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That meeting in Fatima

In July 1977 Albino Luciani met Sister Lucia. How did it come about and how did that meeting go? For the first time, the secretary of Patriarch Luciani recounts and reveals... An interview with Monsignor Mario Senigaglia

Interview with Mario Senigaglia by Stefania Falasca


There are facts and facts. Some, with time, remain what they are. Others get lost and waft away to become legend. We’ll take one of them. Place: Coimbra. Date: 11 July 1977. The meeting of the Patriarch of Venice Albino Luciani with Sister Lucia Dos Santos, the visionary from Fatima. Here’s one of the many stories on which ink has been poured out.


It has been said that it was Sister Lucia herself who asked to meet Patriarch Luciani. It was said that the visionary greeted him by calling him «Holy Father». It has also been said that she predicted the brevity of his pontificate and that the Patriarch left that meeting upset. It was said… And it was not difficult then to mount those “it’s said” and get to representing Luciani as obsessed by that prediction. Tormented by the shadow hidden in the lines of the third secret. The only dissonant voice in the mounting choir of these “it’s said” was, in recent years, that of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. The cardinal, having questioned Sister Lucia herself in December 2003 about that meeting, firmly stated many times that the nun made no prediction about Albino Luciani. In short, does the gossip have any possible foundation or is it the old story of a typical case of vaticinium ex eventu? Better move at the low temperature of history and return to the data. Leaf through it again from the beginning. Step by step. With one who knows the circumstances that led to that meeting.


For thirty years Monsignor Mario Senigaglia has been parish priest of the church of Santo Stefano in Venice. The person who accompanied him to Santo Stefano, in far off October 1976, was Luciani himself. For seven years Don Mario had been close to him as his personal secretary. His was a discreet and attentive presence, in those troubled Venetian years, reciprocated by the esteem and the confiding trust of Luciani, that continued to last. In that July of 1977, Senigaglia met Luciani a few days after his return from Fatima. «Yes, he called me and I went to see him in the Patriarchate…», he begins to recount, «but wait», he interrupts, turning toward a shelf, «let’s get the Patriarch’s diary…».


Our story starts from here.


Monsignor, let’s look at what it says in the diary…

Mario Senigaglia: Yes. Let’s see… Friday 8 July 1977: the Patriarch is in Padua. Saturday 9, there: he leaves for Fatima. Sunday 10: he concelebrates mass in the valley of the Cove da Iria. Monday 11: he celebrates with other priests in the chapel of the convent of the Carmelites in Coimbra. He returns to Venice Tuesday 12 and the 13 presides over the general chapter of the Franciscan nuns... there’s nothing else.


That’s what the diary entries say. But how did the meeting come about with Sister Lucia in the cloister of Coimbra?

Senigaglia: First of all Luciani didn’t go alone.


What? He wasn’t alone at that meeting?

Senigaglia: No. He was accompanied by a Venetian noblewoman who was present with him there.


And who was she?

Senigaglia: The Marquise Olga Mocenigo de Cadaval.


A moment... let’s make sure we understand the facts from the beginning. Where does this noblewoman come from? And why did Luciani go to Fatima? Was there a reason, an anniversary…

Senigaglia: No. No particular reason. He went to Fatima simply on a pilgrimage. Every year, here in Venice, the Jesuit Father Leandro Tiveron, who was also Luciani’s confessor, organized a pilgrimage to some Marian shrine. And that year he decided on Fatima. Luciani had been to Lourdes on different occasions. Instead he had never been to Fatima. Father Tiveron suggested going and he agreeed. So the Patriarch joined the party of pilgrims. Around fifty of them. On 10 July they visited the shrine and took part in the Eucharistic celebration in Fatima. And the following day they moved to Coimbra to attend mass in the convent of the Carmelite nuns. The Marquise de Cadaval had links with the convent and she herself proposed and organized the stop-over at the cloistered convent of Coimbra.


And how come this noblewoman was so familiar with the convent of Coimbra as to have access even to the cloister?

Senigaglia: The Marquise de Cadaval had married a Portuguese, a landowner from the south. She was a woman of high culture and sensibility but also of deep compassion, and during her stays in Portugal worked for the Red Cross at the sanctuary of Fatima, very soon becoming benefactress of the convent of Coimbra. There she had the opportunity to meet Sister Lucia, with whom she established a close relationship of trust. For years she was her collaborator. She helped Sister Lucia with the translations of her correspondence. During the war she even had the task of taking messages, often memorized, to Pius XII and messages from him to Sister Lucia. Pacelli had known the marquise since the time of her youth. Marquise de Cadaval, in fact, had attended the university in Rome and was in good relations with the family of the future Pontiff. Thus she found herself also performing the role of ‘go-between’ for Sister Lucia and the Pope. In 1977 she was elderly, she’d have been over seventy years old.


Would Luciani have known her before that occasion?

Senigaglia: He had seen her on some occasions in Venice.


And you, did you know her personally?

Senigaglia: Yes. She was one of my parishioners. When she stayed in Venice she lived two steps away from the church of Santo Stefano and every day, in the morning early, she came to mass in the parish. Thus I had occasion to know her. And it was on one of those mornings after mass that, speaking about the pilgrimage to Fatima, the idea of the visit to Coimbra was mentioned.


So the meeting of Luciani with Sister Lucia was the initiative of the Marquise then, it wasn’t the visionary of Fatima to ask for him…

Senigaglia: While speaking about the visit to Coimbra the marquise said: «If the Patriarch were to come… I would be pleased to introduce him, on the occasion, to Sister Lucia». That’s how it came about. And the follow-up went like this: «If you’d like to …», I answered, «Try to ask him about it…». «But look», I added, «if you mention this possibility to the Patriarch before leaving, it’s likely he’ll say no». Luciani, in fact, was always discreet and reluctant about these things. Careful never to inconvenience anybody. And, «for sure», I said to her, «if you ask him first, he’ll object that to go off from the pilgrims wouldn’t be the right thing, that it would waste time… But if you tell him when he’s already there, at the last minute, then… it could be that in the end he would agree to a greeting». And so she did, in agreement with Father Tiveron.


And how did the meeting go?

Senigaglia: The Marquise de Cadaval was already in the convent when the pilgrims arrived and had informed Sister Lucia of the presence of Patriarch Luciani. Come the moment, at the end of the Eucharistic celebration, she told the Patriarch that Sister Lucia would like to greet him. Along with the prioress of the convent they went into the cloister. The Marquise de Cadaval accompanied him to Sister Lucia and stayed with them. Seeing then that Luciani was able to understand Portuguese fairly well, she withdrew, and when the meeting was over accompanied him again to where his secretary Don Diego Lorenzi was waiting for him to go to lunch with the others.


Don Diego said that the meeting lasted an hour and a half. Others maintain longer. Luciani himself reports having spoken at length…

Senigaglia: Well… it’s true that half an hour could already be a long time for Luciani. For whoever was waiting maybe it might have seemed even longer… In any case, neither Luciani, nor the Marquise de Cadaval ever spoke to me of the time as being anything exceptional. I know that he joined the others at the restaurant and that after lunch, with the car placed at his disposal by the Marquise de Cadaval, he went back to Lisbon and then on to Venice, where he had engagements. That’s it.


You met Luciani on his return from Fatima. What did he say to you?

Senigaglia: I remember going into his study and him saying: «Sit down». That meant he was in a mood to talk. He told me about the trip, of the atmosphere of genuine prayer and moving acts of penitence he’d witnessed in Fatima. Of the pilgrims who had joined in a long barefoot walk on the stones in the spianada, under the sun, and of the pious women who tended the feet of the pilgrims who needed it upon arrival. We spoke then of the difference from Lourdes and then again of these different forms of piety, and as the conversation went on, at a certain point, I asked him about Coimbra: «I know you were there and had occasion to meet Sister Lucia… ». And he: « Yes, yes I saw her … Ah! that blessed nun», he said, «she took my hands in hers and began to talk…». Then he remained in thought a little with hands joined, then continued: «… these blessed nuns when they begin to talk they never stop …». He told me however that she had not spoken about the apparitions and that he only asked her something about the famous “sun dance”.


And then?

Senigaglia: And then that’s all. We talked about matters concerning Venice. Before closing the matter, however I said to him, since I was then editor of Gente Veneta: «Your Eminence, why don’t you write a piece about the meeting?». And he: «Fine, gladly, I’ll do so». And it was that that he then wrote.


You are referring to the account published on 23 July ‘77…

Senigaglia: Exactly. And there he wrote what he had talked to me about and everything that he had at heart to say on the matter. He wrote, not without his refined and usual humor, of the jovial character, of the brisk speech of the little nun, who insisted with great energy and conviction on the need of having nuns, priests and Christians with steady heads today, and of the passionate interest she showed in her words for everything concerning the Church with its acute problems. He wrote then that revelations, even when approved, are not articles of faith, that one can think whatever one likes about them without harming one’s faith, and concluded with what he always repeated about the significance of these Marian sites, and that is: that apparitions, or no apparitions, messages, or no messages, the shrines are there only to remind us of the teaching of the Gospel, which is that of praying.


He didn’t raise the matter with you again?

Senigaglia: No. It finished there. And, to tell the truth, I didn’t have the curiosity to inquire further. Even though the occasions, had one wanted, were there. On the 26th of that same month we left together for the Marian sanctuary of Pietralba in Alto Adige, as we did each year. And we stayed there until 5 August. Ten days. I remember that we spent those days in peace, taking long walks in the mountains.


And the Marquise, did you have the opportunity of seeing her again afterwards? What did she report about the meeting?

Senigaglia: I saw her again in Venice in September, at the Biennial. She told me that she was happy about the way the pilgrimage had gone. That Sister Lucia was also content, and that, speaking with her, after that meeting, the nun told her that she had found Luciani a lovely person.


Did she make any other reference to any words said by Sister Lucia?

Senigaglia: No.


That however doesn’t remove the fact that there may have been something else they didn’t want to speak of... Did Luciani make strictly personal notes on events and thoughts?

Senigaglia: Personal journals… He didn’t keep one. Not even that kind of spiritual notebook, that Roncalli’s Journals of the Soul could be, to make myself clear. Let me tell you of an episode.


Please do…

Senigaglia: On the death of Cardinal Urbani, predecessor of Luciani in the See of Venice, whose secretary I had been and of whose will I was appointed executor, I found myself with a mountain of his private writings referring to people, things and events some of which were sensitive. I went to ask Luciani’s advice about how I should handle it. He gave me his advice and commented with a laugh: «Don Mario, be calm, as far as I am concerned, I’ll never give you these problems».


Then private notes about the meeting don’t exist…

Senigaglia: It just wasn’t in his character, in his style, this kind of writing. Methodical and organized he did have a very well furnished archive of notes and outlines of his readings. A very rich library of notes, in which the topics were divided by subject and which he added to continually as if were a reviewer. They were noted in old diaries and in those notebooks there once used to be, those with lines and black cover and red border. And the archive served him to prepare sermons, speeches or articles for the newspapers. When he went to Rome for the conclave he phoned to ask me to send him the notebooks in which he had made his notes on the Council documents. When he gave his first speeches as Pope, I could have told you which notebook and which page he had drawn on. They were the writings from which so many times he took starting points for his speeches. To understand, therefore, his thinking and his attitude also on the question of Fatima it’s enough to see what he publicly said and wrote.


Had he already spoken about the events of Fatima?

Senigaglia: Yes. Widely. Also on the seventieth anniversary of the apparitions. He went over its history, the attitude of the Church and the attitude that the faithful should take towards these events. His thinking was marked by an extreme caution and that considered out of place those who, accepting the apparitions as real, exploited them, twisting them to serve political or similar purposes, extraneous to the apparitions themselves. In short, those writings tell us of his way of measuring and judging events, and also of his way of being, of relating, which is that of a man impermeable to instigation, balanced, facing the essential, and who observed with an elegant sharp, debunking irony. He debunked everything. Even himself and his own encounters.


A year afterwards, in March 1978, there was, however, an episode that gave rise to the later declarations about that meeting in Fatima. Luciani told his brother Edoardo about having met Sister Lucia and, seeing him perturbed, Edoardo put the matter in relation to the predictions that the nun is alleged to have made about his future…

Senigaglia: Those are impressions, hypotheses, personal deductions, that Edoardo expressed immediately after the death of his brother. And to which I can’t respond. Edoardo, however, didn’t know how that matter had gone. Luciani told him only that he had met Sister Lucia. Nothing else.


That upset remains however…

Senigaglia: But when we went to visit the cloistered nuns in Venice how many times did I hear him comment afterwards: «These blessed women… they never go out and they don’t miss a thing… they know the problems of the Church better than us!» With Sister Lucia he spoke about these in general. About the Church with its present, acute problems, of the danger of apostasy. He said so. And therefore he may have returned to these, not without some worry, to reflect on them.


In conclusion, you have never given any weight to that meeting, you have never set it in relation to the election of Luciani and his sudden death…

Senigaglia: No. Neither before nor after his death. I’ve told you. Look, I saw Luciani again that early morning when he left Venice for the conclave. He was prepared for what would happen in that conclave, he knew, he was aware of it. As the others knew. No surprise. Bishops and cardinals from all over the world had gone to visit him in Venice. They knew him, they all respected him. He had been indicated already in 1972 as well. Right here, in Venice, Paul VI had placed the stole on his shoulders. It is wellknown. That was more of an authentic prediction ad personam. And before everybody’s eyes. More than that… there was no need of other things. That then is everything, as regards Luciani. As for the Marquise de Cadaval… 


As for the Marquise de Cadaval?

Senigaglia: She died almost a hundred years old in 1997. Twenty years after that meeting in Coimbra. And until the end she remained active and entirely lucid. She never made allusions, nor was it ever guessed from what she said, not the least suggestion of visions, predictions of Sister Lucia about Luciani. The year prior to the death of the Marquise de Cadaval, in June 1996, finding myself in Fatima for spiritual exercises, I said mass in the convent of Coimbra along with another priest, and, the Marquise made it possible for us also to meet Sister Lucia briefly. She even courteously put a car at our disposal to go and come. This to speak of the friendship that ran with her and continued over time, and of how many occasions I had, in all these years after the death of Luciani, to see her and speak to her.


Forgive me… but why have you never spoken of all this before now?

Senigaglia:  … Nobody asked me. Had they done so I would have answered. If everything becomes a fairy tale, one only wastes time pursuing fantasies.