FATIMA, Portugal // Pope Francis added two Portuguese shepherd children to the roster of Catholic saints on Saturday, honouring young siblings whose reported visions of the Virgin Mary 100 years ago turned the Portuguese farming town of Fatima into one of the world’s most important Catholic shrines.
Francis proclaimed Francisco and Jacinta Marto saints at the start of a Mass marking the centenary of their visions. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were on hand, many of whom had spent days at Fatima in quiet prayer. They broke into applause as soon as the pope read the proclamation aloud.
“It is amazing, it is like an answer to prayer because I felt that always they would be canonised,” said Agnes Walsh from Killarney, Ireland. She said she prayed to Francisco Marto for 20 years, hoping her four daughters would meet “nice boys like Francisco”.
“The four of them have met boys that are just beautiful. I couldn’t ask for better, so he has answered all my prayers,” she said.
Francisco, 9, Jacinta, 7, and their 10-year-old cousin, Lucia, reported that on March 13, 1917, the Virgin Mary made the first of a half-dozen appearances to them here while they grazed their sheep. They said she confided in them three secrets — foretelling apocalyptic visions of hell, war, communism and the death of a pope — and urged them to pray for peace and a conversion away from sin.
At the time, Europe was in the throes of the First World War, and the Portuguese church was suffering under anti-clerical laws from the republican government that had forced many bishops and priests into exile.
Local civil authorities had threatened the children with death by boiling oil if they did not recant their story. But they held fast and eventually the church recognised the apparitions as authentic in 1930.
The Martos are now the youngest saints who did not die as martyrs.
Before the Mass, Francis prayed at the tombs of each of the Fatima visionaries. The Marto siblings died two years after the visions during Europe’s Spanish flu pandemic. Lucia, who later became a nun, is on track for beatification — a step towards canonisation — but the process could not start until after her death in 2005.
The ceremony on Saturday was attended by Joao Baptista and his wife, Lucila Yurie, of Brazil. The medically inexplicable healing of their son, Lucas, was the “miracle” needed for the Marto siblings to be declared saints.
The boy, then five years old, fell 6.5 metres from a window in 2013 and suffered such severe head trauma that doctors said he would be severely mentally disabled or in a vegetative state if he even survived. The boy not only survived but has no signs of any after-effects.
“We thank God for Lucas’ cure and we know in all faith from our heart that this miracle was obtained with the help of the little shepherd children Francisco and Jacinta,” Mr Baptista said earlier as the family broke their silence to reveal details of the case.
In 2000, Saint John Paul II beatified the Marto siblings during a Mass at Fatima and used the occasion of the new millennium to reveal the third secret that the children reported they had received from the Virgin Mary. The text, written by Lucia, had been kept in a sealed envelope inside the Vatican for decades. It told of a “bishop dressed in white” — the pope — on his knees at the foot of a cross, killed in a hail of bullets and arrows, along with other bishops, priests and various lay Catholics, and an angel crying out “penance, penance, penance!”
The impending canonisation of the children had led to speculation that a fourth secret remained, but the Vatican has insisted there are no more secrets related to the Fatima revelations.
* Associated Press