Who Saw the Visions?
In the summer of 1917, while "the war to end all wars" raged across northern Europe, a series of events occurred in rural Portugal that would ultimately eclipse in importance even the greatest of global conflicts.
Those events were the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to three peasant children in a field called the Cova da Iria, near Fatima, a small village in central Portugal, about 90 miles from Lisbon. Our Lady conveyed to the children messages from Heaven of vital importance, indeed an Apocalyptic urgent message not only to the Catholic Church but to the entire world!
Of the three shepherd children who witnessed the Fatima apparitions, only the eldest, Lucy dos Santos, survives today. She has spent most of her adult life as a cloistered nun, and currently lives in a convent in Coimbra, Portugal, not far from her birthplace. Now over 94 years old, Sister Lucy was barely 10 when Our Lady's apparitions first occurred to her.
During the six apparitions, Lucy was the only one of the three children to actually speak to the Blessed Virgin, both asking questions and answering them. Lucy was also the only one of the three to write down her own description of her conversations, including a text with the Blessed Virgin's words.
Father Formigao, Sister Lucy's first spiritual director, after interrogating her, said "My child, you must love Our Lord very much, in return for so many graces and favors He is granting you."
The youngest of six children, Lucy had already shown signs of exceptional piety and devotion well before the apparitions.
At a time when, in spite of the recent decrees of Pope Saint Pius X, great strictness on the age for First Communion still remained, Lucy obtained the signal favor of being able to go to Holy Communion at the age of six.
Sister Lucy recalls:
"When the priest came to distribute the Bread of Angels my heart beat so hard that I thought it was going to come out of my chest. But as soon as he placed the Divine Host on my lips, I felt a serenity and unalterable peace. I felt swallowed up by an atmosphere so supernatural that the presence of our good God became to me as perceptible as if I were seeing Him and hearing Him with my bodily senses."
Sister Lucy then addressed these supplications to Our Lord:
"'Lord, make a Saint out of me, preserve my heart always pure for You alone!' It seemed to me then that the Good God spoke to me in the depth of my heart these very clear words: 'The grace which is given you today will remain living in your soul, and will produce there fruits of eternal life.' I felt, in this way, transformed in God."
In 1919, Sister Lucy's mother, Maria Rosa fell gravely ill, not far from death. Lucy's elder sister, Maria dos Anjos, seeing that there was no longer any hope, pleaded:
"Lucy, if it is true that you saw Our Lady, go now to Cova da Iria, ask Her to cure our mother. Promise Her what you wish, we will do it, and then we will believe."
It was winter and it was raining hard. Lucy went through paths which cut across fields, reciting her Rosary.
"I made my request to the Most Holy Virgin. Giving free rein to grief, I poured out abundant tears and I returned to the house comforted, in the hope that my dearest Heavenly Mother would grant health to my mother on earth.
"When I entered the house, my mother already felt a little better, and three days later, she could do the housework. I had promised the Most Holy Virgin, if She would grant what I asked Her, to go nine days in succession, accompanied by my sisters, to recite the Rosary at the Cova da Iria, and to walk on our knees from the top of the road to the foot of the holm-oak; and on the last day, to take with us nine poor children and afterwards give them a meal …" Maria dos Anjos testifies that "the crisis disappeared on the spot."
To this day, pious pilgrims to Fatima can be seen tracing Lucy's path on their knees, young mothers with their robust babies strapped to their back, people on crutches, grandfathers and grandmothers, making their way toward the holm-oak tree, reciting the Rosary the entire way. This prayer path where pilgrims walk on their knees to the place Our Lady appeared has been the cause for many recorded miracles of cures and conversions.
The other two children, first cousins to Lucy, also demonstrated deep religious devotion from an early age. The elder of the two, Francisco Marto, was exceptionally devoted to what he called "the Hidden Jesus" in the most Holy Eucharist, and spent many hours in prayer before the Tabernacle in order to console Him. His devotion intensified after the Fatima experiences, in which he saw the visions, but did not hear the Virgin speak.
What impressed Francisco during the apparitions Lucy reports, "was God, the Most Blessed Trinity, in that immense light which penetrated us in the depths of our soul.
"We were burning in that light which is God and we were not consumed. What is God? We could never put it into words! Yes, truly, no one will ever be able to express it! What a pity it is. He is so sad! If only we could console Him!"
On August 19, then again on October 13, the Most Holy Virgin also showed Herself very much afflicted and, in that contemplation, Francisco found his own vocation, the goal of his whole life; to console Our Lady and Our Lord.
Francisco was 10 years old when he died on April 4, 1919, just a year and a half after the last apparition at Cova da Iria, the field near Fatima where Our Lady had come to appear six times.
But, showered with graces at each one of the apparitions of Our Lady, sanctified by the numberless Rosaries that he had recited, by his solitary prayers in the country and the long hours spent near the Tabernacle, all absorbed in consoling the hidden Jesus, purified finally by the suffering of his illness, he was already prepared for Heaven and the Virgin Mary came to get him.
We cannot help ourselves from thinking that in thus granting the grace of such a precocious sanctity to Francisco of Fatima, the Most Holy Virgin wants us to know that She is indeed the Mediatrix of all Graces.
The third seer was Francisco's younger sister, Jacinta. Only seven at the time of the apparitions, Jacinta both saw and heard the Virgin, but did not speak to Her during the 1917 apparitions. She was also reluctant to talk about the visions, though she was the first to bring them to the attention of her parents.
Jacinta is the one to whom the Blessed Virgin had granted, with a greater abundance of graces, a better knowledge of God and of virtue. In fact, although she was the youngest of the three seers, she is the one who seems first of all to have benefitted from the greatest intimacy with the Most Holy Virgin.
Among the short prayers taught them, Jacinta had chosen: "Sweet Heart of Mary, be my salvation!" Sometimes, after saying that, she would add with that simplicity so natural to her:
"I love so much the Immaculate Heart of Mary! It is the Heart of our little Mama of Heaven! Do you not love to repeat often: Sweet Heart of Mary, Immaculate Heart of Mary? Me, I love that so much, so much!"
Sometimes, she would gather flowers from the fields, and at the same time sing to a tune that she had made up: "Sweet Heart of Mary, convert sinners. Save souls from hell!"
Our Lady asked Jacinta if she were willing to suffer much to save sinners from hell. Jacinta agreed. Some weeks later, shortly after Francisco had died, Jacinta was sent to Saint Augustine hospital at Vila Nova de Ourem, about 10 miles from Fatima. During her two-month stay at the hospital, Jacinta suffered tremendously, and more than everything else, from her painful solitude.
Reproduction of an original photograph of
Jacinta, Lucy and Francisco at the time
Our Lady appeared to them.
Lucy asked her then if she was suffering a great deal.
"I suffer, yes. But I offer everything for sinners and in reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary."
Then she spoke enthusiastically of Our Lord and Our Lady, and said:
"I love so much to suffer for Their love and to make Them happy! They love very much those who suffer for the conversion of sinners."
Jacinta could not be cured in Ourem and was sent home. In an effort to save her life, her parents were persuaded to send her to Lisbon. Her mother accompanied her but had to return to Fatima. She left her in the care of the sisters at an orphanage.
On February 2, 1920, on the Feast of the Presentation of the Child Jesus, Jacinta left Our Lady of the Miracles Orphanage for the Lisbon hospital Dona Estefania.
Dr. Castro Freire who received her at the hospital diagnosed "purulent pleurisy of the large left cavity, with fistula; osteitis of the seventh and eighth ribs of the same side."
On February 10, Jacinta was operated on. She had much to suffer, for they could not give her a general anesthetic, because of her extreme weakness, and they had to be content with a local anesthetic, a method which was still imperfect at the time. They withdrew two ribs from her left side; the wound was as large as a hand; she suffered greatly from it, and the pain was revived each time it was necessary to bandage the wound.
The doctor in Lisbon who operated on Jacinta considered her a saint because although the local anesthetic did not work, Jacinta never complained. The doctor heard her say to Our Lord: "Now Jesus You can save many souls because I suffer very much."
On February 20, 1920, Jacinta died alone, with no one to assist her in her last moments.
The Church has given witness to the heroic sanctity of the Fatima children whom Our Lady promised to take to Heaven. In May 1989, the Holy Father proclaimed them venerable. They were beatified by the same Pope on May 13, 2000, to the great joy of the faithful, who now pray earnestly for their canonization.
Immediately after the first apparition of Our Lady on May 13, 1917, all three of the children agreed to tell no one about seeing Our Lady and what She said.
Nevertheless, seven-year-old Jacinta, moved by a special grace and her youthful enthusiasm, was unable to contain herself and spoke to her mother about the first apparition that evening, thus the events came to public attention.
Though Jacinta did not elaborate, what little she said was enough to cause rumors to be spread through the vicinity, and there were both devout and simply curious onlookers at all subsequent apparitions.
The historical account of what happened during the apparitions took many years to unfold, because the Blessed Virgin Herself desired the full account to be given at a later date when, because of certain events, the Church would be able to understand it.
During the third apparition, Our Lady specifically requested that they keep part of the message secret until that time.
Despite this growing attention, as well as intensive interrogations by parents, priests, bishops and government officials, the three children kept their secret.
The best source of information about what happened during the apparitions is therefore Sister Lucy, who still had much to disclose when she entered a convent at the age of 18. There, she continued to maintain the silence Our Lady had requested, for many more years. Then, in a series of six "memoirs" written at the request of bishops and spiritual advisers between the mid 1930's and the early 1990's, Sister Lucy provided various accounts of what happened during the six apparitions of 1917.
The most detailed accounts are in the fourth memoir, which was written in 1941, some 24 years after the events took place. (Passages quoted here are from an English language edition of the original Portuguese documents published under the title Fatima in Lucy's Own Words by Postulation Center, published in 1976 in Fatima, Portugal.)