As the 10 year old Jacinta Marto lay dying in bed No 60 of the Children’s ward of Lisbon’s Dona Estafánia Hospital during those days after her operation it wasn’t the first time she had approached death. There had been a rehearsal, a rehearsal as real and as terrifying as anything experienced by Christians huddled together under the Colesium petrified by the roar of the lions and the howls of delight from the crowds.
Three years before that she had been told by the Administrator of the Ourem district, the highest temporal authority within her orbit and whom she had no reason to disbelieve, that she was straightaway to be boiled in oil.
With hindsight one can chuckle over the preposterous threat but to a 7 year old, who has been abducted and spent her first night ever away from the parental hearth, and then in the morning herded into a jail among criminals, it couldn’t have been more real.
In the Mayor’s office Jacinta and her brother and cousin were told that they were going to die. The oil was already simmering away in the courtyard. Any moment they would be flung into the cauldron. Their bodies, their faces, their mouths, their eyes would be engulfed in the bubbling mass. They would be tossed about in agony like the souls in hell they had seen in that horrific revelation only a month before.
They were alone without family or neighbours. Even the Lady whom they had promised, but failed, to meet the day before in the Cova da Iria was absent except to a sorely tried faith.
By the time they became aware that the administrator was bluffing Jacinta had, in a sense, already accepted and lived through a martyrdom.
But the Lady had invited her to suffer for sinners and that suffering, which was also to be an education in love, was only beginning. Boiled in oil she would be, but a long, stretched-out boiling it would prove, and the oil would be the chrism, now searing, now sweet, now both together, of redemptive pain.
This greater martyrdom saw her whole world change irreparably, saw Francisco die, herself bedridden, removed from home and family, transported to Lisbon where doors as cold as Bethlehem’s slammed shut in her face, to a poor but kindly orphanage, to Dona Esfánia hospital where she lay unsedated as a surgeon cut into her body to remove pus and to hack out two ribs and then, finally, ten days later, to die alone, deprived even of the Eucharist to escort her to the heaven to which her faith had clung so tenaciously.
Those whose reading takes them into the hearts of the saints will recognise a pattern here, the total immolation, the fiat to the terrifying unknown when every feeling, inclination, emotion and reaction urge the contrary. The soul is alone, utterly vulnerable, it has nothing it can recognise except peace, the garment of faith, but even that seems far away, dormant in the core of being.
Jacinta, the 10 year old, has taken the torch from Thérèse. As the world sinks deeper into the quagmire of sin, it would seem that the innocence of the young is becoming increasingly necessary as the burnt offering and atonement sacrifice of the new dispensation. It gives new meaning to the instruction of Jesus, Unless you become as little children you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. It still means to be trusting, certainly, and affectionate, and loyal and wide-eyed, but the King asks the children to pay towards the ransom of their parents who have laughed in His face and are sauntering off along the highway of greed.
To become a little child is also to be prepared to appease outraged love. It is all too easy to be fooled into coo-ing over pictures of a sweet Thérèse holding a bunch of roses, or of Jacinta standing among her sheep smiling serenely at the Lady from Heaven. Through a mystery of grace which we cannot understand both of them were nailed to the cross of Calvary, their bodies as bloodied as Christ’s and their spirits as desolate.
The life of every saint is a life of Jesus Christ.
Jacinta’s sufferings, like Christ’s, weren’t the fear of pain or of death. Pain and death were as commonplace to her in bed No. 60 as bandages and bedpans. She had already died to this world but the horror that clamped her soul as her body lingered here, the horror beside which death was a door in out of the cold, was sin. It was the shadow of that ultimate evil (Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do!) that fell over Jacinta, and Therésè before her, and crushed their souls to the point where, if souls could die, they would have suffocated. Love rescued them. Love had gone on before and was waiting. Love held them very firmly and kissed them and transformed them into itself.
The life of every saint is a life of Jesus Christ. It is a gospel, always the same, always new.
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