A few years before, a revolution had led to the establishment of the First Portuguese Republic in 1910 and a new liberal constitution was drafted under the influence of Freemasonry, which sought to suppress the faith from public life. Catholic churches and schools were seized by the government, and the wearing of clerics in public, the ringing of church bells, and the celebration of public religious festivals were banned. Between 1911 and 1916, nearly 2,000 priests, monks, and nuns were killed by anti-Christian groups.

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This was the backdrop against which, in 1917, a lady believed to be the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children — Lucia dos Santos, 10, and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto, 9 and 7 — in a field in Fátima, Portugal, bringing with her requests for the recitation of the rosary, for sacrifices on behalf of sinners, and a secret regarding the fate of the world.

To prove that the apparitions were true, the lady promised the children that during the last of her six appearances, she would provide a sign so people would believe in the apparitions and in her message. What happened on that day — Oct. 13, 1917 — has come to be known as the “Miracle of the Sun,” or “the day the sun danced.”

According to various accounts, a crowd of some 70,000 people — believers and sceptics alike —gathered to see the promised miracle: The rainy sky cleared up, the clouds dispersed, and the ground, which had been wet and muddy from the rain, dried up. A transparent veil came over the sun, making it easy to look at, and multicoloured lights were strewn across the landscape. The sun then began to spin, twirling in the sky, and at one point appeared to veer toward the earth before jumping back to its place in the sky.

The stunning event was a direct and very convincing contradiction to the atheistic regimes at the time, which is evidenced by the fact that the first newspaper to report on the miracle on a full front page was an anti-Catholic, Masonic newspaper in Lisbon called O Seculo.

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The miracle of the sun was understood by the people to be “the seal, the guarantee, that in fact, those three children were telling the truth,” Duarte said.