Today, July 13th, is the 100th commemoration of one of the famous apparitions of Mary to the children at Fatima. On the date of the July apparition, two of the most critical moments of the interaction between Mary and Lucia, (Saint) Francisco and (Saint) Jacinta took place: the visions commonly referred to as the “secrets” of Fatima, and the revelation of the so-called Fatima Prayer:
O My Jesus, forgive us our sins
Save us from the fires of hell
And lead all souls to heaven,
Especially those in most need of thy mercy
First, note that the “secret” consisted, among other things, of a vision of Hell, which is described in truly frightening terms. It had a major impact on the children. Prior to seeing the eternal fires of hell, Lucia asked Mary if they would all join her in heaven. She replied that yes, Francisco and Jacinta would be with her in heaven soon (although she stipulated that Francisco would have to pray “many Rosaries” in order to get there). Lucia, too, was told she would go to heaven, but that she would need to wait a while. She had a different mission. One wonders, if she knew that she’d have to wait almost 90 more years, whether she would have been a little less excited.
In any event, the children are assured: you will end up in heaven. THEN, they see the vision of Hell. And the impact it had on them was so tremendous that it inspired, in the few remaining years they had, truly heroic virtue. Lucia says that this vision had the most profound influence on Saint Jacinta, who she felt was given the greatest virtues and graces from the encounter. Jacinta would often take the lead in offering sacrifices on behalf of other poor souls who were in danger of going to Hell.
Take a moment to really let that sink in. You have a seven year old child, totally innocent, who had already once before been given the Eucharist from the hands of an angelic visitor. She is assured she will end up in heaven, and that it will happen soon. And yet…she spends the remaining years ardently praying, fasting, suffering, and offering her own will, in union with Christ on behalf of those who were as of yet too unaware of their desperate need for grace.
For these children, but particularly for Saint Jacinta, just the notion that anyone might end up in Hell was terrifying and heart-rending. Lucia says that they would not have been able to go on living, after seeing a glimpse of Hell, if they had not been given the assurance of Our Lady that they would never go there. It would have been too difficult to cope with the fear and dread if they knew they had any chance of ending up there. But even aware of their own salvation from hell, they prayed very fervently to help keep others from that fate.
It is also worth noting that, due to doubts by her family members, Lucia had made up her mind not to show up for the apparition on July 13th. Fancisco and Jacinta had initially planned to go on without her, as she was holding firm. But, at the last minute, she had a change of heart. She describes it in her memoirs:
“I felt I had to go, impelled by a strange force that I could hardly resist. Then I set out, and called at my uncle’s house to see if Jacinta was still there. I found her in her room, together with her brother Francisco, kneeling beside the bed, crying. “Aren’t you going then?” I asked. “Not without you! We don’t dare. Do come!” “Yes, I’m going,” I replied.
Their faces lighted up with joy, and they set out with me.”
After the visions/secrets, Mary gave the children these instructions:
“When you pray the Rosary, say after each mystery: O my Jesus…”
Putting this into context of the broader apparitions is important. Mary had already communicated to the children several times that they needed to pray the Rosary, and to do so every day, and that everyone ought to follow this example so as to bring peace to the world. Since they had already been instructed to pray the Rosary daily, adding this prayer request meant that Mary desired, at a minimum, for this prayer to be said five times a day.
When Mary, who gave the Rosary to St. Dominic, asks for you to pray it daily, and to add in a special prayer, that’s a pretty major event. But the connection to the Secrets, and the vision of Hell, is also significant. Because Mary’s directives for prayer are tied, in some sense, to the peace of the world. But they are also tied to personal holiness.
The brief, 29 word Fatima Prayer reminds us both of our own spiritual life (O my Jesus) as well as our duty to pray for and seek the spiritual good of others (forgive us our sins, lead all souls to heaven). The Fatima Prayer, then, unites the horizontal and vertical dimensions of our faith, reminds us of our membership in the One Body of Christ, and speaks powerfully both to the possibility of real sin, and real eternal punishment, as well as the goodness of God’s mercy. It packs a lot into such a small space.
But the connection between the holiness of the Body of Christ, and the peace of the world, I think gets overlooked by many Fatima enthusiasts. What I mean is that I’ve encountered many Fatima devotees who wonder, almost with alarm and concern, why Russia has not been converted yet, and why peace has never fully reigned. One possible suggestion is that maybe we haven’t taken our obligations to pray, to fast, and to suffer, and above all to live a live of authentic love for others as we ought.
In any event, we can at the very least take courage from the example of both Saints Jacinta and Francisco as well as Sister Lucia. They show us two paths to take forward. One is the immediate immersion in prayer and sufferings, taken on with the kind of gusto only a child can muster. These two young saints died early and burned with fervent love for Christ and His Church. Lucia on the other hand had to go from the remarkable, public miracles of Fatima, to the normal life in a convent. She endured in the ordinary circumstances of life as a witness to fidelity and devotion.
No doubt, 100 years ago, the children couldn’t have imagined how much this day would mean, and that we’d still be thinking about them. One can also be sure they’d point us away from their own lives and examples, toward Mary and Jesus.