On this day in 1917, the Blessed Mother appeared for the first time to three children in Fatima, Portugal. The three visionaries were Lucia dos Santos (10) and two siblings, Francisco (9) and Jacinta (7) Marto. While playing in a place called Cova da Iria, the children saw two flashes of light, after which they saw “a Lady dressed in white, more brilliant than the sun.” She was indescribably beautiful, with an expression on her face that was “neither sad nor happy, but serious.” Her hands were joined together in prayer and she held a rosary in her right hand. She told the children that she was from Heaven and asked them to return to see her at that same place at the same time on the 13th day of each month for six months.
During the first apparition, Lucia asked her if she and her friends would go to heaven. Our Lady said they would, though Francisco would have to say many rosaries to get there. Lucia then asked her about the fate of two of their friends who had recently died. One, Our Lady said, was in heaven. The other, she explained, “will be in purgatory until the end of the world.” She asked the children if they wished to offer themselves to God and accept the sufferings they would experience “as both an act of reparation for the sins with which He is offended and an act of supplication for the conversion of sinners.” When they responded yes, Our Lady said, “you will have much to suffer. But the grace of God will be your comfort.”
The visionaries at Fatima experienced many trials because of the apparitions, including arrest by the local Communist officials and disbelief by their families and local clergy. Over the following months, the children received many troubling messages about the dangers facing the world because of the evil of sin, including a terrifying vision of hell. The purpose of these messages, Lucia explained years later, was to call us to conversion, that we might return to the right path, “because God does not wish sinners to perish but rather that they be converted and live.” The Blessed Mother reminds us that we can help in that cause by our prayers and sacrifices and our merciful hearts which “will draw [sinners] back into the arms of God.” To that end, Our Lady of Fatima exhorts us to pray the rosary every day.
In the familiar prayer of the “Hail Mary,” we say over and over again: “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” These are the two crucial moments of our lives – the present moment and the moment of our death. For we know that getting to heaven is not simply about presenting to God a kind of balance sheet that shows that our good actions outweighed the bad we did in life. The good works we do certainly matter, but ultimately it is God’s grace that saves us. Thus, we believe that one who has misspent his life can be saved by grace in the last moment of his life – consider the Good Thief to whom Our Lord promised paradise. We should therefore pray for those who have no faith, never despairing of the possibility of their salvation by the grace of God. The moment of death is also of decisive importance for those blessed with faith. Ronald Knox writes that those blessed with the gift of faith “ought to pray for perseverance, and for the grace of a Christian death, even when the event seems remote and our spiritual state gives us no special cause for anxiety.” He continues: “Life doesn’t just depend upon being good and being bad; God’s grace is what we want to pray for, and pray for all the more earnestly in proportion as we are humble enough to realize that we cannot do without it.”
Francisco and Jacinta both died as victims of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. He was 10, and she was 9. Before their deaths, the children spent their lives praying and making sacrifices for the conversion of sinners and of the world. They were officially declared saints by Pope Francis on this date in 2017. Lucia also made her life an offering to God as a cloistered Carmelite nun for 57 years before her death in 2005. Her cause for sainthood is currently underway.
The story of Fatima is fascinating. If you’re looking for a good book about it, one of the best is Our Lady of Fatima by William Thomas Walsh. There’s also a movie about Fatima that will be released in August. I’ve posted the trailer below.