October 15, 2004 — FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Vatican Calls for Resignation of Fatima Bishop and Shrine Rector
Correio da manha, the leading daily newspaper in Portugal, caused an uproar in the Catholic world when it reported in a front page article in its September 29 issue that "Rome is shocked with Fatima."
According to the newspaper, the Vatican "is critical of the prayers offered by the Dalai Lama and those of a Hindu priest in the Shrine" and has announced to the Portuguese Episcopal Conference (PEC) that they must replace the Bishop of Fatima and the Shrine Rector. If not, the paper reported, the Vatican will assume direct control of the Fatima shrine.
The newspaper went on to report that, according to informed sources, members of the Vatican curia believe that Shrine officials went too far when they recently allowed a Hindu ceremony to take place at the altar.
Fatima officials were quick to respond and held a press conference the same day that Correio da manha’s story hit the newsstands. The main Portuguese wire service, Lusa, reported that "the Rector of the Shrine, Luciano Guerra, today declared his willingness to continue as leader" of the Shrine until the completion of the new basilica at Fatima, projected for 2007. Guerra denied any knowledge of pressures for his resignation from Rome, but admitted that the recent inter-religious events at the shrine had "caused some discomfort in conservative Catholic sectors."
The current controversy first erupted last October when the Bishop of Fatima, D. Serafim Ferreira e Silva and Monsignor Guerra hosted an ecumenical conference at the Shrine of Our Lady. The conference, which featured participants from diverse religious bodies, including Buddhists, Muslims and African animists, was followed by press reports of a proposed plan to transform the Fatima Shrine into an "interfaith facility."
In response to these reports, conservative and traditional Catholic groups, led by the Fatima Center, a not-for-profit organization based in the U.S. and Canada and headed by a Catholic priest, Father Nicholas Gruner, immediately organized a series of mass protests, culminating in an Open Letter of protest to Pope John Paul II and the bishops of Portugal, published in a number of major Portuguese newspapers. In addition, Father Gruner’s group gathered tens of thousands of signatures from outraged Catholics on petitions against the proposed plan, on both the Internet and through the mail.
"We’ve put out more than one and a half million pieces of literature protesting these outrages at Fatima," said Father Gruner, "including three issues of our magazine and letter packages to every bishop in the world and 60,000 priests as well as an almost constant stream of calls, letters and e-mails to the Vatican and other Church leaders."
The controversy was further inflamed this May when, in apparent defiance of the protests, Msgr. Guerra permitted a group of Hindu worshipers from Lisbon to perform a pagan ceremony on the altar of the chapel of Our Lady on the very spot where the Virgin Mary appeared between May and October 1917.
At his press conference on September 29, Rector Guerra attempted to distance himself from the May 5 Hindu ceremony which he claimed "was a little beyond his control." He announced that he would never again permit a visit of the Hindu group "in the same manner."
John Vennari, editor of the Catholic Family News, who broke the initial story last year, noted in response to Guerra’s comments that "this new defensive language on the part of the Rector is very interesting in light of his published remarks last June, when he denied that any Hindu ritual ever took place at Fatima. It would appear the Rector can’t quite figure out what to say."
Christopher A. Ferrara, a Catholic commentator and civil rights attorney who has written extensively on Fatima stated that "Guerra’s credibility is now totally shot. First he said there would be no non-Catholic worship at the Shrine. Then, when he let it happen, he declared there was nothing wrong with it. Now he says it’ll never happen again. Please!"
The day after the press conference by Shrine officials, Correio da manha published what it termed a "confirmation" of its initial story. Journalist Hernani Carvalho reported that "uneasiness [exists] in the Roman Curia because of ecumenism in Fatima", and quoted Portugal’s leading Vaticanist, Aura Miguel, as saying that "Hindus are not supposed to perform celebrations in the Capelinha das Aparicãoes, just as one is not supposed to celebrate Mass in a Buddhist temple." Ms. Miguel went on to note that "certain Church circles" are concerned by the "ambiguous explanations" offered by Msgr. Guerra in defense of the ecumenical initiatives at the Shrine.
Correio da manha reported further that it learned of correspondence between the Portuguese Nuncio and the Fatima [diocese] discussing possible new candidates for replacing the bishop of Fatima. The newspaper also reported that the Bishop of Fatima refused comment when asked about his eventual replacement, and the paper noted that "the need to hold a press conference to deny the news revealed just how nervous people are in the Sanctuary."
In a separate report in the online edition of Portugal Diario, Msgr. Januario Torgal Ferreira, Bishop of the Portuguese armed forces, was quoted as confirming that what was being attacked was the work of the Rector of the Shrine and the Bishop of Fatima, and that the attack came directly from the highest levels of the Roman curia.
To date, the Vatican has neither confirmed nor denied the reports that it is asking for the removal of Fatimas bishop and Shrine Rector Guerra.