The children of Fatima
I think it was in a movie about Our Lady of Fatima, a small town in Portugal, that I first appreciated how “ordinary” and “normal” the three children who witnessed the apparition were.
The story is told that after the three—siblings Francisco and Jacinta and their cousin Lucia—let loose their flock of sheep to graze in a meadow, they stopped to pray the Rosary. But to cut short the time needed to finish this religious duty, they took advantage of the mountains surrounding the meadow and would say one “Hail Mary” and wait for it to echo repeatedly, finishing the Rosary in record time and giving them more time to play.
I was a child then when I saw this movie in school, and I was charmed by the three Fatima children, delighted that they weren’t all “goody-two-shoes” but rather given to the normal frolic and foolishness of most other kids.
The story of Fatima doesn’t end there. The children’s revelry was soon cut short with the appearance of “a lady clothed in light” who asked them to pray for peace and promised to reveal to them “a secret in three parts.” This would be but the first of many apparitions, during which Our Lady gave them a glimpse of hell and then told them that while World War I, then raging in other parts of the world, would soon end, another world war would erupt “if people did not stop offending God and Russia (where the ‘godless’ Communists reigned) was not converted.”
The “third secret” was revealed only in 2000, warning of the continuing persecution of the Church and the assassination of “a bishop dressed in white,” which the late Pope (now Saint) John Paul II believed to be himself, saying that only Our Lady’s intercession saved him from an assassin’s bullet in 1981.
The Lady also told Jacinta and Francisco that they would live short lives, and they did, passing away from the effects of the Spanish flu just two years later. Lucia, though, would live until her 97th year, the primary source of the Fatima story, and through the decades the keeper of the “third secret.”
While the children’s story created considerable controversy and was investigated thoroughly, the children persisted in the factualness of what they had seen and heard. When Church officials expressed skepticism about the apparition, the children said The Lady had promised a “miracle” that would prove the truth of their experience. And true enough, with hundreds of devotees and the merely curious on hand as witnesses, there occurred on the site of the first apparition the “miracle of the dancing sun,” convincing proof of Mary’s presence in Fatima. It would take decades, though, 100 years in fact, before the Church would grant sainthood to two of the three shepherd children. Francisco and Jacinta were canonized during the celebration of Fatima’s centenary last Saturday, while the process of sainthood for Lucia is ongoing.
Gerard O’Connell, writing in the magazine America, says the canonization of Francisco and Jacinta was “the first time in the history of the church that children who are not martyrs [were] proclaimed saints.”
Central to the decades-long quest for sainthood for the Fatima children was “whether pre-adolescent children could be canonized,” and “at what age can it be said that a young person is capable—ordinarily—of doing acts of virtue to a heroic degree.”
The question was eventually resolved, said Fr. Paulo Molinari, the “postulator” (or champion) of the children’s cause, by, first, the great number of testimonies and letters from around the world saying the children of Fatima would “present to children and young people today” examples of their peers living a “Christian life in an exemplary way.” The other reason is a decision of a Vatican body that “pre-adolescents are capable of living the Christian life in a way that is uncommon, [and] superior to that of their peers.”
But what endears Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco to me personally is precisely that they were “ordinary” children, given to the foibles of childhood, who rose to the challenge of a divine mission.
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