Fátima, Portugal – 13 October 1917
Cesar Vila fell to his knees and crossed himself, praying to the Blessed Virgin to spare him and his family. The sun appeared to wobble and dance as it zig-zagged through the sky, then careened toward the Earth like a spinning disc, casting multicolored lights across the fields near the Cova da Iria quarter of Fátima before receding to its usual place in the heavens.
Cesar’s clothing, drenched from the torrential rain that saturated Fátima just moments before, had become instantaneously dry by the heat of the sun. The freshly muddied ground brought by the rain also had become suddenly and completely dry. If he hadn't witnessed it himself even he wouldn't have believed it.
But he was not alone. One hundred thousand people had assembled for the prophesied spectacle, and all of them reported the same effects of Milagre do Sol, the Miracle of the Sun.
The entire event lasted ten minutes and was reported on by newspapers around the world. The once-impoverished village of Fátima had since become a veritable cottage industry of the faithful, welcoming a pilgrimage of millions of visitors each year.
* * *
Several months before the Miracle of the Sun, in the spring of 1917, three Portuguese shepherd children—eleven-year-old Lúcia Santos and her young cousins, Francisco Marto, eight, and his sister Jacinta, seven—had reported apparitions of an angel, followed shortly after by visions of a luminous lady appearing to them, whom they took to be the Virgin Mary. The Lady, as the children called her, told them that they must pray, do penance, and say the rosary every day in order to save sinners and bring peace to the world.
In October of the following year, the Blessed Mother had appeared to Jacinta, telling her she and her brother would be taken to heaven soon. They died a few months later, victims of the great Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. Lúcia, however, would experience several more visions of the Lady for years.
But the Blessed Virgin also gave the shepherds three prophetic secrets, each to be revealed at various times in the future.
Curiously, Lúcia did not write about her and her cousins’ apparitions until 1941, when she wrote her memoirs at the urging of the Bishop of Leiria. Only then did she reveal the three secrets given her by the Lady.
The First Secret proved to be a horrific vision of Hell, filled with terrifying black and transparent animalistic demons plunging through great clouds of smoke caused by a raging conflagration of fire, amid shrieks of pain and despair.
The Second Secret was oddly prescient, stating that World War I would end and another great war would erupt during the reign of Pope Pius XI. In 1917, when the Lady gave the children this prophecy, Benedict XV was pope. Curiously, Pius XI would not pick his regnal name—something each pope does on their election—for another five years, when he would be chosen in 1922. So Our Lady of Fátima proved doubly correct with the start of World War II in 1939 after Hitler’s long draw-up to the war during Pius XI’s final months of life.
The Third Secret, however, today remains a sacred mystery, tucked away in that most secure of papal vaults, the pope’s personal hidden safe called the Petri Crypta.
* * *
As told to her by the Lady, Lúcia declared that the Third Secret could be revealed to the public after 1960. In that year, Pope John XXIII was reported to have opened the secret—which was handwritten by Lúcia on a single page of paper—and he fainted upon reading it. What he read had terrified him, since, according to eyewitnesses, it specifically stated that the pope who publicly released the Third Secret would be the last pope of all, and that he would betray his flock, turning them over to a terrible slaughter devised by Lucifer himself. In apparent defiance of Our Lady of Fátima’s instructions, Pope John declined to reveal the secret, stating, "This prophecy does not relate to my time."
Consequently, the Church itself had declared that the Third Secret would most probably remain under absolute seal forever, as it was deemed that mankind was simply not ready for it. It has been speculated, and borne out by the facts, that subsequent popes also have read the prophecy and chose not to make it public.
But in 2000, eighty-three years after the first apparition of the Lady to the three children in Portugal, Pope John Paul II ostensibly revealed the secret as being about the modern persecution of Christians that culminated in the failed assassination attempt on his own life on May 13, 1981. But this comparatively banal revelation was scoffed at by many as a contrived attempt to put the matter of the unrevealed prophecy to rest, once and for all.
Before she died in 2005, Sister Lúcia dos Santos, the shepherd girl who became a Carmelite nun, was asked about the Third Secret. She only said that it was in the Gospels and in the Apocalypse—and in the Book of Revelation 8:13, which states, “And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, Woe, Woe, to the inhabiters of the earth…!”
Father Jonah Barlow—renowned and respected Jesuit scholar, biblical archaeologist, author, exorcist and longtime thorn in the side of the Vatican—was nearing completion of his most provocative book yet: a thorough examination of the miracle orchestrated by Our Lady of Fátima in 1917, including disclosure of the presumed Third Secret of Fátima—one that had a long and strange history to it.
Papa Luciani, as Father Barlow endearingly called his friend, had expressly forbidden him from revealing the secret while the pope was still alive. Sadly, though, John Paul I sat on St. Peter’s throne for just thirty-three days before meeting his Maker—but his death was not without controversy. Even today many maintain Luciani was murdered before he could enact punishing regulations on the Vatican Bank during its most scandalous affair with Banco Ambrosiano.
Working from his modest two-story brownstone on Chicago’s North Side near Loyola University, Father Barlow stood for relief from the long hours sitting at his typewriter. He was anxious to put the final touches on his manuscript, a project many years in the making, before turning it over to his editor, for they both knew this book would surely be a controversial, albeit bestselling, one. The recent addition of resources from a trusted Vatican insider had given him substantial new insights and enabled him to complete the project. But more importantly for Barlow, the book would finally break the Vatican’s silence on the mystery of the Third Secret of Fátima, a revelation each pope in turn had brazenly refused to divulge for his own self-serving preservation.
As he stood at the window stretching, looking out over the Chicago River while waiting for a friend to drop by for a visit, the room took on a deep, sudden chill, and his entire body broke out in goose flesh. Jonah Barlow had had experience with this kind of abrupt change in atmosphere before, and though he was undaunted by the presence of supernatural forces—the worst of which he had faced during his most unsettling exorcisms—he instinctively reached for his pectoral cross and gripped it while uttering the Lord’s Prayer.
As he turned to go downstairs to fetch a sweater, he had just reached the top of the landing when a violent force from behind shoved him down the steps. He tumbled head over heels to the bottom of the staircase, where he lay unconscious until his friend arrived and called for an ambulance.
* * *
Diagnosed with a cerebral hemorrhage caused by the fall, Barlow lay in the intensive care unit of St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital, drifting in and out of consciousness, mumbling gibberish in a foreign tongue. His visiting friend, a fellow Jesuit priest named Lorenzo Marchetti, sat by his side, hoping Barlow would regain his senses and be able to speak with him before administering last rites, for the prognosis was bleak and certain.
Then, without warning, the dying priest opened his eyes wide with fear, stared at his friend, and spoke with an urgency belying his normally calm manner.
“Lorenzo…! The book…you must get the book before they do…. The secret is in the book!”
“Jonah,” his friend asked gently, “we’ll get to the book, but would you like to make your last confession first?”
“Damn the confession, man! I was pushed by a cacodemonic force! Lucifer does not want the secret exposed yet! You must return and get the book…and…and contact Michael Dominic in Rome.”
With that, Barlow’s entire body shook violently, the rattle of death consuming him in ways the hospital staff had never before seen. Blood began spewing from his mouth, and his eyes took on a wild, fevered look. The entire bed rose up and fell back to the floor repeatedly, as if lifted and shaken by unseen hands. Then, just as suddenly, the bed lay still, and Barlow fell back onto the pillow, his eyes wide open, staring at the abyss awaiting him on the other side as death took its final clutch on Jonah Barlow’s life.
* * *
Accompanied by Father Marchetti, Detective Rebecca Lancaster of the Chicago Police Department drove her squad car from St. Mary’s Hospital north up Ashland Avenue then over to the Rogers Park neighborhood near Loyola, finally arriving at Father Barlow’s brownstone a half hour later.
“I still don’t know why they assigned a detective to this,” Marchetti said. “The poor man just fell.”
“Sure, he could have just fallen,” Lancaster replied, pulling on an earring with one hand while driving with the other. “But from what the nursing staff told me, they heard him say he was pushed. That opens it up to possible homicide, Father. Just doing my job here.”
As they entered the unlocked home, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Barlow’s black cat, Methuselah, sat placidly on the windowsill, watching a murder of crows perched on the electrical lines outside.
“What time did you say you arrived?” Lancaster asked the priest.
“Actually, I didn’t say. But it was sometime around one. We were going to have a late lunch and talk about the book he was finishing—one I’m supposed to find and safeguard.”
“Well, nothing leaves this place until it’s cleared with me, understood?”
Marchetti sighed and nodded. Moving to Barlow’s desk, he searched for his friend’s work in progress.
“That’s odd,” he noted, his bushy white eyebrows scrunched together. “When I was here earlier, the book—some seven hundred pages of it—was sitting right there,” he pointed to an empty spot on the desk, “but now it’s gone! Who could have taken it?”
“You said ‘earlier.’ Was that today, or…?”
“Yes! Just a few hours ago. Someone has obviously been here since and taken the manuscript. Oh, this is just terrible. All of Jonah’s hard work, gone!”
“So, now we have a missing book and a possible homicide. I’ll get a forensics team in here and they’ll go over the place. Don’t touch anything, Father. But we will need a set of your fingerprints as exemplars to eliminate yours from any others.”
As Marchetti scanned other items on Father Barlow’s desk, he found a scribbled note on a small pad with Loyola’s logo at the top. Beneath it read, “Get Michael Dominic’s comments on ms.”
Curious, he thought. Father Dominic has a copy of the manuscript? Pity, I’ll have to tell him the sad news.
“Find anything interesting, Father?” Lancaster asked, noting the priest’s attention focused on the desktop.
“Only a note here in Jonah’s handwriting, reminding himself to get comments about the manuscript from a priest in Rome. A Father Michael Dominic, whom I know to be prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives.”
“The Vatican has secret archives? Why would the Church need to keep something secret?”
Marchetti smiled amusingly. “It’s not the same meaning in Latin, Archivum Secretum. Well, yes, literally it means the same, but “secret” in that sense simply means private or personal, since for centuries the Archives were considered the pope’s personal library. These days, of course, qualified scholars have access to most of its contents, and some of it is actually being digitized for access via the internet.”
“So we might assume this Father Dominic has a copy of the book?”
“Well, I imagine so, given this note.” Marchetti picked it up and handed it to the detective. She glanced at it, then returned it to the desk.
“Do you have any plans to leave town, Father?” Lancaster asked.
“Actually, yes, I’m leaving for Rome in two days’ time, for the annual International Theological Symposium, an event that’s been planned for months now.”
“Well, I’m sure I can reach you by phone if we need to follow up on anything.”
“I’ll be staying at Villa Stritch, the Vatican residence for American priests. You can always reach me there.”
* * *
Detective Lancaster stood at the window of a little room in the coroner’s office. On the other side of the glass, the medical examiner and his assistant were performing a postmortem on Father Jonah Barlow in the examination suite. Barlow’s body was laid out on a stainless steel autopsy table, his internal organs now resting in a red plastic bag in his open abdominal cavity, having been removed and examined before Lancaster had arrived. The examiner, Dr. Polanski, reached up and toggled on the microphone hanging on a cord over the body, his gloved hand leaving a bloody smudge on the chrome.
“Nice of you to join us, Detective. We saved doing the head until you got here.”
“Thanks, Doc, especially since you know this isn’t my favorite part of the job. Catch me up on what you’ve discovered so far,” she said.
“Well, I read the attending physician’s report from the emergency room. The spewing of blood from his mouth right before he expired was caused by a ruptured esophageal varices—basically, an erosion of the lining of the esophagus—and damage to the portal circulation from cirrhosis of the liver, combined with a spike in blood pressure from the seizure, which caused a vein in his throat to burst. We often see it in alcoholics and some bulimics. From the looks of his liver, though, I’d say he had a bit of a drinking problem.”
“So, it wasn’t from ‘demonic interference?’” she asked.
“I’ve been at this for over thirty years, Detective, and I’ve never seen anything that couldn’t be medically explained.”
“Well, all that blood sure freaked out the staff at the hospital, not to mention that trembling bed. One nurse with him at the time had to be sent home, she was so upset.”
Lancaster watched as Dr. Polanski, having used a scalpel to cut through the scalp along the hairline, now scraped and pulled the flesh away from the skull with a stainless steel chisel.
“Okay, we’re seeing bruising on the scalp at the forehead, but none on the back of his head. That would be more consistent with being pushed rather than just falling down the stairs. Most of the time, when someone falls down the stairs, their feet slip out from under them and they fall backwards. We would see bruising on the back of the head and often on the tailbone. I didn’t see any in this case. So, I suppose he could have tripped over something, but he definitely went down the stairs head first, not feet first,” the doctor concluded.
“Well, that would be consistent with the findings at the scene. His stairs take a 180-degree turn about halfway down. He was found on the landing at the turn. There was a forehead-shaped dent on the wall about three feet above the floor in the stairwell wall.”
While they had been talking, the assistant medical examiner had used an electric bone saw to cut the skull open, using a particular pattern of cuts that would enable them to reassemble the skull properly for the funeral. The doctor examined Father Barlow’s brain.
“Alright, Detective. See here at the frontal lobe? There is the large hematoma, but there’s also a smaller one at the back of his head. We call that a coup–contrecoup injury. His brain hit so hard in the front that it bounced back and hit the back of his skull on the inside. I’d say that means there was more force involved than just stumbling forward or tripping, unless he was running down the stairs—which at his age seems unlikely. No, I’d say this is more consistent with being pushed. Looks like you do have a homicide here.”
“Before he died, the victim said something about being pushed by a demonic force,” Lancaster sniped with a smirk.
“Well, Detective, like you, apparently, I find that dubious,” the doctor said, rolling Barlow’s body toward her to expose the back. “I don’t imagine demons leave bruises on your shoulder blades when they push you.” He lowered his head as he peered at her over his spectacles. “But then, I skipped Demonology in medical school.”