FATIMA, Portugal -- Ending an enduring mystery, the Vatican disclosed the so-called third secret of Fatima on Saturday, saying the secret the Virgin Mary is said to have told two children more than 80 years ago was a foretelling of the shooting of Pope John Paul II.
Since 1917 -- when three shepherd children said the mother of Christ appeared above an olive tree in Fatima and told them three secrets -- many have speculated about the third.
The first two are said to have foretold the end of World War I and the start of World War II, and the rise and fall of Soviet communism. Some believed the third, unrevealed secret was a doomsday prophecy foretelling the end of the world.
But a top Vatican cardinal said otherwise on Saturday as the pope visited Fatima to beatify two of the three children from the story. Cardinal Angelo Sodano said the "interpretations" of the children spoke of a "bishop clothed in white" who, while making his way amid the corpses of martyrs, "falls to the ground, apparently dead, under a burst of gunfire."
The description recalled the 1981 assassination attempt against John Paul, who was wounded when a Turkish gunmen opened fire in St. Peter's Square. The shooting came on May 13 -- the same day as the first of the reported Fatima visions in 1917.
Sodano recalled that John Paul has credited the Virgin of Fatima with intervening and saving his life. He quoted the pope as saying a "motherly hand" guided the bullet's path, enabling the "dying pope" to halt "at the threshold of death."
Many in the crowd of more than 600,000 people gathered for the beatification burst into applause after Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state, spoke. Lucia Dias, a 31-year-old lawyer, called it a "wonderful" moment.
"He knew of the prophecy and he survived it. Now he can die," she said.
Some in the crowd, however, expressed skepticism.
"What they said all happened in the past," said Julio Estela, 33, a Portuguese car salesman. "This isn't a prediction. It's disappointing, I think there's more."
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters later that John Paul had read the secret within days of being elected pontiff in 1978. Because he is personally involved in the issue, he chose to leave the announcement to Sodano, Navarro-Valls said.
The secret will be officially published by the Vatican within days, Navarro-Valls said.
The frail pope, who turns 80 Thursday, was making his third visit to Fatima. Portugal's bishops had asked him to come for the beatification of Jacinta Marto and her brother, Francisco, who were 7 and 8 years old at the time they reported the visions. The third child, Sister Lucia de Jesus dos Santos, now 93, has been cloistered in a Carmelite convent in central Portugal since 1929.
The first two of the so-called secrets were made public by Lucia, who met with John Paul near the tombs of her cousins. Both died within three years of the reported visions of complications from influenza.
In a black nuns' habit, Lucia was assisted by two church officials as she walked with a cane.
Beatification is the last formal step before sainthood and can only be performed after the person's death. The Vatican said the two are the first children who did not die as martyrs to be so honored.
Many pilgrims had hoped the pope would reveal the last of three secrets during his visit.
The pope leaned on his staff as his hands trembled, a symptom of Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological disorder. But his voice was clear and he seemed to gain strength as the ceremony went on.
"I desire once again to celebrate the goodness of the Lord toward me when, severely struck on that May 13, 1981, I was saved from death. I also express my debt to the blessed Jacinta for the sacrifices and prayers made for the Holy Father, whom she saw suffer greatly," John Paul said in his homily.
The pope made no direct mention of the so-called secrets, but he spoke of the horrors of the 20th century and the two world wars.
"So many victims during the final century of the second millennium!" John Paul said.
Upon arriving in Fatima on Friday evening, the pope placed a gold ring that had been given to him by his mentor, the late Polish primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, at the foot of the statue of the Virgin of Fatima. Navarro-Valls said the ring was "one of the most precious possessions the pope had."
But he denied a Portuguese newspaper report that the gesture was a sign of the pope's imminent resignation. "That is 150 percent wrong," Navarro-Valls said.
After his visit to the shrine of Fatima, John Paul went to Lisbon and from there flew to Rome. The archbishop of Lisbon, Jose Policarpo, said the pope "told us that he was very happy and did not feel tired."
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