VATICAN CITY — One of Roman Catholicism's most tantalizing secrets came to an anticlimactic end Monday as the Vatican unveiled a 62-line handwritten account by Lucia de Jesus dos Santos of what she saw as a 10-year-old shepherd in a pasture near Fatima, Portugal, on July 13, 1917.
The text describes a radiant Virgin Mary, a flaming sword and a "Bishop dressed in White," presumed to be a pope, who leads a sad procession of priests and nuns up a mountain through a half-ruined city strewn with corpses. One by one, the bishop and his followers are slain by soldiers with bullets and arrows as angels near a cross collect and sprinkle the martyrs' blood on their heaven-bound souls.
Successive popes had kept Lucia's tale locked in a safe, feeding fevered speculation that this "third secret of Fatima" predicted the end of the world. The secret spawned a cult that held the mother of Jesus as both savior and prophet of doom--a view enhanced by the Vatican's surprise announcement last month that Mary's apparition at Fatima had foretold the 1981 wounding of Pope John Paul II by a would-be assassin in St. Peter's Square.
Releasing the full text of Lucia's prophecy at the pope's instruction, the Vatican's top theologian Monday gently debunked the Fatima cult and said Catholics were not required to believe it.
In a 12-page commentary, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said that Lucia, now a 93-year-old cloistered Carmelite nun, might have conjured her vision from devotional books.
Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, did not endorse a papal spokesman's claim that the felled "Bishop dressed in White" was John Paul or the pope's long-stated belief that Mary had deflected the bullets meant to kill him. The theologian dismissed a claim by Mehmet Ali Agca, the imprisoned Turk who fired the bullets and later embraced the Fatima cult, that he was an instrument of divine will.
Ratzinger called Lucia's text an interpretation of Christian suffering in the 20th century, neither tied to specific events nor foreordained. He said it underlined church teaching that "there is no immutable destiny . . . in the end, prayer is more powerful than bullets, and faith more powerful than armies."
"Those who expected exciting apocalyptic revelations about the end of the world or the future course of history are bound to be disappointed," the German cardinal wrote. "Fatima does not satisfy our curiosity in this way, just as Christian faith cannot be reduced to an object of mere curiosity."
Cousins Said They Saw Virgin Six Times
The story of Fatima has fascinated Catholics ever since Lucia and her two cousins, who died as children, claimed to have seen the Virgin make three prophecies during six monthly appearances in 1917.
And since the early 1940s, when Sister Lucia wrote down the prophecies and revealed two of them, the content of "the third secret" has inspired hundreds of speculative books and Web sites while turning Fatima into one of Catholicism's most visited shrines.
The other reported 1917 prophecies were that World War I would end, only to be followed by a new, more terrible conflict if humankind did not stop offending God, and that Russia would be "reconverted" after spreading "errors" in the world.
The partial revelation of the third prophecy, during a papal visit to Fatima on May 13, did not satisfy devotees, who jammed the Vatican's Web site most of Monday after the full text was posted.
At a Vatican news conference, Ratzinger explained that popes had delayed revealing the text because of the fuzziness of the message, which he said could be deciphered "only in the light of history." Asked whether the Fatima secrets pertain only to the past, he replied, "I think so."
That assertion drew protests from Fatima devotees, who insist that the images of suffering described by Lucia have not been played out.
"We still have a bigger punishment in store for us if we don't turn away from sin," said Christopher Ferrara, spokesman for the Fatima Center in Fort Erie, Canada.
Dispute Arises Over Cardinal's Phrase
Ferrara also disputed Ratzinger's ruling that the Fatima prophecies are "private revelations" and, unlike scriptural revelations, not part of Catholic dogma.
"Here's the pope saying that the message of Fatima is fulfillment of a divine plan, and here's his right-hand man in charge of doctrine saying you don't have to believe it," he said.
Some Catholic teachers read Ratzinger's commentary as an effort to purge Fatima of its more sensational elements.
"Fatima had been pretty much captured by people who were vehement anti-Communists, somewhat paranoid and doomsday fanatics," said Father Thomas Reese, a theologian who edits the Jesuit magazine America.
The cardinal, he added, is interpreting Lucia's vision as scholars now interpret apocalyptic literature in the Bible. "Catholics don't read the Apocalypse today and use it to predict the end of the world," Reese said. "We see it as a call to faith. "