On this day in 1920, February 20th, the ‘Spanish’ influenza took the life of nine-year old Jacinta Marto, as she lay alone in a hospital bed. She had suffered for weeks, including a vain attempt to alleviate her symptoms by removing two of her ribs, without proper anesthetic. The same illness had claimed her ten-year old brother, Francisco, in April of the preceding year. Both had received numerous visitations from the Blessed Virgin, along with their cousin, Lucia dos Santos, who went on to become a discalced Carmelite, dying in February of 2005.
All three of the children were irrevocably changed by what they had seen, including an image of hell, and the two siblings in particular devoted the rest of their brief lives to prayer and penance for sinners, kneeling for hours, often with their heads on the ground, regularly reciting the Rosary, and of course, devout participation in the sacraments, not least Holy Mass. Francisco was later to say of what he saw:
We were burning in that light which is God and we were not consumed. What is God like?
It is impossible to say. In fact, we will never be able to tell people
Jacinta, known for her affectionate disposition – her father called her the sweetest of his nine children – was deeply moved by what she had seen, especially in her desire to convert sinners. She asked her cousin Lucia:
Why doesn’t Our Blessed Lady show hell to sinners? If they could see it they would never commit any more sins.
The answer might be the same one Abraham gave to the rich man. Even if they saw, would they believe? And if they believed, would they repent? After all, is not every sin a small prelude of hell?
Ironically, Jacinta died without the last rites, as the hospital chaplain claimed she was in no immediate danger. So she went to God alone, as Our Lady told her she would, her soul so pure that the Almighty welcomed her without these usual sacramental means of purification. Her body was exhumed twice decades later – in 1935 and 1951 – and was found to be incorrupt, in a state of perfect preservation.
Their beatification was delayed for decades, as it was claimed they were too young to understand the concept of ‘heroic virtue’. Yet one might peruse Saint Thomas’ description of Confirmation, arguing that it should be given at the ‘age of discretion’, at the very dawn of reason:
As stated above, the age of the body does not affect the soul. Consequently even in childhood man can attain to the perfection of spiritual age, of which it is written (Wisdom 4:8): “Venerable old age is not that of long time, nor counted by the number of years.” And hence it is that many children, by reason of the strength of the Holy Ghost which they had received, fought bravely for Christ even to the shedding of their blood. (III. q. 72, a. 1, ad 2)
They both covered a long spiritual distance in a very short time, which should give us who have been given much more time, and covered far less distance, pause for some deep reflection – not least as we soon begin our Lenten pilgrimage.
Jacinta and Francisco were beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II on May 13th, who had a great devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, in the Jubilee Year 2000, and he said of them:
Father, to You I offer praise, for you have revealed these things to the merest children. Today Jesus’ praise takes the solemn form of the beatification of the little shepherds, Francisco and Jacinta. With this rite the Church wishes to put on the candlelabrum these two candles which God lit to illumine humanity in its dark and anxious hours. …Father, to You I offer praise for all Your children, from the Virgin Mary, Your humble Servant, to the little shepherds, Francisco and Jacinta. May the message of their lives live on forever to light humanity’s way
They were canonized by Pope Francis, also on May 13th, in 2017, the hundredth anniversary of the first apparition. They are the youngest non-martyr saints in the history of the Church, with Saint Jacinta being the youngest.
Just so, she said many wise things during her brief life, which she heard from Our Lady (the Seat of Wisdom!), from which we who are older and more ‘educated’, could learn:
- “Souls go to hell because of sins of impurity more than any other.”
- “War is a punishment from God for sins.”
- “Certain fashions are going to be introduced that will offend Our Lord very greatly and those who serve God should not follow them.”
- “Many marriages are not good, they are not pleasing to our Lord and are not of God.”
- “Priests must be very pure and concentrate on their mission to the Church and souls, and be obedient to the Pope and their Superiors.”
- “My dear mother, run away from riches. Cherish silence and holy poverty. Always be charitable, even with those who are unkind. Never criticize others and avoid those who do.”
What joy and peace we could all find in such sanctity! And, to paraphrase the devil’s own confession to Saint Jean Vianney, how our fractious and fractured world could be changed for the better, if there were but a few more ‘little’ saints as Jacinta and Francisco.
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