Feature

The sister and the saints: The seers of Fatima
Greg Daly examines the lives of the Fatima visionaries

Saints Francisco and Jacinta Marto.

Remarkable though the Fatima apparitions were, last weekend’s canonisations owed less to the visions witnessed by Saints Francisco and Jacinta Marto than to how their lives were transformed by their encounter with Our Lady. 

“The apparition of the Virgin Mary was an occasion, but it has nothing to do with or has not influenced the reason,” Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, former prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, has said of the reasons for the children being recognised as saints. “It was the children’s heroism in their lives, their life of prayer, their turning to God that was truly holy.”

From their first encounter with Mary, the children, aged just nine and seven, turned dramatically to God after May 13, 1917, when Our Lady first appeared to them, asking the two children and their cousin Lucia to say the Rosary and make sacrifices, offering them for the conversion of sinners. The children responded by praying often, giving their lunch to beggars and going without food and sometimes even water, offering up their daily difficulties to Christ. 

In October 1918, just a year after the apparitions, however, Francisco and Jacinta became ill, victims of the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic that ran from 1918 and 1920, and is thought to have killed over 50 million people worldwide.

Though ill, the children insisted over the following months on walking to church to make Eucharistic devotions and praying for hours, kneeling with their heads on the ground as they said they had been instructed to do.

The thoughtful and quiet Francisco, who preferred to pray alone, declined hospital treatment and in April 1919, bedridden, he requested his first Holy Communion, and died the following day, aged just 10.

His younger sister Jacinta, notable for her affectionate nature and sweet singing voice, was moved from one hospital to another in what she said were futile attempts to save her life. She developed purulent pleurisy and under local anaesthetic only, endured an operation in which two of her ribs were removed, but she continued to deteriorate.

She died in February 1920, aged just nine, a night after she had the hospital chaplain who heard her Confession to bring her Holy Communion and administer Extreme Unction.

Shortly before her death, Jacinta reportedly urged her cousin Lucia to speak about the Alliance of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. “When you are to say this, don’t go and hide,” she said, continuing, “tell everybody that God grants us graces through the Immaculate Heart of Mary; that people are to ask her for them; and that the Heart of Jesus wants the Immaculate Heart of Mary to be venerated at his side. Tell them also to pray to the Immaculate Heart of Mary for peace, since God entrusted it to her.”

Prefect

Cardinal Saraiva Martins, who as then prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes oversaw the process that led to the beatification of Jacinta and Francisco in 2000, said that the beatification process for the two young visionaries, which began in 1946, was stalled for decades because of a common view that children “do not have the capacity to practice Christian virtue in a heroic way”. 

Describing a declaration of heroic sanctity as “fundamental for beatification”, he said he became convinced of the children’s holiness by one particular event during the time of the apparitions when the children were kidnapped and threatened by the local mayor, Artur Santos. 

Head of the local administration at a time when Portugal was under strongly anti-Catholic rule, he attempted to quash reports of the visions by having the children recant and deny the stories they had told. He separated Jacinta and Francisco from Lucia, telling the two children that Lucia had been boiled in hot oil and that they would share the same fate if they didn’t say their claims were “all a fantasy”, but the children replied: “You can do what you want but we cannot tell a lie. We have seen her.”

The siblings were beatified in 2000, “because their heroic virtue was historically established”, the cardinal said, observing, “for me, that fact of having preferred death instead of telling a lie, that is a heroic act”.

In March this year, Pope Francis opened the way to the canonisation of the two siblings when, at a meeting with Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for Saints, he formally recognised the second miracle attributed to their intercession. 

The saints’ cousin Lucia, meanwhile, moved to Porto in 1921, and four years later entered the Institute of the Sisters of St Dorothy as a postulant, taking perpetual vows in 1934. While there, as Sr Maria of the Sorrows, she published four volumes of memoirs, these being published in English as Fatima in Lucia’s Own Words. 

Permission

In 1948, after receiving permission to be relieved of her vows, she entered the Carmelite convent of St Teresa in Coimbra, making profession the following year. While there she published two further volumes of memoirs, and a final book in 2001, and returned to Fatima for brief visits in 1967, 1982, 1991 and 2000. 

She died in the convent in February 2005, aged 97. 

In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI waived the normal five-year waiting period before her sainthood cause could open. The diocesan phase of her cause, considering her life and holiness, was formally closed by Coimbra’s Bishop Virgilio Antunes in February this year, forwarding his findings – including 50 volumes, totalling 15,000 pages, of evidence and witness testimonies – to the Vatican where her cause is now being investigated. 

Fr Romano Gambalunga, postulator of Lucia’s cause, said while the visionary is already regarded as a saint by many people, “the prudent path of the Church is that she is proposed to all, not just those who believe”.

Lucia “became holy over the years, not because of the apparitions”, the postulator said, with her having had a “spiritual experience” in the convent at Coimbra. Arguing that the Church shouldn’t rush her cause, he said the evidence and testimonies the investigation had gathered would provide “a great occasion for spiritual and theological deepening”, and would help “illuminate the history of the Church over the last 100 years”.