's cousins, both died of influenza within a couple of years, but Lucia lived to the age of 97 and clung to her stories her entire life. Investigator Joe Nickell reports that Lucia's own mother said that she was "Nothing but a fake who is leading half the world astray." Friar Mario de Oliveira, who knew her well, described her as living in a "delirious world of infantile fantasies" and suffering from "religious hallucinations". There are alternate explanations for the children's stories, imagination and boredom being chief among them.

So onto the specific date of October 13, 1917, so widely publicized in print that tens of thousands of people appeared. Clearly you're not going to make a pilgrimage like that unless you're pretty religious and pretty confident that you're going to witness a miracle. So, we have a crowd preconditioned to expect to see something. Newspaper accounts estimated between 30,000 and 100,000 worshipers gathered at Cova da Iria. However, a number of photographs of the crowd do exist, and though it does look like several thousand to me, I certainly wouldn't go as high as thirty. Either the photographers chose not to show the largest part of the crowds, which seems an odd choice; or the newspapers reported exaggerated numbers. Interestingly, if you do a Google image search you'll find lots of pictures of huge crowds, many of which show a perfectly bright and sunny day. It is always reported to have been raining quite heavily during the event, and I only ever found a single picture that showed a crowd with umbrellas. So I think a snippet of skepticism is warranted when viewing these large crowd photos with thousands of faces staring heavenward.

How impressive was the sun's display? An old black and white photograph of the actual sun miracle event shows a lot of dark rain clouds behind some trees and the sun poking through. There is certainly nothing in the photograph that looks unusual, but of course a photograph is static. Whatever the crowd saw was not interesting enough to be noticeable in a photograph. A lot of skeptical explanations have been put forward: Dust in the atmosphere causing the sun to appear in different colors, a sundog or parhelion formed by ice crystals, a rainbow, and observations that the descriptions don't match where the sun should have been in the sky at that time. It's also been pointed out that observatories around the world reported nothing unusual that day, so whatever it was had to have been a localized phenomenon. Personally I gravitate toward an even simpler explanation, fueled by having spent many happy hours as a child laying on my back and staring directly at the sun. When you do that, you can't see a round, static disk. Your eyes and pupils spazz out, and "dancing" is certainly one way to describe what you see. Spinning would be another valid way to perceive it. If there are tens of thousands of people fully expecting to see something amazing, and someone shouts "Hey look at the sun," guess what, you've now got tens of thousands of people seeing something amazing in the sun.

There's an experiment you can do. Stand on the sidewalk and point up toward the top of a building. People walking by will look up too. Some of them will pause. If another person looks at them, they might point up as well. Anything anyone sees will be assumed to be what you were pointing at. Go to Starbucks, have a coffee, and watch the fun. To me it's not only plausible, it's probable that if a single person at Cova da Iria told that desperate crowd that the sun looked strange, you'd have had ten thousand people agreeing "Yeah, it did look a little funky, kind of jumped around and danced when I tried to look at it," or whatever they thought they saw. And this would have happened on October 12, June 1, or any other day you choose.

Most of what's popularly reported about the sun incident, such as the colors and the spinning, comes from Father John de Marchi, a Catholic priest who spent years interviewing eyewitnesses to build evidence supporting the miraculous event. But more objective assessments of the eyewitness accounts have found very little evidence of a single shared experience. Author Kevin McClure, who also compiled eyewitness accounts, reported that he had "never seen such a collection of contradictory accounts in any of the research I have done in the past 10 years." If you were there, as a devout Catholic (otherwise you wouldn't be there), you fully believed in a miracle happening that day (otherwise you wouldn't be there), whether you personally saw anything or not you'd support the majority opinion, and probably go to your grave insisting that a miracle happened there. There's no surprise that Father de Marchi was able to form a consensus description of a spinning color wheel of a sun, and no need for any actual event to justify his consensus.

Father de Marchi says the sun was a spinning color wheel that day, which cannot be reconciled with the photograph. I say there was nothing special in the sky that day, which reconciles exactly with the photograph.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Now let's go back to those three secrets that the Virgin Mary supposedly revealed to Lucia. The "miracle of the sun" was not one of the three secrets, in fact Lucia wouldn't tell anyone what the secrets were until many years later, when she was a nun, and was asked to write them down by the Bishop of Leiria in 1941. She would only write the first two. The first secret was a vision of Hell, not really a prediction about anything, nor much of a secret. The second secret was a prediction that World War I would end, and that World War II would start if God continued to be offended by man's crimes. This wasn't terribly surprising either, since World War II had already begun when she wrote it. Not the kind of prediction that blows my mind. It took two more years before the Bishop of Leiria finally got Lucia to write down the third secret, and when she did, she sealed it in an envelope marked "Do not open until 1960", because she felt that nobody would understand it until then. When the Vatican revealed its contents in 1990, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) warned that it was anticlimactic, saying "No great mystery is revealed; nor is the future unveiled," and even speculated that Lucia's vision may have simply been conjured from religious texts. It described a vision full of religious imagery: Angels with swords, masses of corpses on a mountainside, Bishops and Priests being killed by soldiers, souls ascending to heaven. The takeaway from Lucia's three secrets is that in no way were they miraculous or otherwise unexplainable predictions.

The Roman Catholic Church will only declare a miracle after all other possible explanations have been ruled out, leaving divine intervention as the only possible rationalization. Since the Fátima "Miracle of the Sun" is easily explained, and even falsified by photographic evidence, it's probably time for the Catholics to reexamine their criteria.

Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

BBC. "Eye fears over holy shrine 'visions'." BBC news. BBC, 2 Dec. 2009. Web. 25 Jan. 2010. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8390184.stm>

Dawkins, R. Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. 133-135.

de Marchi, Joao. The True Story of Fatima. Saint Paul: Catechetical Guild Educational Society, 1956.

McClure, Kevin. The Evidence for Visions of the Virgin Mary. New York: Sterling Publishing, 1983.

Meesen, A. "Apparitions and Miracles of the Sun." International Forum in Porto “Science, Religion and Conscience”. 23 Oct. 1005, 1645-6564: 199-222.

Nickell, Joe. Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions, and Healing Cures. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1993. 176-181.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Illuminating the Fatima "Miracle of the Sun"." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 22 Jul 2008. Web. 29 Aug 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4110>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 507 comments

Rick from Grand Rapids
??????????

Steve, Salem
September 17, 2014 12:38pm

If you asked a magician about a trick he performed where he got thousands of people to hallucinate something simultaneously, you would not believe him. You would think him the greatest liar (or perhaps the greatest magician) ever. So, do you want a divine miracle, or an unexplainable fantastic magic trick performed on many thousands simultaneously? I find the divine explanation more credible, given the amount of skeptics that were in the crowd (like the Communists), people who would be predisposed not to join in the hallucination. Again, both the Communist paper and the normal secular papers reported the exact same thing.

frkevin56, Ossining NY
October 13, 2014 7:24am

Francisco and Jacinta were beatified because they got their own miracle: a woman who prayed to them who was cured of her 22-year complete paralysis, called a miracle by the doctors who examined the case and could find no medical explanation. Both suffered a lot before they died at ages 10 and 9, but both prayed for more suffering so they could offer it up to save sinners from hell. Besides showing the 3 children a vision of hell, Our Lady of Fatima told them most souls go there for sins of impurity, that they fall there like leaves from the trees, that they end up there because they have no one to pray for them, and that we should pray her short Fatima prayer after each decade of the Rosary to save ourselves from hell. Fifty years before it happened in 1991, Sr. Lucia said Mary told her the Rosary would convert Russia from communism, and it did without firing a shot. Pope Saint John Paul II said Our Lady of Fatima saved his life when he was shot (the 3rd secret) in 1979 on May 13 (the first vision date) and put his bullet in her crown at Fatima. Thousands of miracles have happened there the past century. Skeptics simple ignore the miracles, the people cured are ecstatic, not one skeptic among them. Our Lady of Fatima as the Pilgrim Virgin statues has circled the globe for over half a century, leaving a trail of miracles.

Pete, Paris, IL
October 13, 2014 8:52am

From the Movie "The Alamo" Jacko's answer to belief in God, "

"I say this : I believe. I can never find a way to argue down you that don't believe, but I believe in the Lord God Almighty, all knowing and all forgiving. [Music.] And I believe that Good shall be triumphant in the end and that evil shall be vanquished. I believe in a hereafter".

From here:

Don, Rochester, NY
October 21, 2014 7:22am

Of course the claims of miracles are rubbish, along with the predictions not revealed until 1941 -- long after the predicted happenings had occurred. As for the sun thing -- that is just well known visual illusions, as Skeptoid said.

The sun was claimed to jump about in the sky. We know that if the sun actually jumped around, the solar system would be torn apart. Kf the earth jumped around (so it appeared the sun did), we would be torn apart.

It is just rubbish.

The mother was right.

Also, check out the actual reports of how the "sightings" were revealed. They all came from the older girl. The others did not report separately. The older girl dominated the others; they did what she told them.

And that the two kids died? There was this thing called the "Spanish flu epidemic" that killed millions (and incidentally, it did not originate in Spain, it was actually brought to Europe by American soldiers; diligent backtracking has shown it transferred from migratory ducks, to pigs, to humans in Idaho.

morpher, melbourne
December 5, 2014 2:45pm

As a johnny-come-lately, my post may never be read; be that as it may.

As a Traditional Roman Catholic, my acceptance of the Fatima Apparitions is based on the acceptance by competent Church authorities in 1930.

As an unlettered layman who claims no professional expertise, my comment must, of necessity, be simple; and so it is.

Allegedly, information concerning the Miracle of the sun was published in the anti-Catholic press; the Portuguese daily newspaper, "O Século."

Has anyone researched "O Século," for the appropriate time period, to determine if it's true?

Bill Crofut, Jordan, NY
March 11, 2015 7:44am

This extract from this writer's text sadly shows a genuine absence of any research into the established demographics of the crowds stating that they witnessed a miracle that day: "If you were there, as a devout Catholic (otherwise you wouldn't be there), you fully believed in a miracle happening that day (otherwise you wouldn't be there), whether you personally saw anything or not you'd support the majority opinion, and probably go to your grave insisting that a miracle happened there."
This totally ignores the very vocal atheistic groups that were in attendance that day in order to debunk the scheduled "miracle" - not least of which were representatives from major national press organisations at the time - publications which all subsequently vindicated the miraculous nature for what transpired that day and clealry would not have possessed the degree of bias that is so steadfastly affirmed here.

Indie.Observer, British Isles
April 18, 2015 7:51am

Somewhere between 30,000 and 70,000 people not to mention "major national press organizations in attendance and all I got was this one crummy photo.

Chuck, Rhode Island
April 20, 2015 8:18am

A true skeptic would deny that the sky is blue or grass is green. thousands of people - believers or not - claimed a common experience. They all say the sun spin and came closer to the earth.

It was a raining that day, so a miracle involving the sun would be a surprise. Yet, according to eye witnesses, the rain stopped and the clouds disappeared showing the sun. People said their wet clothes were completely dry after this event.

Of course, you can claim all kinds of explanations for this event, but consider this: If this miracle validated some long-held belief of your own such as global climate change, you might be a strong supporter of such an event. It would be proof supporting your idea. It would be irrelevant to you that all the witnesses were supporters of global warming. You would conclude that the evidence is overwhelming. Yet, efforts are made to refute this event. The primary reason is that all of the participants are Catholic believers which is pretty lame. To be fair, you need to give the same validity to this event as you would to an event that supports something you believe in. If the evidence is conclusive, it is real.

I suggest your skeptic readers at least acknowledge that something happened that cannot be adequately explained. It was an event that was even predicted by Lucia. In the absence of a stronger explanation, it could well be a miracle.

Joe Giunta, Plainflield, IL
April 29, 2015 6:32pm

Miracles are meant for the intelligent faithless, who would not be able to explain rationally using the knowledge he had gained up to that time, the unusual happening, and realise the greatness and vastness of God's power and reach, and compare that beach with his own which is only a grain of sand in that beach. It is also not for the stupid infedel, who thinks he knows everything, when all he has seen is just a pebble in the beach.

Marco De Santis, New York
May 30, 2015 10:36pm

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