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When the Sun Danced: Myth, Miracles, and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Portugal.

When the Sun Danced: Myth, Miracles, and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Portugal. By Jeffrey S. Bennett. (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2012. Pp. x, 238. $24.50.)

Until this path-breaking book, the miracle of Fatima has been an unfashionable topic for scholarly research. It confirms the secular priorities of social scientists across much of the West and especially in Portugal itself where, for nearly two hundred years, higher education has been dominated by liberal and often anticlerical values. At an early stage in his own academic career, this reviewer studied the Salazar dictatorship and, as Jeffrey S. Bennett points out, dismissed the Fatima phenomenon as "a mass propaganda effort" meant to impress superstitious rustics.

This well-researched and beautifully written study offers a balanced and thorough appraisal of an apparition that altered the lives of three young Portuguese shepherds in 1917. It combines the skills of a historian, who is able to reconstruct and explain an event that helped shape the future direction of Portugal, and those of a sociologist of religion, who examines how this event consolidated the resurgence of faith in response to deep-seated national crisis. Drawing on ideas of Karl Mannheim, Bennett places the Fatima events in the context of a collision between a traditional social order and an abortive form of political transformation centered on the radical but increasingly unstable Portuguese First Republic of 1910-1926.

In 1920, 87 percent of men and 92 percent of women were illiterate in this central Portuguese village. Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco received hostility from most of their family and from the locals, especially the local Jacobin administrator, and surprisingly also from the Catholic Church for a long period after the visitations occurred on the thirteenth of several months, starting in May 1917. The children showed remarkable steadfastness in the face of pressures, which included a mock execution and accusations by the local priest of being possessed by the devil. Lucia Santos was the only one to live to adulthood, dying in 2005, aged 98. At the third apparition in July 1917, she shouted to a crowd of several thousand, "[T]ake off your hats! Take off your hats for I see Our Lady already!"

Marian apparitions occurred in different parts of Catholic Europe over almost a century, and nine have been ecclesiastically recognized as worthy of "pious belief." These popular forms of religious devotion often occurred in the face of waning church involvement and usually did not have clerical backing, involvement, or support. Both representatives of church and state, then locked in bitter conflict in Portugal, tried and failed to get the children to recant. What was originally seen as defiance of communal good sense became a sign of authenticity with an unexpected fourth visitation after the children had been prevented from returning to the location of the previous events. At the final apparition on 13 October 1917, up to one hundred thousand pilgrims had joined the children. A solar anomaly occurred, leading many to believe that the sun was dancing in the sky and causing one witness, an anticlerical journalist from Lisbon, to write a detailed report in which liberal mockery was absent. What the seers reported Our Lady had told them became the basis for the cult of Fatima. But it only took off following Masonic attacks, further church suspicion, and increasing political tumult. In 1921 Lucia was removed to a convent by a newly installed local bishop. The spontaneous and informal devotion was taken in hand by the church, which enjoyed a revival of influence that was confirmed by the installation of an authoritarian regime sympathetic to clericalist values in 1932.

This reviewer thinks the author goes too far when he remarks that the Salazar dictatorship would "probably not have been possible without Fatima" (22). This absorbing book is certainly timely as it coincides with the deep crisis into which a more successful modernization project for Portugal, one based around European integration, has collapsed as the ninety-fifth anniversary of the Fatima phenomenon approaches.

Tom Gallagher

University of Bradford
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Author:Gallagher, Tom
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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