VATICAN CITY (AP) — The "third secret" of Fatima is no doomsday prophecy, as many have feared, the Vatican insisted Monday, but can be read as a message of encouragement that humanity can save itself, including from apocalyptic scenarios.
As first disclosed last month by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican reiterated that the proper interpretation of the so-called third secret was a foretelling of the 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II.
Aiming to discourage any more speculation about the last message that three Portuguese shepherd children said they received from the Virgin Mary in 1917, the Vatican made public the entire handwritten text of the secret as set down by the sole surviving witness of the series of visions, Sister Lucia de Jesus dos Santos, now a 93-year-old cloistered nun.
"And we saw in an immense light that is God: 'something similar to how people appear in a mirror when they pass in front of it' a Bishop dressed in White 'we had the impression that it was the Holy Father,"' the nun wrote. Later, she wrote of the Holy Father that "having reached the top of the mountain, on his knees at the foot of the big Cross he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him"
In a commentary laying out the Vatican's interpretation of the secret, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope's guardian of orthodoxy, wrote: "No great mystery is revealed; nor is the future unveiled."
He said a "careful reading of the text" will "probably prove disappointing or surprising after all the speculation it has stirred."
However, Ratzinger's commentary did contest suggestions by the Turk who shot the pope, Mehmet Ali Agca, that he was merely an instrument of God's plan.
The pope, shortly after he was shot, said that he believes the hand of the Virgin Mary deflected the attacker's bullet, allowing him to survive.
"John Paul II read for the first time the text of the third secret of Fatima after the attack," a top aide to Ratzinger, Monsignor Tarcisio Bertone, told journalists during a news conference to present the document.
However, during the pope's visit to Fatima last month, his spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said that John Paul had read the secret within days of his election to the papacy in 1978. There was no immediate explanation of this apparent contradiction.
Citing one of the children's many visions, which were part of the secrets, Ratzinger said the terrifying vision of an angel with a flaming sword "represents the threat of judgment which looms over the world."
"Today the prospect that the world might be reduced to ashes by a sea of fire no longer seems pure fantasy: man himself, with his inventions, has forged the flaming sword," the cardinal wrote in apparent reference to nuclear weapons.
But, Ratzinger continued, "the importance of human freedom is underlined: the future is not in fact unchangeably set, and the image which the children saw is in no way a film preview of a future in which nothing can be changed."
The first two secrets are said to have foretold the end of World War I and the start of World War II, and the rise and fall of Soviet communism.
Asked by a journalist if the secrets of Fatima pertained only to the past and not to any future dangers, Ratzinger replied: "I think so," adding "here we're dealing with a very specific history."
Ratzinger described as "mistaken" some popular interpretations that the visions could be foretelling a third world war.
The overall approach that the Vatican seemed to be taking toward the significance of the visions was to use them as encouragement toward "penance and conversion," in the document's words.
Sodano, speaking last month at Fatima, said the "interpretations" of the children were of "a bishop clothed in white" who, while making his way amid the corpses of martyrs, "falls to the ground, apparently dead, under a burst of gunfire."
The 1981 assassination attempt against John Paul happened May 13, the same day that the young shepherds in 1917 first reported visions of Mary.
Ratzinger has said Catholics are free to believe or not believe the secrets, since such apparitions do not constitute Catholic doctrine.
"It is a help which is offered, but which one is not obliged to use," Ratzinger wrote in Monday's document.
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