Pope reveals last 'secret' of Fatima

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It was a secret which had tantalised millions since 1917, when three child shepherds in Portugal began seeing visions of the Virgin Mary. Yesterday, in a dramatic climax to Pope John Paul's visit to the sanctuary of Fatima, the Vatican revealed the so-called "third secret of Fatima": a prediction of the assassination attempt on the Pope in 1981.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Secretary of State at the Vatican, ended decades of speculation by announcing from Fatima's basilica steps that the "third part of the secret of Fatima" speaks of a "bishop clothed in white" who "falls to the ground, apparently dead, under a burst of gunfire". He said this was according to "interpretations" of what the children had said.

The three shepherds, Jacinta and Francisco Marto and their cousin, Lucia de Jesus, had said the Virgin told them three secrets. Jacinta and Francisco died in childhood from pneumonia and were beatified by the Pope yesterday, but Lucia, who became a nun and is now 93, revealed years later that the first two "secrets" were predictions of the Second World War and the rise and fall of communism.

Yesterday was also the anniversary of the first of the children's visions and of the Pope's escape from death at the hands of a Turkish gunman in St Peter's Square 19 years ago. Cardinal Sodano's revelation that the two events were linked brought applause and fervent emotion from hundreds of thousands of pilgrims crammed into the huge sanctuary square.

John Paul, 80 next week and looking visibly frail yesterday, is particularly devoted to the Virgin of Fatima. He believes she saved his life when Ali Agca shot him in 1981. "I wish once again to celebrate the goodness of the Lord toward me when, severely struck on 13 May 1981, I was saved from death," the Pope told the crowds in his homily.

Cardinal Sodano said the Pope believed a "motherly hand" guided the bullet's path, enabling the "dying Pope" to halt "at the threshold of death". Exactly a year later, the Pope visited Fatima and placed the bullet that nearly killed him in the crown of the statue of the Virgin in a chapel near where the children saw several apparitions over six months.

The declaration fuelled speculation, hotly denied by the Vatican, that the Pope was tying up the threads of his pontificate before bowing out.