One hundred years ago, in the tiny remote Portuguese hill town of Fatima, the Mother of God appeared on the 13th day of the month from May to October 1917, to three young shepherd children, delivering an urgent heavenly message of penance, prayer and sacrifice necessary for the conversion of sinners and peace on earth.
Commemorating the centennial anniversary of the Blessed Mother’s final Fatima apparition and the Miracle of the Sun, “so that all may believe,” Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl led about 1,000 archdiocesan faithful in an evening candlelight rosary, Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Benediction at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Oct. 13.
“The message of Fatima, which continues to ring so clear today, invites us to open our hearts like Mary did, open our hearts to the Lord and trust in His triumphant love and trust in the promise of Jesus that ‘In the world, you will have tribulation, but take heart – I have overcome the world,’” said the cardinal in his reflection. “...In that love for us, (Mary) draws near to us and from her heavenly home, she receives the grace of her Son to come among us, to speak to us, to teach us and to lead us to her Son.”
Like all those gathered at the basilica and millions of Catholics worldwide, the 100th anniversary of the Blessed Mother’s apparitions at Fatima is especially meaningful for my family and me. Through my late father, Edward Leonard, Our Lady of Fatima and her message are inextricably interwoven into the fabric of my entire life.
Nearly 100 years ago, my dad was born on July 24, 1919 in Bradford, Pennsylvania, a small town located in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. After moving to Washington, D.C., as a young man, he joined the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima (now called the World Apostolate of Fatima, USA) and spent almost his entire adult life as a faithful “Apostle of Fatima,” sharing with countless people the Blessed Mother’s message first entrusted to little Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta.
In 1952, Warner Bros. Pictures released a full-length, color feature film, The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, which depicts the captivating story of the three shepherd children, the Marian apparitions and the terrible trials they faced. It starred Gilbert Roland, who played the (fictional) agnostic friend of the children whose faith is restored after the Miracle of the Sun. The musical score by Max Steiner received an Academy Award nomination.
My dad soon realized the film would be an ideal way to introduce people to the message of Fatima. It was not only a true story, but also one that Hollywood, in its brief heyday of making movies with a positive Catholic theme, respectfully and beautifully told. A former amateur actor, Dad thought what better way to promote Fatima than to combine a powerful heavenly message and an effective modern medium.
He was not a dad who in his free time watched football or baseball or played golf on the weekends. Rather, he spent his Saturdays or Sundays after Mass packing up our old family station wagon with gigantic 35mm movie reels, an almost theater-size film projector, a movie screen, as well as hundreds of Fatima brochures, rosaries and Brown Scapulars, usually with my siblings and me in tow, before setting out for archdiocesan parishes far and wide to screen The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima film.
People of all ages and backgrounds filled parish halls, auditoriums and gymnasiums to see the movie and listen intently as my dad, a gifted speaker, spoke so eloquently on what the Fatima message meant in one’s daily life, for families and how to fulfill Our Lady’s requests – to pray the Rosary daily; to make the Daily Offering and to practice five First Saturdays devotion – in order to bring about the conversion of sinners, the consecration of Russia and establish world peace.
His career as a salesman also permitted him time on weekdays when he would bring the movie to area parish schools. To this day, I’ll occasionally meet someone who also grew up in the archdiocese and they will tell me one of their most vivid Catholic parochial school memories from the 1970s was the annual tradition of my dad’s presentation of The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima movie at their school. As a youngster, seeing a film in which the sun danced toward earth and turned brilliant colors is hard to ever forget.
Years later, with the advent of VCRs, movie screening requests dwindled to a halt. My dad then took up service as caretaker of the Blue Army’s archdiocesan Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Our Lady of Fatima, a replica of the International Pilgrim Virgin Statue, sculpted in 1947 and based on Fatima visionary Sister Lucia’s descriptions of Our Lady. For special devotions or parish events, my dad would dutifully transport the Blessed Mother’s statue to parishes, schools or to families’ homes throughout the archdiocese.
In early 2010, my 90-year-old dad’s health steadily declined and he entered the hospital for the last time. As he clutched his beloved, well-worn rosary in his hands and wearing his threadbare Brown Scapular, our family gathered by his bedside and said many rosaries and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. An historic blizzard in the nation’s capital heartbreakingly prevented us from being with Dad in his final moments on earth, but I like to imagine he wasn’t really alone. I trust that Our Lady, in gratitude and great love, came to him on Feb. 6, a First Saturday, fulfilling her promise of special graces and her intercession at the hour of death for those faithful advocates of the rosary.
Once in awhile, Turner Classic Movies will air The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. I always stop to watch and think fondly of my dad. But every day, I thank God for the gift of my father’s love of his Catholic faith that inspired him to draw not only his family, but everyone he met to the important message of our Blessed Mother at Fatima and ultimately to her Son, Jesus Christ.
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