Saint John Paul II and Sister Lucia of Fatima

The history of Fatima is a continuous illustration of God’s words to us through the Prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Is 55:8).

The divergence between divine and human ways, between God’s thinking and ours, is seen in the selection of three uneducated shepherd children in a small out-of-the-way Portuguese village to entrust Mary’s poignant appeal to conversion, prayer and sacrifice, consecration and peace. It’s shown likewise in Mary’s entrusting to them a message and then telling them to keep it secret. It’s also very much seen in what happened with the seers after the apparitions.

By human logic, they would have remained fulfilling the mission and eventually propagating the message Mary had entrusted to them. Within two years, however, Francisco’s life on earth would be over and within three, Jacinta’s. The following year, Lucia would be sent away to school in a convent in the north of Portugal. She would become first a Sister of St. Dorothy and then a cloistered Carmelite, and would live from 1921 through 2005 for the most part cut off from the world.

Would it not have made more sense, according to human lights, for Francisco and Jacinta to stay on earth longer so that they might be able to train people in how to respond to Mary’s summons, to show them how to pray the Rosary and offer up sufferings for the conversion of sinners? Would it not have made more sense for Lucia not to live a hidden life keeping the secrets hidden, but rather give her the mandate to preach from the rooftops?

Fr. Gonçalo Portocarrero, a Portuguese friend who uses satirical humor better than anyone I’ve ever known, wrote in a recent article that about Lucia’s “failure.”

“The Lady who appeared in Fatima gave her,” Fr. Gonçalo comically observed, “the task of spreading devotion to her Immaculate Heart throughout the world. One would suppose, therefore, that Lucia would dedicate herself to touring and international roadshows, traveling around the whole world and giving interviews about the facts of which she was the only surviving witness; … to have made use of all the means of social communication, without excluding modern social networks, to promote Marian devotion; … to make the rounds of talk shows, so as to be able to be seen and known by millions of television viewers throughout the world; … to dedicate her time to writing best-sellers of clear relevance for today’s world: ‘I Saw Hell!’ or ‘The Visionary of Our Lady Confesses the Full Truth!’ … or even, ‘Finally, All You Ever Wanted to Know About the Conversion of Russia!’”

But, rather, “she closed herself off, under rigorous anonymity, in a religious institution in which she could not confide the revelations she had received to anyone, not even the other nuns or the students. Worse yet: some years later, … she requested and received the grace of being transferred to a convent with a stricter rule of cloister, where she closed herself off forever, prohibited by this very rule from having contact with the outside world, except on very limited occasions.”

Yet, in God’s plan, she still fulfilled her mission in an extraordinary way. The whole world has come to know about Fatima. God’s ways, indeed, are not our own. “Without propaganda or publicity, without marketing or special offers,” Fr. Gonçalo noted, the pilgrims who come by the millions each year to Fatima “are, in the end, the objective expression of Sister Lucia’s mysterious triumph—or, to express it better, they are visible proof of the supernatural efficacy of her human inefficiency.” God’s way are clearly not ours.

For me one of the most curious aspects of the celebration of the centenary of the Fatima apparitions is the relatively small attention that Sr. Lucia has been receiving. While she was alive, she was the constant reference point for the private revelations and their interpretation. Francisco and Jacinta were, for the most part, in the background.

With her cousins’ canonization by Pope Francis on the 100th anniversary of Mary’s first appearance and the focus on the young age and heroism of the shepherd children in 1917, Lucia, whom the world remembers as a 98-year-old Carmelite, has taken their place in relative obscurity. That will doubtless change as the cause of her canonization proceeds. But I think it is important for us in this centenary not to miss the opportunity to ponder God’s mysterious ways with regard to her and celebrate and learn from her life.

Lucia, at 10, was the wise elder stateswoman when Mary appeared to the shepherd children. In the first apparition, Lucia asked our Lady whence she came and Mary pointed upward saying, “I am from heaven.” With childlike audacity Lucia asked, “And will I go to heaven, too?” “Yes, you will,” Mary replied. “And Jacinta?” “Also,” said our Lady. “And Francisco?” “Also but he must say many rosaries.”

A month later, when Mary appeared to them a second time, Lucy repeated her request: “Will you take us to heaven?” Mary replied, “Yes, I shall take Jacinta and Francisco soon, but you will remain a little longer, since Jesus wishes you to make me known and loved on earth. He wishes also for you to establish devotion in the world to my Immaculate Heart.”

Eighty-eight more years was what Mary intended by a “little longer,” but it was in that preparation for eternity that Lucia did make Mary known and loved throughout the world and through whom greater devotion to Mary’s Immaculate Heart was brought about.

After the deaths of Francisco and Jacinta, the Bishop of Leiria thought it would be prudent to send Lucia away from the crowds constantly crowding upon her asking her to repeat the story. He wanted her to receive an education in order to be able to communicate in writing what had occurred. Lucia would eventually become a prolific author, writing under obedience four memoirs of the apparitions, two manuscripts about her parents, a diary of 2,000 pages, 10,000 letters including several to Popes, and many other personal texts.

Prior to the apparitions, she had expressed the desire to become a nun. When she made her first Communion at the age of six — four years before most others at the time — she later said, “I lost the taste and attraction for the things of the world, and only felt at home in some solitary place where, all alone, I could recall the delights” of God. That’s what she eventually found in the convent, where she lived as the exact opposite of a “celebrity,” serving the other sisters in domestic work and God and the world through her prayers.

When she died, St. John Paul II spoke of how well she fulfilled her Mission. “The visit of the Virgin Mary… was for her the beginning of a singular mission to which she remained faithful until the end of her days. Sr. Lucia leaves us an example of great fidelity to the Lord and of joyful adherence to his divine will. … I have always felt supported by the daily gift of her prayers, especially in the harsh moments of trial and suffering. May the Lord reward her amply for the great and hidden service she has done for the Church.”

While Saints Francisco and Jacinta remain examples of heroic childlike response to Mary, Lucia has become one of lifelong perseverance in faithfully, joyfully living out the Fatima message. In God’s mysterious plan, he knew we needed both, and in this Centenary, we thank him for this double witness and seek, until the end of our days, to emulate it.

This article originally appeared in The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass, on May 5, 2017 and appears here with permission of the author.

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