There is so much about the occurrences in Fatima a century ago that should provoke wonder.
If the Mother of God was going to be permitted to appear on earth to echo her Son's call to conversion, prayer, and sacrifice, if she was going to reveal in symbolic visions the reality of Hell, the ascent of Bolshevik communism, the dawn of World War II, and the persecution of the Church, if she was to call the world -- and in a special way, Russia -- to be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart, why would she have appeared in a Fatima, Portugal, a truly out of the way place, to three shepherd children -- ages 7, 8 and 10 -- with very little formal education and even lesser influence?
It's true that St. Paul's words about God's selection criteria have no expiration date, that God preferentially chooses "the foolish of the world to shame the wise, ... the weak of the world to shame the strong, ... the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God" (1 Cor 1:27-29).
It's also true that Jesus himself highlighted childlike receptivity as a model for everyone, repeatedly underlining that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the childlike, that those who humble themselves like children will be the greatest in his kingdom, that God has hidden the mysteries of that kingdom from the worldly clever and revealed them to the childlike, and that unless we convert and accept the kingdom like a child we will not enter it (Mt 11:25; 18:2-5, 10; 19:13-14; Mk 9:36-37; 10:13-15; Lk 18:16-17).
Even with all of that, however, it's still astonishing that the Mother of God would preferentially come to three simple Portuguese children to entrust to them message, secrets and a special mission for the good of souls, the Church and the world.
This week attention has justly been on the pastorinhos as on Thursday (April 20), Pope Francis announced the date of Francisco and Jacinta Marto's upcoming canonization. The two youngest of Manuel and Olimpia's seven kids, Francisco died at 10 years old in 1918 and Jacinta at 9 in 1920. (The third child, Lucia dos Santos, ended up living to 97 and died in 2005 as a Carmelite religious sister. Her cause of canonization is underway.)
In canonizing Francisco and Jacinta, the Church is teaching something fundamental not only about sanctity, but about how we should respond to the message and mission our Lady entrust in Fatima.
They are being canonized not just for having been recipients of Mary's apparitions. Not all those to whom the Blessed Mother has appeared have been canonized -- most notably the seers of La Salette -- because not all have lived lives of exemplary heroic virtue after receiving the apparitions.
They're being canonized because of the faith and whole-hearted commitment with which they responded to Mary's summons.
There was a time when it appeared that Francisco and Jacinta would never make the altars. In 1937, when people began to move to open their cause of canonization, Pope Pius XI decreed that causes of minors shouldn't be accepted because he believed that it was impossible for children to understand and practice the heroic virtues essential for canonization. After John Paul II's election, however, 300 bishops sent letters asking for reconsideration in light of the fact that many, especially children, were attracted to their virtues and miracles were being granted through their intercession.
The Congregation for the Causes of Saints convened a plenary assembly in 1979 and concluded that just like there could be mathematical or musical prodigies, so there could be spiritual ones. Ten years later, after an exhaustive study, John Paul II declared that they had lived the virtues of faith, hope and love heroically, and in 2000, after a miracle surpassing any and all medical explanation, they were beatified in Fatima. St. John Paul II said that because they had dedicated themselves "with total generosity to the direction of such a good Teacher," the Queen of Saints herself, "Jacinta and Francisco soon reached the heights of perfection."
Their precocious heroic virtue and total generosity in Mary's school are conspicuous in the way they responded to her summons. After Mary appealed to them to pray and do mortification for the conversion of sinners, Francisco and Jacinta underwent a radical transformation.
Francisco gave up innocent childhood games and pleasures, began to share his food and possessions with others, and began to pray almost constantly to "console Jesus for the sins of the world." One night, when his father discovered him sobbing in his room, Francisco gave the reason: "I was thinking of Jesus who is so sad because of the sins that are committed against him." He would spend as much time as he could with the "Hidden Jesus" in the Tabernacle.
Jacinta was so convinced by the vision of the reality of Hell of the importance of saving sinners from it that she freely gave up dancing, flowers, and other childhood frivolities and began to pour herself into prayer and practice various corporal mortifications. "Pray, pray much and make sacrifices for sinners," Mary had told her. "Many souls go to hell because they have no one to pray and make sacrifices for them." Jacinta responded, as did her brother, by prostrating themselves in prayer for hours, kneeling with their heads humbly bowed to the ground. No prayer or penance, including badgering from freemason civil leaders and skeptical clergy, including fasting and giving up water on hot days, seemed too great to offer for the cause. "If only I could place in the heart of everyone," she said, "the fire that I have in my heart that makes me love the Heart of Mary so much!"
When both caught the terrible 1918 Spanish Influenza that took the lives of tens of thousands, they offered all of their sufferings for sinners. Having been told by Our Lady that she would take him to heaven soon, Francisco declined hospital treatment, bearing enormous pain with a smile and without complaint, dying the day after his first Confession and first Holy Communion.
Our Lady appeared to Jacinta and asked if she wanted to stay on earth a little longer suffering to convert more sinners. She enthusiastically said yes. So the little girl allowed herself to be dragged from clinic to clinic, to have two of her ribs removed without anaesthesia, enduring bronchial pneumonia, a pulmonary abscess, an open ulcer on her side and tuberculosis, valiantly offering everything for the conversion of sinners and for the Holy Father, whom she knew from the visions would suffer much.
In short, Francisco and Jacinta are about to be declared the youngest non-martyred saints not because they received apparitions from our Lady but because of the way they responded to the graces they received. And if they could become holy in so short a time, what ought to be the outcome of our life, with far more time and a century to ponder the ever relevant message of Our Lady and respond with childlike faith?
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.