Maria J. Cirurgiao
From the Apr 1999 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine
Eighty years ago this month, a worried mother entered the bedroom of her sick little boy to check on him. It was 6:00 a.m., and he was awake. Seeing her, the boy murmured: “Look, Mother, by the door . . . shining light, very beautiful!”
Perplexed, the mother tried to understand. Light, in that modest rural house where no electricity existed, was adequate only when the sun was high and the small windows were open. Otherwise, they used a flickering oil lamp.
She looked, saw nothing, and turned again to her son. She heard him say: “Now I don’t see anything at all.” With this, he smiled as he expired. It was April 1919. Two more months and he would have been 11 years old.
We have this little scene from the mother, Olímpia Marto. At the prodding of her memory decades later by a Salesian priest, Rev. Humberto Pasquale, she remembered only that her son Francisco-since 1991 the Venerable Francisco Marto-had quietly announced the appearance of light by the door, and died happily. His last few words confirmed what he had been saying for nearly two years-that Our Lady would come soon to take him to heaven.
We don’t read anywhere of tears shed for Francisco Marto. There must have been some, as was natural. But, eking a living from the soil leaves little time for elaborate mourning. Besides, next to the room where the boy smiled his last lay his little sister, Jacinta, also sick, needing care as she awaited her turn to be taken to heaven by Our Lady. The grief that filled the Marto household was permeated by grace and borne with quiet heroism. The home was under a special visitation and the parents knew it, even if they could not account for it.
They were humble folk. “Our Lady had no need of our children in order to come; there were so many other children,” they usually replied to those who congratulated them on being the parents of Francisco and Jacinta, two of the Fatima seers. The third one, their cousin Lucia, lives still. She is a Carmelite nun, Sister Lucia of Jesus and of the Immaculate Heart.
Since 1917, when the Fatima apparitions of the Lady of the Rosary took place, much has been written on the seers. Very little of it has been on Francisco, though. He draws the least attention. Writers on Fatima often convey the impression that he was the least favored one. Perhaps because he only saw the Lady, and neither heard her nor spoke to her.
But there is no hint, in what Sister Lucia has recorded of her cousin Francisco, that he saw himself as having been granted less than the other seers. He always wanted to know what it was that the Lady had said, but was equally eager to speak of the wonders he had seen and felt. “We were on fire, in that light which is God,” he commented to the other two, “and we didn’t burn up! What God is like! We can’t speak of it. Yes, about that we can never speak. But, how awful that He is so sad! If only I could comfort Him. . . .”
Because Sister Lucia, known for her reserve, had the frankness to write Francisco’s confidences exactly as she remembered them, we know that the three experienced the Fatima apparitions in ways infinitely more complex than sight and words. Those who questioned them wanted to know what the Lady looked like, what she said, not suspecting that the answers they received were but particles of the whole. Francisco never felt that any privileges had been withheld from him; he had received a plenitude upon which to meditate, as he prayed and sacrificed for the remainder of his days on earth.
He was all of nine years of age when, on August 13, 1917, he found himself kidnapped along with his sister and cousin. The county administrator could think of no better way to unmask the clerical conspiracy to exploit gullible peasants than to lock up the seers-part of the time in a dark room by themselves, then in the local jail with the adult prisoners. His superiors expected him to get to the bottom of the scandal that had erupted under his own nose, and was making national headlines.
Throughout the 48-hour ordeal, Francisco never cried. He comforted the girls. In jail, he took a medal he wore around his neck, hung it on the wall, and started the Rosary. Some of the prisoners knelt and joined in. Seeing that one of them had kept his head covered, Francisco rebuked him. The man meekly handed his cap to Francisco, who placed it on a windowsill on top of his own.
When he saw Jacinta being taken away, to be boiled alive as they were told, he uncovered his head to say a Hail Mary. “What are you up to?” scorned one of the guards. “Praying so that Jacinta won’t be frightened,” said Francisco.
Rough men had no power to intimidate him. He waited calmly to die for the truth of two disclosures: That he had seen the Lady, and that he had not heard her. Those two truths must have been equally important in God’s work. If nothing else, they posed an insurmountable obstacle to the Masonic claims that Fatima had been concocted, rehearsed, and staged by the clergy.
The Masonry-nearly all who held power in 1917 Portugal were freemasons- could abuse the clergy in the press, and did. They could send troops to disturb the crowds drawn by word of mouth to Fatima, and did. They could dynamite the site of the apparitions, and eventually did. But they were unable to explain how the children had been “rehearsed” to speak of different experiences of the apparitions. The stories the three unlettered little peasants told-and stuck to in the face of death-foiled the state’s attempt at building a case against the clergy. One begins to see how inadequate are conjectures that Francisco’s
experiences were different because he was “less favored.”
“All these things happen by the power from on high,” exclaimed Manuel Marto, father of Francisco and Jacinta, upon recovering his children. Defeated, authorities had released them to him, on August 15, and local men, armed with all kinds of implements, were ready to settle accounts with the kidnapper. But Mr. Marto wanted no lynchings, and calmed things down.
What the illiterate Mr. Marto understood so well had escaped the sophisticated freethinkers: Their extreme show of fear of children’s tales went a long way to ratify the truth behind the tales. If either of the Marto parents doubted that the visitation they were under was indeed supernatural and holy, they had only to observe the quiet transformation being operated in their two youngest ones who, much as they tried, could not hide everything from their parents’ eyes.
On a particular night, Mr. Marto awoke to the sounds of sobbing coming from Francisco’s room. He tiptoed across the house, oil lamp in hand, and found his son with his head buried in his pillow, trying to muffle his crying. Asked if he was in pain, Francisco answered that he was crying because “God is so sad, on account of so many sins that people commit all the time.”
“I felt myself seized by a profound respect for my son,” commented the father years later. “How great is the power of God!” Great things were going on with his children. Francisco had been granted an understanding of sin, and of the effects of sin, beyond that of many a learned theologian. He expressed that understanding in terms of the sadness of God, and always in the present tense: “God is so sad.”
Comforting God for the sadness caused Him by sin became Francisco’s very special area of spiritual endeavor. When, during the year following the apparitions, he accompanied his sister Jacinta and his cousin Lucia to school, he often told them as they passed the church: “You go on. I’ll stay here with the Hidden Jesus [the Eucharist]. I don’t need to learn how to read because I’m going to heaven soon. Come and get me after school.”
The parish church was undergoing renovation at the time, and the Blessed Sacrament was on a temporary altar behind the baptismal fount. Francisco would squeeze in between, and remain all day next to the tabernacle, lost in prayer, comforting God. He did this even after he had become ill, as long as he could drag his little feet. To what heights of contemplation he rose is not for us to know. But one particular incident, recorded by Lucia, shows how deeply he communicated with Jesus in the reserved Host.
The three were on the way to school one morning, when Lucia’s married sister met them on the road to tell them of a village boy who had been arrested, falsely accused of a crime that carried a long prison sentence. The boy’s mother was in great affliction, and wished them to pray for her son. As they passed by the church, Francisco told Lucia and Jacinta: “While you go to school, I’ll stay with the Hidden Jesus. I’ll ask Him for that favor.”
After school, Lucia went to the church to get Francisco. “Did you ask Jesus for that favor?”
“Yes. Tell your sister that the boy will be back home in a few days.” And he was, wrote Lucia.
Francisco had never heard bigworded debates on the Real Presence. He simply knew. As had his cousin Lucia and his sister Jacinta, he had repeated thousands of times the prayer that an angel had taught them in the summer/fall of 1916: “Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I adore Thee profoundly and offer Thee the Most Precious Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, present in all the tabernacles of the world . . .”
Bedridden from November of 1918 on, Francisco wanted above all to receive Communion before he died. Early one morning, one of his older sisters went to knock at the door of Lucia’s home. Francisco had taken a turn for the worse, and was asking to see her.
Lucia entered Francisco’s room, and the two were left alone. “I’m going to make my Confession, in order to receive Communion and die,” Francisco told her. “I want you to tell me whether you saw me commit any sins, and then go and ask Jacinta if she saw me commit any.”
“You disobeyed your mother sometimes,” Lucia told him, “when she told you to stay home and you left the house.”
“It’s true, I have that one. Now go and ask Jacinta if she can remember any others.”
Lucia went to Jacinta’s bedside, to do as he asked. She returned with Jacinta’s report:
“Once, before Our Lady came, you stole a tostão [coin worth 10c-25c] from your father, to buy a harmonica . . . And one time you joined in when boys were throwing stones at each other.”
“I already confessed those,” Francisco replied. “But I will confess them again. Perhaps it’s because of those sins I committed that Our Lord is so sad. But even if I weren’t to die, I would never commit them again. I am sorry now.”
The pastor came to Francisco’s room that day to hear his Confession, and brought him Communion the following day. And the day after, April 4, 1919, Francisco saw shining light by the door.
Maria J. Cirurgião writes from Endicott, NY.
Associated PDF File:
This article is available as a PDF download
You may need to obtain a free copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to use this