The Religion of Fatima
Even before the account of the apparitions and stupendous miracles of 1917, the history of Fatima evokes our wonder first of all by the atmosphere of a living Christendom in which it suddenly plunges us. To deliver Her great message destined to enlighten our whole twentieth century, Our Lady did not choose to appear in an industrial city, already devoured by the leprosy of pauperism, laicism and paganism that were making inroads everywhere. No, She chose to manifest Herself in a poor village, with a long Christian history, lost in the great mountainous region of the Serra da Aire, about eighty miles north of Lisbon. There, in 1917, as in many countries of our Christian Europe, the morals, the piety and the virtues of old remained as though miraculously preserved. This choice is an initial revelation of the predilections of the Heart of Mary.
What is marvellous about Fatima is that, because these events are so close to our times, and immediately aroused such an immense interest, we know everything, even to the smallest details, about the lives and souls of the seers, about their families, and about their village, before, during, and after the apparitions. [...]
A Living Christendom
“Minutes from Fatima is a group of modest houses, perhaps twenty in all, lined along a narrow, rugged road, and separated by courtyards and gardens: this is the hamlet of Aljustrel.” There lived the two families of our seers, the dos Santos and the Marto families.
Two Exemplary Families
Antonio and Maria Rosa dos Santos had six children. In 1917, the eldest, Maria dos Anjos (26), was already married. Then came Teresa (24), Manuel (22), the only boy, Gloria (20) and Caroline (15). Lucy (10) was the youngest, born on March 22, 1907, and baptized on the 30th in the parish church of Fatima.
Jacinta and Francisco were her first cousins because their mother, Olimpia de Jesus, was the sister of Antonio dos Santos. From a first marriage Olimpia had two sons, Antonio and Manuel. Her second marriage was to Manuel Pedro Marto, and the family grew with seven other children: José, Teresa, who died at the age of two, Florinda, a second Teresa, John, then Francisco, our seer who was born on June 11, 1908, and baptized on June 20. Finally came our little Jacinta, born on March 11, 1910, and baptized on March 19, Feast of St. Joseph, in the church at Fatima, in the same baptistery where Lucy and Francisco had been baptized.
THE MARTO FAMILY. The two families, who had lived in the village a long time, were also well esteemed there. At the time of the apparitions, Canon Formigao, who was then entrusted with the ecclesiastical inquiry, took the testimony of one of the distinguished members of the parish, Manuel Goncalves, an authorized witness on the families of the seers: “The parents of Francisco and Jacinta are excellent, profoundly Christian, respected and esteemed by all. The father has the reputation of being the most serious man in the town. He is incapable of deceiving anyone.” Ti Manuel, as those who knew him called him, had never been to school, but he lacked neither experience nor personality. He had fought in the war at Mozambique in 1895-1896. Father de Marchi, who interrogated him at length, allows us to see his soul as it was, simple and loyal, serious and wise, but humorous also. Endowed with a faithful and precise memory, an indefatigable narrator, his testimony is of capital importance for the historians of Fatima. This is all the more so since “his evaluations, which were in general very judicious, were full of good sense and the spirit of faith.” “Mr. Marto,” relates Father de Marchi,
was devoted to the truth. We must not “make up” things, and make them other than what they are, he would say to me frequently. When he would hear some chapter or passage from a book on Fatima being read, it was rare for him not to have a correction to add, or something to be made more precise. “That’s not exactly it!” he would exclaim. Then he would supply a mouthful of details…
In short, he was a humble and limpid soul, extraordinarily endearing, as we will discover during this whole account. Along with Olimpia, an excellent Christian whose personality was perhaps a little more reserved, they were a very devoted couple. This was so much the case that once when Canon Barthas attempted to photograph her alone, Olimpia exclaimed, “do not cut me in two, wait for Manuel!”
THE DOS SANTOS FAMILY was less exemplary. Olimpia herself recalled that at the time of the apparitions, her brother was a heavy drinker. Although he was never an alcoholic, nevertheless around 1916–1917 he began to frequent the tavern, to the point where his neglect of the land brought hardship into the family. Manuel Goncalves said of him to Canon Formigao: “He rarely goes to Church, but he does not have any evil sentiments.” For several years he had not made his Easter duty, but he still attended Mass. Since he did not get along with the parish priest, he went to Vila Nova de Ourem.
However, the education of his children never suffered on account of these deficiencies, because his wife, Maria Rosa, made up for it with uncommon virtue. She was a real homemaker. “Brought to sorrow, humiliated by the listlessness of her husband, she brought up her children with great firmness, which however did not take away the joy of their home.” Because of her untiring devotion towards everybody, she enjoyed the esteem of all: “Generally”, writes Lucy, “there would be several young girls in our house who would come to weave and to sew… They often said that the best days of their lives were the ones they had spent in our house.” It is a valuable testimony. Very often also, the neighbours, during their work in the fields, would leave their children with Maria Rosa for her to take care of them. When a marriage feast would take place, she would be asked for her services as cook. Finally she often worked as a nurse, and with what charity!
People would come to ask her advice on lesser symptoms, or they would ask her to come to the house if the sick person could not move. Thus she spent days and sometimes nights in the house of the sick person. If the illness was prolonged and the state of the sick person demanded it, she would send my sisters to spend some nights with them, so that the members of the family could get some rest.
Moreover, the census of 1920 tells us that at Fatima, out of a total of 1,179 women, only 91 knew how to write, and Maria Rosa was one of these. Conscious of this privilege, she made good use of it:
On Sunday afternoon, all the young people would gather in our courtyard… They would spend the afternoon playing, and conversing with my sisters. At Easter-time they would pick the sugar-plums… My mother would spend these afternoons sitting at the kitchen door which looked out over the courtyard, where she could see everything that was going on. Sometimes, she had a book in her hand and would be reading… For me, she would say, there is nothing better than reading in my own house, in peace. Books bring us so many beautiful things! And the lives of the saints are so beautiful!
On other occasions (Lucy continues), she would talk with some of my aunts, or the neighbours. She always kept an air of seriousness, and everybody knew that whatever she said was like a word of scripture, and that we had to obey her without delay. I never heard anyone dare to say a disrespectful or unfitting word in her presence. The people often would say that my mother was worth more than all her daughters.
The truth is that Maria Rosa’s daughters resembled her, and it is surely to her that Lucy owes her serious attitude and the natural authority she enjoyed over her companions, even at her young age.
Life at Aljustrel
“BLESSED ARE THE POOR…” The two families, like the majority of the families of the parish which then numbered 2,500 souls, spread out over twenty similar hamlets, lived by cultivating their lands, and from their small flocks. Life was rugged and poor, because the rocky soil of the Serra was barely fertile, except in the shallow parts where the thicker humus would permit good harvests of wheat or maize. The vineyards and olive trees were a good supplement to the grain cultivation.
Although they were poor, neither the Martos nor the dos Santos were in want: “Although they had such a large family to raise, the Martos were proud that their children never had to go barefoot, as was often the case in Portugal until quite recently. They had a house, built for Olimpia’s first marriage, and everybody can still see it today, with the little bedrooms, so moving in their simplicity, where Francisco and Jacinta were confined to bed during their last illness.”
Likewise, one can still visit today the dos Santos house, relatively vast with its six rooms. In the courtyard, the numerous dependencies even bear witness to a certain comfort. The family also possessed some lands on the hill of the Cabeço and at the Cova da Iria. In short, at the price of constant labour on the part of everybody, – from the age of seven or eight the children were put in charge of tending the sheep – the two families had enough to live on, and their lot was not comparable to the extreme indigence of the Soubirous parents.
“THEIRS IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.” At Aljustrel they led the life of peasants, hard and simple, but also calm and joyous, completely impregnated with a solid piety and a profound faith, to a degree that we could hardly imagine today in our society, which is so secularized.
The heart of the Christian life was first and foremost the Sunday Mass. Let us listen to Olimpia, the mother of Francisco and Jacinta:
May God keep us from letting a Sunday go by without Mass, either we or the children, as soon as they are old enough to understand! Even if we had to go to Boleiros, to Atouguia, or even to Santa Cararina (over six miles away), whether there is rain or thunder, I can never remember having missed Mass, even when I was nursing my children…
And thus, this whole laborious and monotonous life was given rhythm and illumined by the sequence of the great feasts of the liturgical cycle. There was also, each Sunday, the paternal authority of the parish priest which he exercised, without dispute, over each of his sheep. After the departure of good Father Pena, who was so beloved in the village, it was the young Father Ferreira who succeeded him in 1913. Although more rigid and less appreciated, he was not obeyed any less. For Maria Rosa, “the word of the parish priest was the word of God, and she observed rigorously, without any discussion, the commands which he laid down.” Later on we will see that, because of her unlimited confidence in her parish priest, Maria Rosa doubted the genuineness of the apparitions for so long.
At Fatima, the devotions for the month of Mary, the month of the Rosary and the “month of the (poor) souls”, in honour of the departed, were all solemnly observed. At the call of the parish priest, the church was filled each night for the recitation of the Rosary.
We must listen to the whole, long testimony of Maria dos Anjos, the elder sister of Lucy, to discover with astonishment what an incomparable Christian education our three young seers enjoyed, for on this point the Marto parents were hardly inferior to Maria Rosa.
It was our mother who taught us the catechism, and she would never let us go out and play before having learned our lesson by heart. I do not want to be ashamed, she would say, when Father will have my children recite their catechism. But she was not ashamed, because Father was always satisfied with us, and at the church he would even entrust us with other children to teach, although we were still children ourselves. I was thus no older than nine years old when I became a catechist.
But our mother was not content with the recitation of formulas at the snap of a finger; she also wanted us to understand Christian doctrine, and she gave us detailed explanations. To know the catechism, and not to know the explanations makes no sense, she would say. We also asked her many questions, and she answered as well as the priest in church. Once I asked her how the fire of hell could not consume and destroy the damned, like the wood one puts in the fireplace. She answered, “Then you don’t know that if you put a bone in the fire, it will appear to burn without being consumed?” And we, very frightened, set ourselves to reflect on that point, and to take the resolution not to commit any sins, so as not to fall in this terrible fire.
It was not only for us that our mother taught the catechism. Other children also came to the house to learn it, and not only from Aljustrel, but from Casa Velha, and even from Boleiros. Even distinguished persons came to her to have themselves instructed.
During the month of May and the month of the dead, as well as during Lent, we would recite the Rosary every day before the fireplace, or in the common room. And when we would go out with the sheep, she would recommend that we always have the Rosary in our pockets. “Over there you will recite the Rosary in honour of Our Lady after you eat”, she would say, “and some Our Fathers in honour of Saint Anthony, so as not to lose the sheep”…”
And we would always add some Our Fathers for the souls of our deceased relatives. In the morning before rising, and in the evening, before going to bed, after having recited the act of contrition and some Our Fathers, she would not let us forget our Guardian Angel…
She wanted us to be humble and industrious. And woe to us if anyone caught us in a lie! It was even one of the things she was the most severe on. The smallest fib would immediately result in a beating with her broom.
She taught us devotion to the things of the Church, and especially to the Blessed Sacrament, right from the beginning.
THE RELIGION OF FATIMA. High Mass on Sunday, the catechism learned by heart and explained to children, the practice of daily family prayer, devotions to the Blessed Sacrament and to Our Lady, the angels and saints, prayer for the dead, moral education on the virtues and vices, all this in the great light of the last ends, Judgement, Heaven and Hell, such was the religion which these poor people lived with humility, and heroism. This was what the clergy preached to them. Maria Rosa also read to her children the Missâo abreviada, a manual of religion destined for the people of the country, to “prolong the fruit of the missions”. There they taught a strict religion, but one of exact doctrine and solid devotion. They went right to the essentials and all the principal truths of the faith were put in clear relief. It was clear and limpid.
What is striking is that Our Lady, when She came to the Cova da Iria, did not propose any other ideal. This is what Fatima is first of all: the most urgent reminder ever that the true religion that pleases God and saves souls, is indeed this traditional religion, still faithfully lived in the beginning of the century in many regions, where Christendom remained very much alive. And when tomorrow, a new Christendom will rise up over the rubble, by the grace of Our Lady of Fatima and according to Her promise, the same dogmas, the same devotions, the same moral doctrine will still be its soul and very essence. Everything else is a deadly illusion.
Here moreover is the source of true peace and happiness. Our three seers who so perfectly came into their own in this atmosphere, prove it magnificently. As her Memoirs bear witness, Sister Lucy retains a fascinating memory of her childhood years, when the ruggedness of her life and the severity of her mother went together, in the most natural way, with her natural gaiety, her childish games, and the quasi-perpetual festive atmosphere that reigned in the village, as well as her first friendships and the first mystical graces she was favoured with. To her we must now turn. In hearing her we will be penetrated with the irresistible charm of this peaceful life in Christendom, and we will become acquainted with its three most beautiful fruits: the candid and serious, joyful and profound souls of our three little seers.
Continue reading: Lucia—The Happy Childhood of a Privileged Soul