One of the most intriguing things about the Fatima apparitions of 1917 is the mysterious Third Secret. And one of the most trust-worthy guides to understanding it correctly is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI).

But first, for those who don’t know: On July 13, 1917 around noon, the Blessed Virgin Mary entrusted three secrets to three children in Fatima, Portugal. Two of the children died within just a few years, leaving only Sr. Lucia left to talk about it.

The first two secrets were published in 1941: one was a vision of hell, and the other talked about promoting certain Marian devotions.

But the third one remained a secret (with a controversial and wacky history) until the Vatican finally published it in 2000.

And it’s certainly strange. There’s an angel with a flaming sword calling for penance, Mary blocking the angel, a city in ruins filled with dead bodies, a “Bishop in White” and others being shot at by soldiers, and angels gathering the blood of the martyrs. You can read the full text here.

So what does it all mean?

Cardinal Ratzinger, who was the Cardinal-Prefect of the Congregation of Doctrine of Faith when the Third Secret was published, gave this very cogent interpretation.

Here are five main take-aways from what he wrote:

1) Penance!

The “key word” of the Third Secret, he says, is the angel’s call for “Penance, Penance, Penance!” Repentance, of course, is central to the Christian Gospel, and Ratzinger says Sr. Lucia herself told him that she thought this was ultimately the purpose of her visions.

2) The threat of judgement

He points out that some of the imagery is reminiscent of the book of Revelation and says the angel with the sword likely represents the “threat of judgement which looms over the world.” He then adds this intriguing insight: “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.”

3) The future is not inevitable

In showing Mary stand between the angel and the world, and in calling for penance, the vision emphasizes human freedom.

“The future,” he writes, “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. Indeed, the whole point of the vision is to bring freedom onto the scene and to steer freedom in a positive direction. The purpose of the vision is not to show a film of an irrevocably fixed future. Its meaning is exactly the opposite: it is meant to mobilize the forces of change in the right direction.

So Ratzinger doesn’t think Catholic should look to the secrets as predictions, but instead as warnings.

4) The persecution of the 20th century

He interprets the ruined city as human history in general. And he sees in the violence against the “Bishop in White” not a specific prediction of the assassination attempt on John Paul II, but rather sees it as a representation of the persecution and suffering the Church experienced in the 20th century.

5) Sorry, no apocalyptic revelations

“Insofar as individual events are described,” Ratzinger concludes, “they belong to the past.

Those who expected exciting apocalyptic revelations about the end of the world or the future course of history are bound to be disappointed. […]

“What remains was already evident when we began our reflections on the text of the ‘secret’: the exhortation to prayer as the path of ‘salvation for souls’ and, likewise, the summons to penance and conversion.

In other words, the message of Fatima is not that people should be concerned with predictions, but that they should draw closer to God.

6) What it means that “Mary’s Immaculate Heart will triumph”

“The Heart open to God…” Ratzinger explains, “is stronger than guns and weapons of every kind. The fiat of Mary, the word of her heart, has changed the history of the world, because it brought the Savior into the world. […] But since God himself took a human heart and has thus steered human freedom towards what is good, the freedom to choose evil no longer has the last word.

“From that time forth, the word that prevails is this: ‘In the world you will have tribulation, but take heart; I have overcome the world’ (Jn 16:33). The message of Fatima invites us to trust in this promise.”

You can read the full text of his interpretation here (at the bottom).

What do you make of his interpretation? Let us know in the comments!

[See also: The 5 Prayers Revealed at Fatima that Every Catholic Should Know]

[See also: The Forgotten Message of the Fatima Angel that Came Before Mary]

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