Any wise missionary, for good or for evil (and God is the wisest missionary of all), treasures for his cause the conversion and allegiance of children. The barriers to a child’s credulity are usually in ratio to his limited frame of reference. His personality is like a huge house only occupied in part; a skilled adult may enter hand-in-hand with Christ, or else, by his own election, with any of several beguiling anti-Christs, have an excellent chance of settling down in comfortable residence there. This is one of the reasons why Jesus has so sternly and repeatedly warned us against giving scandal to children: He wants them for Himself.
God has set up an honest enterprise. His tap on the shoulder is an invitation but not a lease to paradise. He does not undermine this merit system by making angels of men. He does something fairer than that, and even more thrilling than that. He gives them a chance to become very much like Himself, or like His Mother, who is a person, and not an angel. The fulfillment of this opportunity is not easy; the ascent is invariably steep, with God providing the legs and the power, plus the free choice to climb or not to climb that rests with every man. But God does not make this decision for us. That is our own. And by His own rules there is not much else that God can do.
The children of Aljustrel, for instance, did not forget about the angel they had seen, but their zeal wore thin with the games and private interests that absorbed them in the winter months. Like Peter and James and John, who slept a stone's cast from their Master at Gethsemane, they had not yet been transformed into lovers of the cross.
On the Sunday before the Feast of the Ascension, the village people walked to the parish church at Fatima, some dutiful feet encased in shoes, and as many more unshod.
God preserved us (Jacinta and Francisco's aged mother still declares) from missing Mass on Sunday. We always went, and we brought the children, too, as soon as they were old enough to understand. Sometimes we had to go great distances to other villages, but whatever the weather, rain or shine, I can't remember ever having missed Holy Mass—even when I had children at the breast. I used to get up early and leave everything to my husband who would go later. The only children we did not take were the toddling ones who could not know what was going on, or let you hear Mass properly yourself.
After Mass, with their lunch-bags packed, the children went off with their sheep to the pasture Lucia had chosen—a modest property her parents owned within a rough and rocky spread of land known as the Cova da Iria. They went leisurely along so the sheep could nibble at what random nourishment the roadside would provide. It was a vivid day, and very beautiful. In May-time, then as now, the fields near Fatima are unbelievably gay. The spring flowers bloom in such exaggerated and festive glory that any field you pass attracts the eye like an acre of Easter hats in our own more fashionable precincts. The sky on this wonderful Sunday was cloudless. The bells of the Fatima church were tolling as the sheep strolled into the field.
The children had lunch while their sheep were grazing. They had no expectation this would prove a day that millions would in time commemorate. Lunch was particularly good, with a Sunday dividend added by their mothers. Some of this they saved for later in the afternoon. They said grace and then a Rosary, as was their habit every day. After this they led the sheep to a fresh pasture, higher on the slopes of the Cova da Iria.
They began to amuse themselves by building a little house with odd-sized stones they picked from the field. Francisco was the architect and principal mechanic in this venture, his sister and cousin supplying the rough materials. Their party had just begun to go well, when they were startled by a vivid flash of light. They dropped the stones from their hands and looked about. They hadn't expected lightning on a day so fair, but lightning, whether logical or not, meant to them a thunderstorm. Yet the trees were still. There was no wind. The sky was blue as it had ever been.
"But it could mean a storm," Lucia said; "I think we'd better get ready to go home."
They began to gather their things and look to the sheep, when suddenly another flash of light, strange and unexplained, held them in speechless wonder. Without volition of their own, they walked a few steps forward, and then, as though compelled, they turned their heads to the right.
They saw a Lady, and she was so beautiful that they were never after able to describe her in terms they believed fitting to her radiance and glory. The Lady was young—no more than sixteen years old, and she appeared to be standing on the topmost fragile leaves of a small oak tree, looking down at them with tender interest.
It was a Lady (Lucia has written), clothed in white, and brighter than the sun, radiating a light more intense and clear than a crystal cup would be, were it filled with sparkling water and lit with burning sunlight.
"Don’t be afraid," the Lady said to the children; "I won’t hurt you."
She looked at them a bit sadly, as though to reproach their lack of confidence. Lucia responded to this reassurance. Politely, but directly, she addressed the Lady.
"Where are you from?"
"I come from Heaven," the Lady said.
This seemed to the children entirely reasonable. They knew of Heaven, both from their catechism and the visits of the angel. It simply was that they had never before been able to conceive that even Heaven could produce anyone as radiantly beautiful as the Lady standing before them. They gazed in rapture. The Lady wore a white mantle of breathless purity. It was edged with gold and fell to her feet. In her hands the beads of a rosary shone like stars, with its crucifix the most radiant gem of all. Still, Lucia felt no fear. The Lady's presence produced in her only gladness and confident joy.
"And what do you want of me?" Lucia was brave enough to ask.
"I want you to return here on the thirteenth of each month for the next six months, and at the very same hour," the Lady said. "Later I shall tell you who I am, and what it is that I most desire. And I shall return here yet a seventh time."9 Ah, but Heaven must be great indeed, thought Lucia, to send as lovely a creature as this. Its gifts and wonders had to be beyond all wild imagining.
"And shall I go to Heaven?"
"Yes, you will," the Lady said.
"She will go too."
"Francisco, too, but he will first have many Rosaries to pray."
Here the Lady's beautiful and compassionate glance rested for a little while on Francisco, and for reasons we are not qualified to fathom, it held a shade of sadness and disapproval. Somewhere in his little heart the Lady must have read a fault that others could not see. In joy they beheld the Lady, while Lucia in her own mind was already populating paradise with friends. She remembered two of her companions who recently had died. And of the Lady then, in her charity, she anxiously asked:
"Is Maria Neves in Heaven?"
"Yes, she is."
"She will be in Purgatory until the end of the world," the Lady said.
That was sad, thought Lucia. Her eyes filled with tears. She looked once again to the Lady, as though there might be something they could do for Amelia. The Lady then asked them a question that concerned not only Amelia, but all the sons and daughters of earth.
"Will you offer yourselves to God, and bear all the sufferings He sends you? In reparation for all the sins that offend Him? And for the conversion of sinners?"
"Yes, we are willing." Lucia said for them all.
"Then you will have a great deal to suffer," the Lady said, "but the grace of God will be your comfort."
As she pronounced these words, she opened her hands, communicating to us a light so intense that, as it streamed from her hands, its rays penetrated our hearts and the innermost depths of our souls, making us see ourselves in god, Who was that light, more clearly than we see ourselves in the best of mirrors. Then, moved by an interior impulse that was also communicated to us, we fell on our knees, repeating in our hearts:
"Oh, Most Holy Trinity, I adore Thee. My God, my God, I love Thee in the Blessed Sacrament."
The children remained kneeling in the flood of this wondrous light, until the Lady spoke again.
"Pray the Rosary every day," she directed, "to bring peace to the world and an end to the war."
Actually they did not know about war and peace. Amelia and Maria Neves were far more real, but they would obey, just the same; they would remember this, and the Lady seemed to know that they would. She was leaving them now. She was rising and passing from sight....
She began to rise slowly (Lucia has testified), moving to the eastward until she disappeared in the blaze of light that cut her path away and beyond our vision...
For an uncertain length of time the three children remained kneeling near the little oak tree, their eyes fixed on the patch of sky that had received the Lady and taken her from view. Slowly they returned from ecstasy and began with some alarm to seek the sheep they had forgotten. But the sheep were grazing near, the flock intact. All had gone well. The children's hearts swelled large with happiness and peace.
Jacinta glowed. She had been silent in the Lady's presence, but now began to chatter breathlessly, and for her happiness, review each small detail of the experience. Her heart danced with her gladness. Her gentle and effusive nature overran itself with more joy, seemingly, than such a small and dancing vessel could contain.
"But she was so lovely, lovely, lovely—wasn't she, Lucia?"
Yes, Lucia agreed; the Lady had been lovely—more than lovely. Mere recollection of her was so exquisite an experience that it was touched with pain. Lucia held close in memory the words the Lady had spoken, and from that moment began to possess a literal understanding of what the words implied. In her mind they spread like a veil of sorrow across the glow of remembered joy. "Will you offer yourself to God and bear all the sufferings He will send you?" the Lady had asked. "In reparation for all the sins that offend Him? And for the conversion of sinners?"
"You must say nothing about this to anyone," Lucia cautioned her cousin. "Do you hear me, Jacinta?"
"Oh, I hear you, and I will say nothing—believe me," Jacinta said, and there were no forebodings to impede her happiness. The gate of Heaven did not seem like a needle's eye to her; it was wider by far than the blue sky over Portugal. There were no misgivings or shadows of sorrow in her sight, for she had not yet turned the coin of salvation to see its other side.
"You won't tell anyone?" Lucia asked again.
"Not anyone. Not even my mother," Jacinta said firmly. As for Francisco, the little boy just walked along, his hands in his pockets, his thoughts his own. The sheep, strolled after them.
Lucia went home that Sunday evening guarding preciously her knowledge of the Lady who came from Heaven. Whether she believed the incident too holy to be communicated to others, or instinctively feared the reaction of her family, it is hard to say. Her father, Antonio Santos, was not a man of pious persuasion to begin with, while her mother's invincible orthodoxy seems to have lacked one important ingredient—the leaven of charity. Maria Rosa feared God and His Mother perhaps a little more than she loved them, and appears to have lacked the breadth of heart or imagination that could tolerate, even sentimentally, any "Cinderella" aspects of religion especially in the case of her own daughter.
Lucia was prudently silent. But not Jacinta. Her desire to share the new and shining wonder of the Lady overwhelmed her. No barriers existed between her mother and herself, and she appears to have forgotten the silence she had promised.
Jacinta's mother wasn't home that Sunday afternoon. She had made the long journey to Batalha with her husband to buy a pig. Jacinta waited eagerly at the gate for them until they finally appeared, Olimpia first, and then Ti Marto, keeping patient pace with the weary animal they had purchased at the fair. Senhora Marto has herself supplied an account of this meeting on the dusty road in front of their house at the tired end of the day:
My little daughter ran to meet me and clutched me around the knees in a way she had never done before. "Mother," she cried excitedly, "I saw Our Lady today, in the Cova da Iria!"
"That's likely, isn't it!" said I. "I suppose you're a saint to be seeing Our Lady!" Jacinta seemed downcast at what I said, but she came into the house with me, saying again: "But I saw her!"
Then she told me what had happened, of the lightning and their fear because of it... of the light... and the beautiful Lady surrounded by light so dazzling you could hardly look at it... of the Rosary which they were to say every day. But I didn't believe anything she was saying, and hardly listened to her. I told her she must have taken leave of her senses, to think that Our Lady had appeared to her!
After that I went to get some food for the pig. My husband had stayed in the corral to see if it was getting on with the other animals. When we had finished seeing to the animals we went back to the house. My Manuel sat down by the hearth and began to eat his supper. His brother-in-law, Antonio da Silva, happened to be there too, and all my children—as far as I can remember, all eight of them. Then I said to Jacinta:
"Tell us that story about Our Lady in the Cova da Iria." And she told us what happened with the greatest simplicity. There had been a most beautiful Lady... dressed in white with a gold cord hanging from her neck to her waist. Her head was covered with a mantle that was whiter than milk, and fell to her feet. It was edged with gold and was so beautiful... her hands had been joined, so... And my little girl got up off the stool and stood with her hands folded on the level of her chest in imitation of the vision.
She said: "The Lady held a rosary in her hand; a beautiful rosary shining like the stars, and a crucifix that shone.... She spoke with Lucia a great deal, but not with me, or Francisco. I heard all that she said. Oh, mother, we must say the Rosary every day; the Lady said this to Lucia. She said too, that she would take us all to Heaven, and other things which I can't remember, but which Lucia knows. When she went back into Heaven the doors seemed to shut so quickly that I thought her feet would get caught...."
Naturally, a story of such dimensions was not received indifferently in the crowded Marto home. It was enjoyed more than it was believed, even with Francisco's solemn agreement to all his sister had said. A mere lack of belief did not keep Jacinta's older sisters from wanting to hear more, although the boys kept interrupting the story with their attempts at comedy. Olimpia confesses that it was all too much for her. Her own opinion was that if Jacinta imagined herself a saint, and chose to ride her young fancy like a runaway horse, the illusion would pass with a good night's rest.
Ti Marto said very little. A thoughtful man, who respected his children, he wanted most of all to be fair. It was a puzzling story, surely, and he did not think his offspring so remarkable that Heaven, after sifting all the children of earth, would have to select his own. But on the other hand, they were good children, and Our Lord Himself, in His great charity and wisdom, had often bestowed great favor on the least and most humble of men. For the problem facing him, Ti Marto marshaled together and solemnly reviewed his own theological resources.
For ages Our Lady had been appearing in the world at different times and in different ways for reasons most holy, and if she had not come so often to the world in the past, it would be worse off than it was now—bad as that might be. The power of God is very great and even if we do not understand His reasons, we must not oppose His will.
Ti Marto pondered this problem patiently, while by the light of an oil lamp, on that 13th of May, he sipped his potato soup. And today he concludes:
From the beginning I somehow felt that the children were telling the truth. Yes, I think I believed from the first. I was impressed because the children had received no instructions whatever about these things of which they spoke. How could they have said such things if Providence had not assisted them? And why should they lie so outrageously now, when they had always been truthful children?
Ti Marto was the first, and perhaps the only adult in the hamlet of Aljustrel, who believed the strange story told by Jacinta. Senhora Marto did not share his faith, but she was a lady of lively mind who knew a good yarn when she heard one. True or false, she saw no harm in sharing with her neighbors this precocious tidbit dreamed up by Jacinta. Taken purely as a story, it enjoyed a quick success and thorough circulation. As for its impact on the Santos family, we have this report from Maria dos Anjos, Lucia's sister:
First thing in the morning, a neighbor came and told me that Jacinta's mother had said that the child had told her a most extraordinary thing. When I heard it, it gave me rather a shock, and I went straight to Lucia who was sitting under a fig-tree doing I forget what.
"Lucia," I said to her, "I heard that you saw Our Lady in the Cova da Iria. Is it true?"
"Who told you?" she almost gasped.
"The neighbors are saying that Jacinta came out with it to Olimpia." Lucia thought for a while and then said to me:
"And I told her so many times not to tell anyone!" I asked her why, and she said it was because she didn't know if it was really Our Lady, though it was a beautiful lady.
"What did she say to you?"
"That she wanted us to go for six months running to the Cova da Iria and that she would tell us later what she wanted."
"Didn't you ask who she was?"
"I asked her where she came from and she said: 'I come from Heaven.' "It seemed as if she didn't want to tell me anymore but I almost forced her to. I don't think I ever saw Lucia so sad. Then Francisco arrived and said that Jacinta had not been able to hold her tongue and that at home everyone knew what had happened in the Cova da Iria. Other people began telling my mother, who from the first refused to take it seriously, but when I told her what Lucia had told me she began to take more notice and went to ask her. Lucia told her exactly what she had told me.
Senhora Santos listened first solemnly, then with in creased alarm to this elaborate story that she was unable to consider either interesting or cute. It bore the twin horns of deceit and sacrilege. The idea of a calculated lie was at any time equal to raising this lady's emotions, but where the falsehood was wanton enough to invade the sacred precincts of religion—ah, well—and God preserve us all—stern measures were required. It would not be a happy time.
Later that morning, the children led their flocks once again to the Cova da Iria, but it was not a gay procession. They found their overnight fame a painful distinction. Friends and neighbors greeted them with mock applause, and taunted them about the Lady whose radiant beauty had been like a backstage visit to paradise, less than twenty-four hours before.
Jacinta, hardly taller than the sheep, trudged solemnly on, less disturbed by the disbelief of her neighbors than she was punished to know the pain and trouble her tattling had brought Lucia. Francisco had little or nothing to say. The two girls walked in silence. The sheep, untroubled and obedient, moved along.
In the Cova, Lucia watched her little cousin sit down on a lumpy stone, holding her chin in her tiny hands, and wearing her remorse for all to see. Lucia, who had no taste for gloom, began to smile.
"All right, Jacinta; let's forget it and play."
"I don't want to play today. Because I'm thinking of the Lady. That's really why."
"So?" Lucia walked closer. "What are you thinking about the Lady, Jacinta?"
"Well, of how she told us to say the Rosary, for one thing. That's important, isn't it?"
"Yes, I think so; it must be terribly important," Lucia agreed. Funny how, when she thought of the Lady, that love and strength grew as big as another world inside of her, leaving no space available for anger or impatience.
"And we oughtn't to cheat anymore on the Rosary," Jacinta said solemnly. "We shouldn't say like—well, you know—Our Father, Hail Mary, Hail Mary—that kind of cheating. We should say the whole prayer each time, instead of just the first two words. And the sacrifice part that she mentioned. How do we do that?"
"We'll give our lunch to the sheep," Francisco said. They turned to him, impressed by his suggestion. Francisco remained firm, repeating his resolve, and it was adopted. A brand new, if ridiculously small, champion of the heroic virtues, this reformed lizard-catcher proved himself entirely equal to the program he recommended. How much the sheep enjoyed the bread and cheese we are not sure, but the noontime hunger of the shepherds was very real. Toward the end of the day they were so famished, that Francisco climbed a holm oak tree in pursuit of green acorns. But Jacinta protested. No, she said, not the green acorns; bad as they were, those from the cork oak trees were even worse, and thus would provide the greater sacrifice.
And so on that day (Lucia recalls) our food consisted of acorns. At other times we ate pine needles or roots, blackberries, mushrooms and some other things we gathered at the roots of the pines, though I can't remember their names. And if we happened to be near some property belonging to one of our families, we once in a while had a little fruit. They fasted in secrecy and silence, and, most important, to the tune of no one's applause.
For Lucia, in a comparative sense, this trial of appetite was slight. She had found, without seeking it, a martyrdom at home. Her mother's reaction was almost fierce. The fear that falsehoods were being told (for Maria Rosa was convinced Lucia was lying) attacked not only her conscience, but seemed clearly in her eyes to have imperiled her respectable standing in the village. Not content to fret in silence until the case was proved or disproved, Maria Rosa appears to have broadcast her distress with some noisy posturing.
"Why should such things happen to me at my time of life?" she asked. "I have always been so careful about my children telling the truth, and now my youngest has to lie in this terrible way!"
The household commotion was only beginning. Its heat would increase. The only indifferent witness was Lucia's father, Antonio Santos, who dismissed the whole affair as frantic nonsense dreamed up and sustained by women. Pressed for a more particular opinion, Antonio was even bluntly obscene, and succeeded in detaching himself from nearly all that ensued.
But for Maria Rosa such detachment was not possible. Having launched all the verbal attacks of which she was capable, and having seen them blunted to ineffectiveness by Lucia's unshakeable insistence that the Lady from Heaven was true, she took more practical steps, which Lucia herself has described.
One day, before I went out with the flock, she tried to force me to say I was lying. She tried pleading, threats, and even the broom handle. To all this she only received stubborn silence or confirmation of all that I had already said. She told me to go and get the sheep and to think well during the day that she had never allowed her children to tell lies, let alone lies like this! She said, too, that in the evening she would force me to go to those people to whom I had told the story and confess that I had lied and ask their pardon. I went to get the sheep, and that day my cousins were waiting for me. When they saw me crying they ran up and asked me what was the matter. I told them all that had happened and added:
"What am I to do? Mother says that I am to say that I am lying. How can I?" Then Francisco said to Jacinta: "You see, it was all your fault because you told!" My little cousin begged our forgiveness on her knees and said: "I did very wrong but I will never tell anything to anybody again!"
When Lucia's mother at last realized that the threat of her broom and the power of her tongue were limited, she decided, and properly, that Father Ferreira, their parish priest, was better equipped than she to meet the devil in head-on collision. One morning, decisively, she accompanied Lucia to the presbytery.
"Now, when you get there," she said, and she wasn't fooling, "you get down on your knees and confess that you have lied and lied. Then you beg forgiveness, do you understand? You can explain it as you like to Father Ferreira, but unless we are done with this lie, and make the truth clear to all the people you have tried to deceive, I'll shut you up in a dark room—do you hear?"
Lucia heard all right, and her fears were genuine. Father Ferreira was an enormous man physically, and though actually soft of voice and gentle within himself, his awesome reputation with Maria Rosa, who lived by his strictures absolutely, made him appear to Lucia as a mountain of authority, a final word, a Daniel with a sword held poised.
But even to the Reverend Father Ferreira, Lucia confessed no lie. The strange words of the beautiful Lady: "You will have much to suffer," were for the first time etched in clarity. And so too was the grace of God, which stood beside her, bigger than the fear.