On Saturday, May 13, Pope Francis became the fourth pope to visit Fatima — marking the centennial year of the Marian apparitions that occurred in the rural Portuguese town in 1917 and canonizing two of the visionary children, now Saints Francisco and Jacinta Marto.
The latest visit of Pope Francis is just the latest papal event that underscores the Church’s embrace and promotion of the messages of the Fatima apparitions. Pope Paul VI became the first sitting pope to visit Fatima in 1967. John Paul II visited Fatima twice, and Benedict XVI visited in 2010.
Pope Francis’ visit to Portugal was brief, lasting just under 24 hours. In that short time the pope had meetings with a variety of dignitaries, including the Portuguese president and the country’s episcopate.
On the centenary of the day Mary first appeared at Fatima, the pope celebrated an outdoor Mass in the square of the shrine’s basilica church. He recalled Mary’s maternal role in the life of the Church, reiterating many of the themes of Mary’s apparitions there. He reminded the Church of the dangers of a world that has abandoned God — the worst of which is the risk that leads to hell.
“We have gathered here to give thanks for the countless graces bestowed over these past hundred years,” the pope said.
Many of the pope’s prepared remarks reiterated the theme of pilgrimage. In a prayer he offered in Fatima’s chapel built on the site of the apparitions, Pope Francis spoke of his own pilgrimage there as aimed toward the light, peace and hope made available to the Church through the messages delivered there by the Virgin Mary. He sought Mary’s intercession to guide the Church on the pilgrimage to heaven, as she was a pilgrim herself.
Also at the Mass on May 13, the pope canonized Francisco and Jacinta Marto — siblings who were ages 10 and 9, respectively, at the time of their deaths. While the Church’s canon of saints includes many children throughout the ages, various decrees and reforms to the process of canonization made it nearly impossible for non-martyr children to be individually canonized since the Middle Ages. It had not been the practice to canonize children who were thought unable to live the Faith to the necessarily heroic degree.
This began to change slowly, first with Pope St. Pius X, who placed great importance on nurturing the Faith of young people. Pius X had lowered the age of first Communion to the age of reason (typically considered around the age of 7), but he also cleared the way for the eventual canonization of St. Dominic Savio. Pius X was insistent that Savio, who died at the age of 14, offered a heroic witness to the Faith despite not being a martyr. Eventually, he was canonized in 1954, the same year Pius X was also canonized.
Savio was the youngest non-martyr to ever be canonized until Pope Francis’ canonization of the two Fatima seers. Their canonization solidifies the opinion that young people can offer a path to holiness from which all the Church can learn and seek to emulate. In many ways, this is fulfilling the vision of the Second Vatican Council’s theological principle of the universal call to holiness: “all Christ’s faithful, whatever be the conditions, duties and circumstances of their lives—and indeed through all these, will daily increase in holiness” (Lumen Gentium, No. 41).
In addition to their historic status and their impact on the canonization process, Francisco and Jacinta are models of holiness for all people. In canonizing them, the Church promotes their holiness as an example to Catholics throughout the world. What do these young saints teach us all?
A variety of individuals have been recipients of supernatural visions throughout history. Many, but not all of these have been beatified or canonized eventually. But this is not because of the visions the received. The Church has raised up saints like Bernadette Soubirous, Catherine Labouré or Juan Diego because they excelled in Christian living, offer something to every believer answering the same call, and evidenced their heavenly residency through their intercession here on earth.
Three holy children saw the Blessed Virgin Mary appear to them six times in Fatima, Portugal, from May to October 1917. As with all saints, holiness is particular to their own state in life — and these seers are no exception. Both Francisco and Jacinta Marto died less than three years after their last vision of Mary.
Our Lady’s call to deeper prayer and conversion affected them both greatly. Francisco’s prayer life culminated in a selfless love, especially for Christ. He desired nothing more than to “console Jesus for the sins of the world.” The glimpse of hell they received made a major impact on Jacinta’s spirituality. It prompted a zeal for souls, a desire to save sinners through increased prayer and penance. Both of the new saints lived more sacrificially, seeking to benefit others through their penances and practice of mortifications for the salvation of souls.
The holy Marto siblings offer Christians a model of how to embrace sickness and death. In one of the apparitions, Mary revealed that she would soon take them to heaven. They desired a holy death above all else, which came about during the influenza outbreak in the World War I era.
Pope Francis reiterated that the holy siblings are an example for all the sick and suffering. In a meeting with sick people gathered in Fatima after May 13’s Mass, Pope Francis said, “Jesus knows the meaning of sorrow and pain. He understands us, he comforts us and he gives us strength, as he did to Saint Francisco Marto and Saint Jacinta, and to the saints of every time and place.”
The holy siblings teach all Christians to patiently and lovingly embrace suffering. But they also teach us much about the essentials for Christian living. As Pope Francis said in his homily at Fatima: “We can take as our examples Saint Francisco and Saint Jacinta, whom the Virgin Mary introduced into the immense ocean of God’s light and taught to adore him… God’s presence became constant in their lives, as is evident from their insistent prayers for sinners and their desire to remain ever near ‘the hidden Jesus’ in the tabernacle.”
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s The Catholic Answer magazine. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.