- When the Sun Danced: Myth, Miracles, and Modernity in Early Twentieth-Century Portugal by Jeffrey S. Bennett
Jeffrey S. Bennett’s When the Sun Danced: Myth, Miracles and Modernity in Early Twentieth Century Portugal is a very welcome and important addition to the literature. Bennett’s mastery of the subject shines throughout the pages of this book. Bennett also shows considerable courage in selecting to study Fátima, given the complexity of the case as well as the significant controversies surrounding the apparitions.
The book consists of five chapters plus an introduction. The author’s account of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to three shepherd children at Fátima on the thirteenth day of six consecutive months in 1917, starting on May 13, demonstrates a deep grasp of the historical drama. Bennett introduces the topic in his first chapter, “Signs of the Times.” The next two chapters detail the historical events surrounding the apparitions. His final two chapters offer a subtle analysis of the theological and political implications of the apparitions. Bennett cleverly inverses the title of the first chapter, “Signs of the Times,” to “Time and the Signs” in his concluding chapter—perhaps signaling the movement from the children discerning their private revelations from heaven at the beginning of the story and then on to how their discernment and activities subsequently influenced societal cultural consciousness and ontological awareness in Portugal during António de Oliveira Salazar’s New State in the 1930s.
Social scientists need to treat the consequences of wide-scale, popular religiosity more completely—not as a theological reality, but as a political one. Certainly, some cases have taken on more lasting political life than others, but all cases of popular devotion offer a revealing window into the political culture and life of a country. In this regard, Bennett’s new work is an especially important addition to the literature: Fátima has exercised a lasting and significant political impact on Portuguese politics since 1917 and requires serious scholarly treatment. Bennett provides a very useful background to those unfamiliar with Fátima and helps to contextualize historically a fascinating and complicated story. His numerous interviews conducted for the book represent a wide segment on Portuguese society: pilgrims, fishermen, Freemasons, former revolutionaries, and the families of the seers of the Fátima apparitions. His historiography is careful, his writing is succinct, and his logic and presentation of the facts is careful and balanced.
Perhaps the singular achievement of this new book is in demonstrating how, in Bennett’s words, “individual histories, national history, and the divine history of salvation are all synchronized by and through devotion to the Virgin [End Page 171] of Fatima” (p. 190). Fátima remains a defining characteristic of contemporary Portuguese civil society, with significant implications for the larger Catholic world. The visions at Fátima were declared worthy of belief by the Catholic Church in 1930. Five popes—Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI—have supported the Fátima messages as supernatural. John Paul II was particularly attached to Fátima and credited Our Lady of Fátima with saving his life after he was shot in Rome on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Fátima on May 13, 1981. John Paul II subsequently donated the bullet that wounded him on that day to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima.
Bennett’s work is in the very best tradition of Marian apparition scholarship. His book is of equal or superior quality to other acclaimed works in this field, including William Christian Jr.’s Visionaries (Berkeley, CA, 1991), David Blackbourn’s Marpingen (New York, 1994), and Ruth Harris’s Lourdes (New York, 1998). The excellence of Bennett’s scholarship ensures that this new book will make an immediate and lasting impact in the academy—especially so in the...