Let me begin with a confession: I honestly don’t know what to make of the “miracle of the sun” that occurred in Fatima, Portugal, on October 13, 1917, and that was witnessed by a crowd of 70,000 people (although a few people in the crowd saw nothing) and also by people who were more than 10 kilometers away from Fatima at the time, as well as by sailors on a British ship off the coast of Portugal. On the other hand, no astronomical observatory recorded anything unusual at the time.
Rather than endorsing a particular point of view, I have decided to lay the facts before my readers, and let them draw their own conclusions.
Here are some good links, to get you started.
Neutral accounts of the visions and the “solar miracle” at Fatima:
Our Lady of Fatima (Wikipedia article: describes the visions leading up to the solar miracle). Generally balanced.
Miracle of the Sun (Wikipedia article). Discusses critical explanations of the miracle, and points out that people both in Fatima and the nearby town of Alburitel were expecting some kind of solar phenomenon to occur on October 13, 1917: some had even brought along special viewing glasses. Also, the solar miracle on October 13 was preceded by some bizarre celestial phenomena witnessed by bystanders at the preceding vision on September 13, including “a dimming of the sun to the point where the stars could be seen, and a rain resembling iridescent petals or snowflakes that disappeared before touching the ground.” In short: the “solar miracle” of October 13, 1917 didn’t come entirely as a bolt from the blue.
The Fatima Prophecies by Stephen Wagner, Paranormal Phenomena Expert. Updated April 10, 2016.
Catholic, pro-miracle accounts:
Meet the Witnesses of the Miracle of the Sun by John Haffert. Spring Grove, Pennsylvania: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, 1961. John M. Haffert is a co-founder of the Blue Army of Fatima. He interviewed dozens of witnesses of the solar miracle at Fatima, and carefully records their testimonies in his book.
The True Story of Fatima by Fr. John de Marchi. St. Paul, Minnesota: Catechetical Guild Educational Society, 1956. Fr. de Marchi is an acknowledged expert on Fatima, whose account is based on the testimony of the seers, members of their families, and other acquaintances.
The Apparitions at Fatima. A short account of the visions and the solar miracle.
Catholic attempts to rebut skeptical debunkings of the solar miracle at Fatima:
Debunking the Sun Miracle Skeptics by Mark Mallett, a Canadian Catholic evangelist and former TV reporter. The author’s tone is irenic, and he evaluates the evidence fairly. His blog is well worth having a look at.
Ten Greatest (And Hilarious) Scientific Explanations for Miracle at Fatima by Matthew Archbold. National Catholic Register. Blog article. March 27, 2011. Rather polemical and sarcastic in tone.
Why the solar miracle couldn’t have been a hallucination:
Richard Dawkins And The Miracle Of Sun by Donal Anthony Foley. The Wanderer, Saturday, November 5, 2016. Makes the telling point that it was seen by sailors on a passing ship, who knew nothing about the visions.
A Catholic account by a scientist-priest who thinks that the “miracle” was a natural meteorological phenomenon, but that the coincidence between the timing of this natural event and the vision can only have a supernatural explanation:
Miracle of the Sun and an Air Lens (Theory of Father Jaki) by Dr. Taylor Marshall. Blog article. “Fr Jaki suggests that an ‘air lens’ of ice crystals formed above the Cova in Portugual. This lens would explain how the sun ‘danced’ at Fatima, but not over the whole earth. Thus, it was a local phenomenon that was seen at the Cova, and by others who were not present with the three children of Fatima within a 40 mile radius.” An air lens would also explain how the muddy and wet ground at the site of the apparitions suddenly dried up, after the miracle.
God and the Sun at Fatima by Fr. Stanley Jaki. Real View Books, 1999. Reviewed by Martin Kottmeyer. See also the attached footnote by Joaquim Fernandes, Center for Transdisciplinary Study on Consciousness, University Fernando Pessoa, Porto, Portugal, who argues that on the contrary, it was a UFO.
A Catholic, “anti-miracle” account by a scientist who thinks it was an optical illusion:
Apparitions and Miracles of the Sun by Professor Auguste Meessen, Institute of Physics, Catholic Univeristy of Louvain, Belgium. Paper given at the International Forum in Porto, “Science, Religion and Conscience,” October 23-25, 2003. Excerpt:
“So-called “miracles of the sun” were observed, for instance, in Tilly-sur-Seuilles (France, 1901), Fatima (Portugal, 1917), Onkerzeele (Belgium, 1933), Bonate (Italy, 1944), Espis (France, 1946), Acquaviva Platani (Italy, 1950), Heroldsbach (Germany, 1949), Fehrbach (Germany, 1950), Kerezinen (France, 1953), San Damiano (Italy, 1965), Tre Fontane (Italy, 1982) and Kibeho (Rwanda, 1983). They have been described by many witnesses and from their reports we can extract the following characteristic features, appearing successively.
“· A grey disc seems to be placed between the sun and the observer, but a brilliant rim of the solar disc is still apparent…
· Beautiful colours appear after a few minutes on the whole surface of the solar disc, at its rim and in the surrounding sky. These colours are different, however, and they change in the course of time…
· The sun begins to ‘dance’. First, the solar disk rotates about its centre at a uniform and rather high velocity (about 1 turn/s). Then the rotation stops and starts again, but now it is opposite to the initial one. Suddenly, the solar disk seems to detach itself from the sky. It comes rapidly closer, with increasing size and brilliancy. This causes great panic, since people think that the end of the world has come, but the sun retreats. It moves backwards until it has again its initial appearance…
· Finally, after 10 or 15 minutes, the sun is ‘normal’ again: its luminosity is too strong to continue gazing at it. But after about another quarter of an hour, the prodigy can be repeated in the same way…
“…It is shown that the hypothesis of an extraterrestrial intervention is not sufficient to explain all observed facts, while this is possible in terms of natural, but very peculiar physiological processes. The proof results from personal experiments and reasoning, based on relevant scientific literature.
“…Dr. J.B. Walz, a university professor of theology, collected over 70 eye-witness reports of the ‘miracle of the sun’ that occurred in Heroldsbach [an ecclesiastically condemned apparition – VJT] on December 8, 1949. These documents disclose some individual differences in perception, including the fact that one person saw the sun approaching and receding three times, while most witnesses saw this only two times! The ‘coloured spheres’ that were usually perceived after the breathtaking ‘dance of the sun’ are simply after-images, but they were not recognized as such, since the context of these observations suggested a prodigious interpretation.
“…The general conclusion is that apparitions and miracles of the sun cannot be taken at face value. There are natural mechanisms that can explain them, but they are so unusual that we were not aware of them. Miracles of the sun result from neurophysiological processes in our eyes and visual cortex, while apparitions involve more complex processes in our mind’s brain. The seers are honest, but unconsciously, they put themselves in an altered state of consciousness. This is possible, since our brain allows for ‘dissociation’ and for ‘switching’ from one type of behaviour to another.”
Meessen’s own explanation of the miracle as an optical illusion is based on experiments which he performed on himself, while looking at the sun under carefully controlled conditions (so as not to damage his eyes). However, I should point out that Meessen’s exposure to the sun’s optical effects was fairly short in duration (30 seconds), whereas the solar miracle at Fatima lasted far longer (over 10 minutes) and didn’t damage any of the spectators’ eyes.
Catholic blogger Mark Mallett also points out: “Professor Meesen’s logic further falls apart by stating that the dancing effects of the sun were merely the result of retinal after-images. If that were the case, then the miracle of the sun witnessed at Fatima should be easily duplicated in your own backyard.”
However, Meessen does a good job of debunking the “UFO hypothesis”: he points out that had it been a UFO covering the sun, it could not have been seen 40 kilometers away. Also, at least some witnesses would have reported seeing a “partial eclipse,” but none ever did.
A paranormal explanation of the solar miracle at Fatima:
The First Alien Contact And UFO Sighting Of The 20th Century by Tob Williams. Blog article. April 10, 2011. Updated June 18, 2016.
The Fatima UFO hypothesis by Lon Strickler. February 11, 2012.
“Live Science” debunking of the solar miracle:
The Lady of Fátima & the Miracle of the Sun by Benjamin Radford. May 2, 2013. Ascribes the miracle to “an optical illusion caused by thousands of people looking up at the sky, hoping, expecting, and even praying for some sign from God,” which, “if you do it long enough, can give the illusion of the sun moving as the eye muscles tire.” Also suggests that mass hysteria and pareidolia can explain some features of the visions.
Skeptic Benjamin Radford on the Fátima Miracle by Dr. Stacy Trasancos. A response to Radford’s debunking. Points out that plenty of dispassionate observers at Fatima also reported seeing the sun move. Promotes Fr. Stanley L. Jaki’s carefully researched book on Fatima. Acknowledges that there may be a scientific explanation for what happened with the sun that day, but argues that this doesn’t explain the timing of the event, and why it coincided with the visions.
Virulently anti-Fatima accounts:
Solar Miracle of Fatima and
Fraud at Fatima. The author places too much reliance on discredited sources, such as Celestial Secrets: The Hidden History of the Fatima Incident by Portuguese UFOlogist Joachim Fernandes (critically reviewed here by Edmund Grant). The author also tries to argue, unconvincingly, that only half the people at Fatima actually witnessed the miracle, whereas in fact there were only a few people who saw nothing. See Jaki, Stanley L. (1999). God and the Sun at Fátima, Real View Books, pp. 170–171, 232, 272. The author is right in pointing out, however, that Lucia’s own published account of her visions at Fatima is highly retrospective (being written over 20 years after the event) and contains a lot of added material. Also, the seers didn’t all see the same thing: Lucia, for instance, saw Our Lady’s lips move while she was speaking, while Francisco (who saw Our Lady but never heard her speak), didn’t see Our Lady’s lips moving – a point acknowledged by Fr. de Marchi (see above). Finally, some of the prophecies associated with Fatima turned out to be false.
My own take:
Given the evidence that the solar miracle was witnessed by passing sailors and also seen at several different locations within a 40-kilometer radius of Fatima, I cannot simply dismiss it as a hallucination. Professor Meessen’s arguments (discussed above) appear to rule out the possibility that it was a UFO. The theory that it was an optical illusion founders on the fact that nobody reported any damage to their eyes, subsequent to the miracle. The hypothesis that it was a natural, local meteorological phenomenon sounds promising, but the fortuitous timing of the “miracle” (which coincided with the seers’ visions) would still point to supernatural intervention of some sort. Finally, if it was really a miracle, then one has to ask: what, exactly, was the miracle? After all, no law of Nature was broken: no-one seriously suggests that the Sun actually hurtled towards the Earth, as witnesses reported. The notion of God messing with people’s senses sounds pretty strange, too: why would He do that? On the other hand, the testimony of 70,000 witnesses is very impressive, and the event clearly meant something … but what? Beats me.
Over to you.