by Leo Madigan
Of all the people the Church holds up for our veneration perhaps the most accessible are the seers of Fatima, Francisco and Jacinta Marto. Their short lives have been minutely documented and this access we have to their daily actions and reactions makes them familiar to us in a way that few, if any beati have ever been to the Church Militant.
While acknowledging that the seers were recipients of extraordinary graces we should also reflect that it was their very ordinariness that gave those graces the scope to bear fruit. Ordinariness was their greatest natural virtue and it would seem that Heaven thought so too, which is one reason why it chose them for its great mission.
The world can never understand why, in the attested visitations from our Heavenly Mother, such as at Lourdes, La Salette and Fatima, it is always to children that she appears, and peasant children at that. “Now if she made herself known to a delegation of Senators,” you can hear some slick journalist mutter, “or took the floor during a United Nations plenary session, we could get something done.” But, alas, those of consequence in this world are usually carrying weighty luggage stuffed full of pride and preconceptions and not even Heaven itself can fill what is already full.
Francisco emerges through Lucia’s writings, and from contemporary interviews with family, friends and neighbours, as a transparent boy, guileless, even-tempered, affectionate and trusting yet no attention- seeker. Attention seeking is a natural enough characteristic in children, but one often spared the younger members of large families. Lucia tells us that, unlike Jacinta, he was neither capricious or vivacious, but quiet and submissive by nature.
She admits that she wasn’t always kindly disposed towards him because his naturally calm temperament exasperated my own excessive vivacity. She furnishes examples which make him singularly unassertive. Rather telling is her comment, nothing enchanted him as much as the beauty of sunrise or sunset. It gets so that a reader can’t help wondering if Francisco is compulsively compliant or an incipient contemplative. Or, which seems more likely, a bit of both – with grace building on nature.
This compliance of Francisco’s, this docility, might be interpreted as low self esteem, but that defect is usually associated with inverted vanity, guilt, excessive self-expectation and a whole menu of complications. We find none of these in the boy. It’s not low self esteem that we find, but no self esteem – well, anyway, no vanity, no guilt, no thwarted self expectation.
One of the most endearing aspects of Francisco’s reaction to the apparitions is his total lack of ruffled pride when he realises that the girls can hear the angel, and later the Blessed Virgin, but he cannot. I could see he was talking to you. I heard what you said to him; but what he said to you I don’t know. Most children’s response would be “Why them and not me? It’s not fair!” Even when, after the first encounter with the angel, he asks what was said and the girls tell him to ask tomorrow, he is not offended. He waited quite contentedly but did not let slip the very next opportunity of putting more questions.
This placidity in Francisco’s temperament amazes again during the first apparition of the Lady who says She comes from heaven and who promises Lucia that she will go to heaven.
And Jacinta? Lucia asks.
She will go also.
He will go there too, but he must say many rosaries.
Any boy might be expected to take the attitude, “Well, what’s the matter with me? Why am I the leper in this party?” But Francisco, when he has been told what the Lady has said, crosses his hands on his breast, Lucia tells us, and exclaims spontaneously, Oh, my dear Our Lady! I’ll say as many rosaries as you want!
(An interesting observation here is that this sentence was written by Lucia in 1941. During the first apparition the children didn’t know who the Lady was, so it is unlikely that Francisco would have said, dear Our Lady! However, if this is an oversight on the part of Lucia it is a very understandable and touching one.)
The pathologically pious of us, those who want to see signs and wonders in every breeze that blows, will interpret this placidity in Francisco’s character as a manifestation of advanced virtue, of Divine indifference, of infused patience, of a soul so saturated in heavenly light that it has lost sight of its own ego. But nobody, not even the greatest saints, have enjoyed such favours on a permanent basis in this life. And we are talking here of a nine year old boy, a boy who didn’t make his First Communion until the day before he died two years later. True, he was being groomed for greatness but his temperament, that mysterious combination of genes and early influences, had been fixed in the seemingly haphazard manner which is the way with such things. It was Grace that was at work.
Neither Francisco, nor Jacinta, nor Lucia were exceptional children. It was grace that was exceptional - subtle, silent, unspectacular grace. The Message of Fatima, which is the Message of the Gospels with added urgency, reveals its workings in its messengers.
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