The 1917 apparitions of Mary described by three shepherd children at Fatima captured the hearts and imagination of the Catholic world in a special way.
From their first vision of the beautiful “lady in white,” on May 13, 1917, in a field called Cova da Iria in Portugal, the children—Jacinta and Francisco Martos and their cousin, Lucia dos Santos—remained steadfast in the story of their shared experience.
The visions would come once a month after that, until the final apparition on Oct. 13, 1917, which drew huge crowds to the site as word about the visions spread.
The Church later declared the visions worthy of belief, and even today the Fatima story resonates. A massive shrine stands at the site where the children first saw the “beautiful lady,” attracting thousands pilgrims each year, especially on May 13 and Oct. 13, the anniversaries of the first and last of the visions.
Pope Francis will be among the pilgrims this year, with a visit May 13 to mark the centennial of the first apparition and to preside over the canonization ceremony that will declare the sainthood of Blessed Jacinta and Blessed Francisco Martos.
Francisco was 10 when he died, barely six months after the final vision; Jacinta died the following year at age 9. Both succumbed to the influenza pandemic sweeping across Europe at the time. Lucia, who lived a long life as a Carmelite nun, died in 2005 at age 97; her sainthood cause is now under study by the Vatican.
What is remarkable about the Fatima visionaries, and the likely reason their story has touched so many, is their youthful innocence. Jacinta, after all, was only 7 when the Blessed Mother first appeared, and her companions were not much older.
Announcing the canonization of the Martos children, Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, said that of the future saints considered at the same consistory as the Fatima children, five were children or young teenagers.
“In our time, where young people often become objects of exploitation and commerce, these young people excel as witnesses of truth and freedom, messengers of peace (and) of a new humanity reconciled in love,” he said.
It was, however, the very youthfulness of Jacinta and Francisco that stalled the cause of their canonization for decades, due to a debate on whether non-martyred children have the capacity to understand heroic virtues at a young age.
Thankfully, in 1979 St. John Paul II allowed their cause to proceed as one of his earliest acts as pope. He recognized, as so many of us do instinctively, that children are often able to witness truths that are blocked by many adults, whose views are often filtered through the biased and defensive thinking that seems to come with age.
The courage, and the purity of faith, displayed by the Fatima children are indeed inspiring, and their sainthood ensures they will not be forgotten.