Can small children be saints? Fatima shows the answer is yes

The Fatima seers: Lucia Santos, left, with Blessed Francisco Marto and Blessed Jacinta Marto (Photo: Wikipedia)

Late last week, the Vatican confirmed that a second miracle for Blesseds Jacinta and Francisco Marto, the little shepherd-seers of Fatima who died during the Spanish Flu Pandemic, has now been approved. It seems likely that Pope Francis will canonise them personally on May 13, when he will be at Fatima to commemorate the centenary of the apparitions.

This is welcome news, though hardly a surprise. After all, the Church’s formal process of canonisation does not move its subjects into heaven. It simply proclaims – infallibly, it is traditionally believed – that they have been there all along. This ecclesiastical “confirmation hearing” is important: among much else, it functions as a kind of “Chartered Intercessors” kitemark.

But on this occasion, even an ultramontane like me didn’t need a formal rubber-stamping to be convinced that the Marto siblings are authentic saints. Frankly, the only real surprise here is that a beatification for their cousin, Sr Lúcia de Santos, the third seer who died in 2005, wasn’t included in the announcement.

For, even had the Sun itself not testified to the truth of the Fatima apparitions, the children themselves would be ample fruits from which to know it. Jacinta and Francisco show what holiness may be achieved by souls who not only embrace the message of Fatima, but are embraced by its Messenger. And all while still of primary-school age.

Prior to “the events”, at least, the little shepherds were not caricaturishly pious. True, while tending their families’ sheep, they would pray the rosary. Well, sort of, at least. According to Lúcia, they would race through it, saying only the opening words of each prayer (“Our Father, Glory be, Hail Mary, Hail Mary…”). Even then, they might fall asleep before they’d finished. Once the wonders began, the children retained a charming sense of mischief: asked by the pious tourists flocking to Fatima if they knew where the seers lived, they would “helpfully” point them in the right direction. Recall too, that Our Lady famously told Francisco that while, like his sister, he would make it to heaven, it would take a lot of rosaries first. (Call me a modernist, but personally I always imagine her saying that with an affectionate smile.)

When it really came down to it, however, all three exhibited truly – and, given their ages, astonishingly – heroic virtue. Bearing in mind the outlandish tales they had to tell, it is unsurprising that they were roundly condemned as liars, including by their own families. But they steadfastly refused to deny it.

At one point, they were kidnapped by the leader of the regional (and fanatically anticlerical) government, thrown into a cell with the town’s petty thieves, and told that they would be boiled alive in oil – a threat they fully believed. Nevertheless, as we say today, they persisted.

Writing in 2000, then-Cardinal Ratzinger recalled a conversation he had once had with Sr Lúcia:

[She] said that it appeared ever more clearly to her that the purpose of all the apparitions was to help people to grow more and more in faith, hope and love—everything else was intended to lead to this.

The words and actions of soon-to-be-Saints Jacinta and Francisco fully bear witness to this.

Little Jacinta, horrified at the thought that even one soul would be lost, once confided to her cousin:

[When I am in Heaven] I’m going to love Jesus very much, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, too. I’m going to pray a lot for you, for sinners, for the Holy Father, for my parents and my brothers and sisters, and for all the people who have asked me to pray for them…

And with what words did she plan to do this? Naturally enough, it was the ones – twenty-nine of them (in English, at least) – that Our Lady herself had taught Jacinta and her companions: O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those with most need of thy mercy. Amen.

Though Our Lady herself suggested that “When you pray the Rosary, say [it] after each decade”, the children would also use it as a standalone prayer. Francisco, meanwhile, uttered it prior to making his confession before his First – and tragically last – Holy Communion, as he lay dying in April 1919.

Lúcia recollects that Jacinta, who would die of the same illness early the following year, would recite it ‘often’ when struck by fears regarding others’ eternal fate: “Jacinta [would remain] remain on her knees like this for long periods of time, saying the same prayer over and over again.”

Holy Mother Church canonises saints for our benefit, not for theirs. She holds them up to us as examples – “living translations of the gospel”, as the Pope Emeritus once put it. They should inspire us to become saints ourselves.

That is a big task, even though one achievable in a short life. But we can at least make a start, by praying like, and with, a saint. Not bad for just twenty-nine words.

Professor Bullivant’s latest book, co-authored with Luke Arredondo, O My Jesus: The Meaning of the Fátima Prayer (Paulist Press, 2017), is available for pre-order.