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Catholic News Herald

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020817 fatimaFATIMA, Portugal — On the 19th anniversary of the attempt to assassinate him, Pope John Paul II listened as his top aide announced the pope's decision to reveal the so-called ''third secret of Fatima.''

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, told an estimated 600,000 people gathered in Fatima May 13 that the pope believes the secret refers to the assassination attempt and to the church's struggle against communism.

Pope John Paul had just finished celebrating Mass for the beatification of Jacinta and Francisco Marto, two of the shepherd children who saw Our Lady of Fatima in 1917.

During his homily, he once again thanked Our Lady of Fatima for saving his life when he was shot May 13, 1981, and he spoke of the ''horrors'' of the 20th century, which he said were foretold by Mary in the Fatima messages.

In making the announcement about the secret, Cardinal Sodano said it ''concerns, above all, the war waged by atheist systems against the church and Christians.''

But it also refers to the ministry and suffering of a ''bishop clothed in white,'' whom the children believed was the pope, Cardinal Sodano said.

The cardinal said that in the secret, as the pope ''makes his way with great effort toward the Cross amid the corpses of those who were martyred -- bishops, priests, men and women religious and many lay persons -- he, too, falls to the ground, apparently dead under a burst of gunfire.''

Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk, tried to assassinate the pope in St. Peter's Square on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima in 1981.

Cardinal Sodano said that after the shooting ''it appeared evident to His Holiness that it was 'a motherly hand which guided the bullet's path,''' saving the pope's life.

Pope John Paul has directed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to prepare a commentary to help people understand the message, then to make the message and the commentary public, the cardinal said.

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, Vatican spokesman, told reporters on the papal flight back to Rome May 13 that publication was expected ''within days, perhaps a week.''

In his Mass homily, Pope John Paul said the Fatima children demonstrated how ''little ones'' may be able to grasp important truths more quickly than their elders.

In the course of the 20th century, the pope said, thousands and thousands of people died in the struggle between good and evil.

''My thoughts go to the horrors of the two 'great wars' and those of other wars in many parts of the world, to the concentration and extermination camps, the gulags, ethnic cleansing and persecutions, terrorism, kidnapping, drugs, the attacks on the unborn and on the family,'' he said.

In Mary's message at Fatima, the pope said, ''these times of tribulation were foretold, and Our Lady asked for prayers and penance to abbreviate them. ''

''Today I want to thank heaven for the strength of the testimony'' given by Jacinta and Francisco, he said.

''And, once again, I want to celebrate the Lord's goodness to me, when, seriously struck that May 13, 1981, I was saved from death,'' Pope John Paul said.

''I express my recognition also to Blessed Jacinta for her sacrifices and prayers for the Holy Father, whom she had seen suffer much,'' the pope said, referring to part of the Fatima message.

As a sign of his gratitude to Mary, the pope sent one of the bullets used in the assassination attempt to Fatima. It is now embedded in the crown on the statue of Our Lady of Fatima at the shrine.

Arriving in Fatima May 12, the pope knelt in prayer near the statue before leading a brief prayer service.

Approaching the statue, he left a small red box and an envelope at Mary's feet. The box contained the gold ring that the late Polish Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski of Warsaw gave him shortly after his election as pope.

The cardinal had told the pope that he would lead the church into the third millennium.

Italian and Portuguese newspaper and television reports were filled with speculation that the letter the pope left spoke of his resignation now that he had led the church into the Holy Year 2000.

Navarro-Valls, the papal spokesman, said the reports were ''150 percent'' wrong; the letter simply explains the history of the ring and its personal significance to the pope.

The ring, he said, ''is one of the most precious things the Holy Father owns. The pope was trying to think of what to give Our Lady, and he decided on this precious ring. Any other interpretation is without foundation.''

But the pope also received a special gift at Fatima.

Carmelite Sister Lucia dos Santos, who along with her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco, saw Our Lady of Fatima in 1917, gave the pope 300 rosaries she had made.

The pope met privately with Sister Lucia in the basilica at the Fatima shrine before the beatification Mass.

Pope John Paul asked Sister Lucia how old she is, Navarro-Valls said. When the nun replied, ''93,'' they both smiled.

As she sat by Francisco's tomb waiting for the pope, Sister Lucia responded briefly to reporters' questions.

She said she was ''very happy'' that her cousins were being beatified.

Already informed of the pope's decision to reveal the secret, which she had written down in 1943 and placed in a wax-sealed envelope, Sister Lucia said, ''It is a day of glory for God and for Our Lady.''

She said the only thing she had to tell the world was: ''Try to be faithful to God and thankful for his graces.''

During the beatification Mass, the pope asked children to try to be like Jacinta and Francisco in listening to Mary and following her to Jesus.

Dozens of children in the crowd were dressed in costumes to look like the beatification photographs of Jacinta and Francisco -- complete with dark scarves for the girls and floppy berets for the boys.

''You look good,'' the pope told them. ''The pity is that this evening or maybe tomorrow you will take these clothes off, and the little shepherds will disappear.

''Our Lady needs each of you to console Jesus, who is sad because of the injustices they do to him,'' he said. ''She needs your prayers and your sacrifices for sinners.''

A 10-year-old Parisian girl was not dressed like Jacinta, but she bears her name.

Jacinta Lafont, who came to Fatima with her aunt and her cousin, said she wants to be like Blessed Jacinta ''but it's not easy to make sacrifices.''

Pope John Paul said that by listening to Mary, the newly beatified ''reached the summit of perfection in a short time.''

The pope said Francisco was preoccupied with Jesus being sad because of sinners. The boy's only desire was ''to console Jesus and make him happy.''

''Little Jacinta shared and lived this affliction of Our Lady,'' that is, Mary's worry for sinners who would end up in hell, the pope said. ''All the mortifications and penances seemed a small price to her to save sinners.''

The children prayed often, gave their lunches to poor children and wore rough ropes around their thighs in order to offer their sacrifices to Mary. And once people started hearing about the apparitions, the children endured harsh questioning at the hands of church and civil authorities, the doubts of their parents and the constant attention of the curious.

Francisco died in 1919 at the age of 10. Jacinta died shortly before her 10th birthday in 1920. With millions of Europeans, they were victims of the Spanish flu epidemic.

— Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service