On a spring day in 1916, three children watched their family's sheep on a hillside in rural Portugal. Completely oblivious to the fact that their country was at war and that Pope Benedict XV was begging Mary's intercession and lamenting World War I as the “suicide of Europe,” the children sang, danced, and played games.
When it began to rain, they took refuge in a cave-like rock formation and prayed the customary daily rosary. In a hurry to get back to their games, they said only the first words of each prayer as they fingered the beads: “Our Father, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary.. . . .”
On that warm afternoon, Lucia dos Santos, age ten, and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto, ages nine and seven, saw the first of three visions of an angel. And these visions were only meant to lead up to something even more extraordinary—the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima.
Messages from Heaven. The heavenly messenger identified himself as the “Angel of Peace” and told the children to pray and offer sacrifices for those who do not believe in God. In the final apparition, the angel appeared holding the Eucharist. He offered it to the children, saying, “Take and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.” Again he invited them to intercede for those whose sins grieve the Lord.
Though not fully understanding the angel’s invitation, the children responded with wholehearted simplicity. They allowed Jesus to fill them with his desire to reach those who didn’t believe, and they began to pray and look for opportunities to make small sacrifices as a way of intercession.
Our Lady of the Rosary. A few months later, on May 13, 1917, while pasturing their flocks in a field, the children were frightened by a flash of light. At the next flash, they saw a ball of light at the top of a low tree. In that light stood a beautiful Lady.
When the Lady said she was from heaven, Lucia asked her to take them there too. To their delight, she promised to do so: Jacinta and Francisco would go soon, while Lucia would remain “for some time more.” The Lady then asked the children to embrace whatever suffering might come their way, offering it both as intercession for those who had rejected God and as a way of “consoling” the Lord. The children agreed. “You are going to suffer a great deal,” the Lady warned, “but the grace of God will be your comfort.” She told the children to say the rosary every day for world peace, and gently corrected their “efficient” shortened method of praying! Then the Lady left, promising to return on the thirteenth of the month for the next five months.
In the second apparition, on June 13, the Lady showed the children a vision of hell that shook them to the core. She taught them a prayer to add at the end of each decade of the rosary: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of your mercy.” With every apparition, the Lady asked that believers entrust the world to her Immaculate Heart and say the rosary every day for peace and for conversions.
As word of the apparitions spread, crowds began thronging to Fatima. The local governor, an atheist, decided to put a stop to the “nonsense.” On August 13, he locked the children up in a dank jail and threatened to boil them in oil unless they denied the visions. But they held firm, and the Lady appeared to them on August 19 after their release.
The Lady had promised that a miracle would take place at her October 13 meeting with the children, and about seventy thousand people gathered at the field to see it. That day, in the midst of a rainstorm, the sun appeared and dried up both the muddy field and the wet pilgrims. It then spun about and plunged wildly toward the earth. Witnesses saw constantly changing colors around them. Many fell to their knees begging forgiveness.
Not long afterwards, Francisco and Jacinta contracted the “Spanish flu” and died. The brother and sister were beatified on May 13, 2000, with Lucia looking on. Pope John Paul II explained that they had “lived the Christian virtues to a heroic degree despite their young age.” It was “the heroism of children, but true heroism.”
Furthermore, said the pope, their holiness depended solely “on their fidelity and commitment in responding to the extraordinary gift they received from the Lord and from Mary. . . . they are a shining example … of how to comply in a simple and generous way with the transforming action of divine grace.”
Francisco: Making Jesus Happy. Before his encounters with Mary, Francisco Marto was not overly spiritual. He prayed his daily rosary but did not hesitate to use Jacinta’s shorthand method. The first time he saw the Lady, he told Lucia to throw a stone at her to see if she was real.
Francisco changed after Mary appeared to him. He often disappeared to pray and would refuse to play until he had finished his rosary. Francisco also suggested that as a sacrifice the children should give their lunches to the sheep. (Later, Jacinta improved on the idea by giving the food to poor children.)
When the children were arrested, Francisco remained resolute. Convinced that they really were about to be thrown into boiling oil, he told Lucia: “If they kill us, we will be in heaven in a few minutes! How lucky we are! I don’t mind anything. I hope Jacinta isn’t afraid!”
In the year following the apparitions, Francisco spent much time before the Blessed Sacrament. As he and Lucia walked to school, he would say, “You go to school while I stay here in church. It’s not worth my learning to read, as I will soon be going to heaven.” He treasured this time with the “hidden Jesus” and used it to ponder the heavenly messages Mary had given him. With simplicity and generosity, he devoted himself to an intense prayer life and to freely renouncing even innocent childhood pleasures.
Jacinta: Determined to Help the Lost. Jacinta may have looked like Francisco, but she had a very different temperament. Lively, joyful, and impulsive, she loved to dance and play.
Jacinta was deeply affected by the June 13 vision of hell. From that time on, she missed no opportunity to pray and offer sacrifices for others. It was not enough that she herself had a guarantee of heaven – she didn’t want anyone to go to hell. As her way of interceding, she offered her lunch to poor children, eating bitter acorns and unripe olives instead; she gave up dancing and denied herself water even in the heat of the summer.
During Jacinta’s sickness, her relationship with Mary deepened. When Francisco was dying, Mary asked Jacinta if she was willing to suffer and intercede longer. She agreed. Later, when Mary revealed that Jacinta would die alone in a dark hospital, she answered, “Jesus, now you can convert many sinners, because this sacrifice is such a big one.” In Lisbon, when she underwent surgery to remove two ribs without general anesthesia, the doctors heard her crying out, “It is for your love, my Jesus! . . . Now you can convert many sinners.”
Such heroic action by a little girl is nearly unthinkable, but Jacinta’s young heart was ravished by love for the Lord and the desire that everyone be with him for eternity. Her response to God’s grace enabled her to endure incredible sacrifices with love and patience, all the time interceding for those who risked eternal separation from God.
Peace for the World. The message of Fatima invites each of us to do our part to bring peace into the world and into every individual heart by praying the rosary daily and by interceding for those who don’t believe.
The witness of Francisco and Jacinta urges us to say yes to God as lovingly and completely as they did. The choice is ours. As Pope John Paul II said in October 2000, “We can turn this world into a garden or reduce it to a pile of rubble. . . . Today, as never before in the past, humanity stands at a crossroads. And once again, O Virgin Most Holy, salvation lies fully and uniquely in Jesus, your son.”
There is hope in God’s mercy! The power of prayer, as demonstrated in the lives of Francisco and Jacinta Marto, can be an inspiration to us. Let us imitate them and allow Jesus to fill us with his own love and concern for the world. Let us pray for peace and make a difference in our world!