It could have been a sun spot, an air lens, some turbulent clouds, or maybe even eye tricks. The skeptic Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and a Research Fellow with the non-profit educational organization the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry — without investigation or research to support his opinion — suggests that it was likely an illusion that “appeared in the minds and perceptions of those pilgrims present,” or psychological delusion with “an element of mild mass hysteria involved.”
In contrast, there were also people there that day who played the role of dispassionate observer and also reported seeing the sun move. Not everyone present was praying for a sign from God at the event usually referred to as the “miracle of the sun” that took place over a field, Cova da Iria, outside Fátima, on October 13, 1917. It was estimated that around fifty thousand people gathered that day, many at great personal sacrifice, and it is reported that they witnessed something extraordinary.
Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, the Benedictine priest, physicist, and historian wrote a book about the Fátima event, God and the Sun at Fátima. Viewing the topic through his combined experience and passion for physics, theology, and history, he spent over a year intently focused on researching this question, reading some sixty books and articles, browsing the actual Fátima archives in two visits to Portugal, and interviewing other historians. He was primarily in search of eye witness accounts, but was disappointed to find that not many were taken.
He enjoyed the research anyway, writing in his autobiography, A Mind’s Matter: An Intellectual Autobiography, that this book ranks among those books of his that he most enjoyed writing. Surprising even to him, the book turned into a nearly 400 page account. His thesis is that there may be some sort of physical, scientific, meteorological explanation, but he still holds that the event was remarkably miraculous nonetheless. This is how he summarized his explanation of the meteorological miracle in his autobiography:
However, enough data are on hand to force one to recognize the meteorological nature of “the miracle of the sun” and to look askance at the phrase, “the sun danced over Fatima.” That the miracle was not solar, that it did not imply any “solar activity” in the scientific sense of that term, is indicated by the fact that nothing unusual was registered by observatories about the sun at that hour. Prior to that hour rain was coming down heavily over the area from the late morning hours on, with the clouds being driven fast by a westerly wind across the sky. A cold air mass was obviously moving in from the Atlantic, only at about 40 kms from Fatima, which itself is at about 15 kms to the east from the line where the land begins to form a plateau well over 300 meters above sea level. The hollow field, Cova da Iria, outside Fatima is itself at about 370 meters. An actual view of the geographic situation is a great help for an understanding of the true physical nature of “the miracle of the sun,” especially when one takes a close look at cloud patterns typical over the Cova.
I feel that at this juncture I must summarize my explanation of the miracle. It began at about 12:45 pm, solar time, after the rain suddenly stopped, and lasted about ten to fifteen minutes. During all that time, the sun, that had not been seen for hours, appeared through thin clouds, which one careful observer described as cirrus clouds. Suddenly the sun’s image turned into a wheel of fire which for the people there resembled a “rodo de fuogo” familiar to them in fireworks. The physical core of that wheel was, as we now have to conjecture, an air lens full of ice crystals, as cirrus clouds are. Such crystals can readily refract the sun’s rays into various colors of the rainbow.
The references to the strong west-east wind and to the continued drift of clouds may account for the interplay of two streams of air that could give a twist, in a way analogous to the formation of tornadoes, to put that lens-shaped air mass into rotation. Since many present there suddenly felt a marked increase in temperature, it is clear that a sudden temperature inversion must have taken place. The cold and warm air masses could conceivably propel that rotating air lens in an elliptical orbit first toward the earth, and then push it up, as if it were a boomerang, back to its original position. Meanwhile the ice crystals in it acted as so many means of refraction for the sun’s rays. Some eyewitnesses claimed that the “wheel of fire” descended and reascended three times; according to others this happened twice. Overwhelmed by an extraordinary sight that prompted most of the crowd to fall on their knees, even “detached” observers could not perform as coolly as they would have wished. Only one observer, a lawyer, stated three decades later that the path of descent and ascent was elliptical with small circles superimposed on it.
Such an observation would make eminent sense to anyone familiar with fluid dynamics or even with the workings of a boomerang. There is indeed plenty of scientific information on hand to approach the miracle of the sun scientifically. This is, however, not to suggest that one could reproduce the event say in a wind tunnel. The carefully co-ordinated interplay of so many physical factors would by itself be a miracle, even if one does not wish to see anything more in what actually happened. Clearly, the “miracle” of the sun was not a mere meteorological phenomenon, however rare. Otherwise it would have been observed before and after, regardless of the presence of devout crowds or not. I merely claim, which I did in my other writings on miracles, that in producing miracles God often makes use of a natural substratum by greatly enhancing its physical components and their interactions. One can indeed say, though not in the sense intended by some Fatima writers, that the fingers of the Mother of God played with the rays of the sun at that extraordinary hour at Fatima.
Stanley L. Jaki. A Mind’s Matter: An Intellectual Autobiography (Cambridge U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), Chapter 13 “A Portuguese Proverb.”
According to St. Thomas Aquinas a miracle in the strict sense is “something done outside the order of the entire created universe.” According to Jaki, the fact that the event occurred and still inspires the faithful to this day is the greater miracle. “The Fatima story proved once more the age-old truth that God can achieve His aims even when human co-operation leaves too much to desire and makes a straight line appear a zig-zag.” (A Mind’s Matter, Chapter 13) Even if the behavior of the sun was a purely natural phenomenon, the event in totality put this event in a class all its own. How did it come to be that a child knew when to tell the multitudes that gathered to look up for a sign from Heaven at just the right moment? Was the cause outside the order of the entire created universe? Not an unreasonable question to ask. In fact, a necessary one.
Fr. Jaki also wrote a much shorter 32 page booklet, The Sun’s Miracle, or of Something Else? (bottom of page), to explain why he investigated this question and what his general conclusions were.
This is one of the reasons I so appreciate Fr. Jaki’s work. It is rare to find the combination of skills and insights from someone with doctoral degrees in both physics and theology who also thoroughly enjoyed meticulous historical research from as many original sources as he could find, in search of truth for truth’s sake instead of a bias or spin on whatever stories emerged. As can be said of so much of his life’s work, reading Jaki’s detailed research presented in the large volume (God and the Sun at Fátima) is akin to watching a builder construct an entire cathedral; the reader will not be disappointed if thoroughness is desired. However, the summaries Jaki also provided later in life are akin to taking a guided tour of the completed work by the builder himself, a more than satisfactory introduction to a masterpiece.