The Silence of John XXIII and the Third Part of the Secret of Fátima

Silence can be deafening and profound is the sound it makes. When Pope John XXIII read the third part of the secret in August, 1959, he “preferred silence” on the text.[i] It seems strange, almost cruel, that something so anticipated by the Catholic world would receive such treatment.[ii] We are, however, in a better position to understand John’s silence so let us listen to its echoes.

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Background Information

After forty years of speculation, the Holy See released the third part of the secret in the booklet The Message of Fatima in June, 2000.[iii] The text was revealed to be a description of a vision that Lúcia, Francisco and Jacinta saw on July 13, 1917. However, there was no explanation from Sr. Lúcia of the imagery in the text of the vision and this fact posed a major stumbling block to understanding the text. It seems as though the Holy See was aware of this as the booklet demonstrates a desire to provide an interpretation of the imagery using supporting documentation.[iv]

A Shocking Revelation

Our genuine understanding of Fátima is continually increasing and in 2013, a significant development occurred. The Carmelite convent of St. Teresa in Coimbra, Portugal published a biography on Sr. Lúcia entitled A Pathway Under the Gaze of Mary.[v] This is the convent where Sr. Lúcia spent the last 56 years of her life. The Carmelites’ biography provides a previously unseen account from Sr. Lúcia about an apparition of Our Lady on January 3, 1944. During the course of this apparition, Our Lady made a distinction on the third part of the secret. She told Sr. Lúcia, “write what they command you, but not what is given to you to understand of its meaning.”[vi]

Our Lady’s command explains why the text published in the year 2000 was descriptive and not explanatory. It also provides a unique interpretation for the silence of Pope John XXIII. His silence unwittingly invited much speculation, but it might actually be an important clue. Could it be that his silence was indicative of his ignorance on the text’s meaning?

Rethinking Some Theories

A predominant hypothesis arose on the third part of the secret known as the “fourth secret of Fátima.” This hypothesis holds that there is a second text containing explanatory words of Our Lady. This explanation, according to the hypothesis, condemns the Second Vatican Council, or, at least, questions it. This hypothesis received much attention in 2006/2007 after statements were attributed to Pope John’s personal secretary, Msgr. Loris Capovilla, who, allegedly, affirmed the hypothesis.[vii]

Interestingly, the same Capovilla provides an important clue about John’s silence.

Over many years, Capovilla gave many testimonies about the third part of the secret. In them, he never once stated that John actually understood the meaning of the vision.[viii] Capovilla spoke about the facts of what took place in August, 1959, but said very little about John’s actual mind regarding the contents. This fact is not shocking as the only consistent detail that Capovilla revealed on this score was that Pope John made no judgment on the text and left it for others to decide. If all that John XXIII had on hand was the description but not its explanation, then it made perfect sense for him not to publish it. Why? Cardinal Ratzinger gives us the answer.

While presenting the text of the third part in June, 2000, Ratzinger spoke about the nature of the text being “symbolic” and how it “allows a margin for interpretation.”[ix] He also indicated that there was an inability to understand the text at the time of John XXIII due to a lack of perspective.[x] He pointed out that “it made no sense to offer to humanity an undecipherable image that would have created only speculations…. It was necessary to really wait for the moment in which the reality behind this vision disclosed itself.”[xi] He also acknowledged that the Holy See had “paid a price” for the decades-long speculations.[xii]

In other words, historical events had not yet unfolded to allow for a more complete understanding of the text. It took forty years for those events to manifest themselves before the official interpretation of the Holy See was rendered and made public.[xiii] Now, if there was an explanatory text from Sr. Lúcia available to all the Popes since John XXIII, what need would there be to wait for this historical perspective? There isn’t, but, unfortunately, the fourth secret hypothesis has persisted deeply in many quarters.

For the past several years, that hypothesis has implied the existence of a massive cover-up on the part of the Holy See. As part of that implication, a supporting hypothesis arose that various prelates of the Church were engaging in a kind of mental reservation. According to this argument, a distinction was being made on the texts by Vatican officials, claiming that two texts existed, an “A” text from Sr. Lúcia deemed to be authentic (the description) but not her “other” “B” text (the explanation) because it allegedly condemns Vatican II, something that would have been, of course, unacceptable to John XXIII.

The basis for this hypothesis appears to be a reluctance to accuse directly the Holy See of lying. A direct accusation, however, might have been more realistic. The mental reservation hypothesis presumes a serious and protracted exercise on the part of several prelates of the Church going back to 1959. Any such effort would be a monumental order to maintain. In reality, it would create more problems than what is realistically possible.[xiv]

Both the fourth secret and mental reservation hypotheses, however, are now untenable after a letter that Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote to the French journalist Yves Chiron on March 15, 2016.[xv] In it, Benedict unequivocally and explicitly denied that there was a “fourth secret,” saying that all had been published. This being the case, presuming Benedict’s veracity, no other conclusion is possible.

Despite the fact that the proponents of the fourth secret hypothesis know of this letter, by all indications they have not challenged it. Instead, they have focused upon a later communique from the Holy See dated May 21, 2016 that attributes a denial of a second text to Benedict XVI.[xvi] By a paradoxical reversal of circumstances then, who has the appearance of hiding something, the Holy See or fourth secret advocates?


In the end, the silence of Pope John XXIII toward the third part of the secret might have been more revealing than was originally thought. That silence could well indicate not that he was going to push through an Ecumenical Council against a warning from Our Lady contained in an explanatory text that Pope John allegedly had on hand. Rather, his silence can be seen as an expression of his ignorance of the text’s meaning which he would not have had if a second, explanatory text existed.

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[i] José Geraldes Freire, O segredo de Fátima: A terceira parte é sobre Portugal? 2ed. (Fátima, Portugal: Santuário de Fátima, 1978), 190. We know today from the testimony of Msgr. Loris Capovilla that another reason why Pope John XXIII did not publish the text was because there was no note that the text had to be published in 1960. Sr. Lúcia’s notes on the outside of the envelopes stated that the envelopes “can only be opened in 1960.” They do not say “can only be published in 1960.” No one has demonstrated that the Holy See had any knowledge to the contrary.

[ii] A noted opinion on the non-disclosure of the text was that it must have been bad. Was there a prophecy about some world event(s), or within the Church? No one knew the answer to this question except Sr. Lúcia and anyone to whom Pope John XXIII revealed the text.

[iii] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, The Message of Fatima. (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000). Hereafter referred to as The Message of Fatima followed by page number.

[iv] Cf. The Message of Fatima, 8-9, 27-31, 39.

[v] Carmelo de Santa Teresa – Coimbra, Um caminho sob o olhar de Maria: Biografia da Irmã Lúcia de Jesus e do Coração Imaculado, O.C.D. (Coimbra, Portugal: Edições Carmelo, 2013).

[vi] Ibid., 266.

[vii] Allegedly, Capovilla was asked whether or not there were two separate envelopes containing two different texts. His response was reported as “Exactly so!” Capovilla never substantiated this claim. In fact, he later denied the existence of the “fourth secret” (second text) hypothesis by name and that the text read by John XXIII was the one published by the Holy See in June, 2000. Despite some semantic objections to explain away Capovilla’s statements, the fact remains that he denied by name the fourth secret hypothesis. Also, according to the Italian publication Il Giornale, a private audio recording exists of Capovilla mentioning the existence of an “attachment.” This recording, however, appears never to have been given to the public and there is no context surrounding the quotation. We do not even know if the recording was subjected to critical examination by competent scholars.

[viii] It is hard to believe that the image of a “bishop dressed in white” being killed was certainly not lost on Pope John. Perhaps this was a contributing reason to the Holy Father’s desire not to publish the text.

[ix] Kevin J. Symonds, On the Third Part of the Secret of Fátima. (St. Louis, Missouri: En Route Books and Media, 2017), 372.

[x] Ibid., 378-379.

[xi] Ibid., 381.

[xii] Ibid., 387.

[xiii] The Message of Fatima, 3; 30-31; 41-43. According to that interpretation, the events described within the text are a condensed series of events pertaining to the twentieth century that reaches its high point in the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981. This official interpretation was not made binding upon the Church and has received a fair share of criticism. Among those criticisms was the appearance of some ambiguities in the interpretation. For example, why did The Message of Fatima booklet rely upon Sr. Lúcia’s third Memoir and not the more complete fourth Memoir? The Holy See has never addressed this question and continues to receive criticism for it. Moreover, whether or not the events predicted pertained to the twentieth century is a hotly contested point.

[xiv] Any critical reading of Capovilla’s numerous testimonies regarding some type of mental reservation simply does not fit the testimonies.

[xv] Yves Chiron, Fatima: vérités et légendes. (Paris, France : Groupe Elidia Éditions Artège, 2017), 236.

[xvi] The statement attributed to Benedict is questioned because it is thought to have been pulled from a larger context that the public was not given.