If Blessed Jacinta Marto shows us the apostolic dimension of Fatima by pointing us to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Blessed Francisco shows us its contemplative dimension, namely, the goal of devotion to the Immaculate Heart, which is union with God. The message of peace announced by Our Lady of Fatima is destined, not for a select few, but to everyone who promptly and generously responds to her message, just as Blessed Francisco did.
Introduction (Francisco’s Character)
Blessed Francisco Marto (1908-1919), a little shepherd boy from Fatima, had the charism of a contemplative and mystic and, as such, he was much like Our Blessed Lady. A lover of silence and solitude, he sought to escape from the distraction and dissipation of the world, preferring to pass the hours admiring and contemplating the beauty of nature and playing with the animals of the field. His cousin Lucia tells us that, while his little sister (Jacinta) would come down from the mountaintops to run races with her, he instead chose to stay up there entertaining himself with his music and song.1
A young man after God’s own heart, Francisco allowed himself to be “enfolded in the love of God” as it expressed itself in created reality.2 It is in this sense that one author posited the following question: “A New St. Francis?” Not counting the fact that he shares the same name as the poor man of Assisi, Francisco also made friends with the birds and was enchanted by the exquisite beauty and radiant splendor of “Brother Sun.” Like St. Francis, who was a contemplative Saint par excellence, Bl. Francisco was conscious of the light of God’s love that surrounds us: “the love that touches us through every object that we see, both small and great, the mountain and the tree, the sun and the candle. It sings in the song of birds, reveals itself in the murmur of a brook.”3 His receptivity to God’s love came quite naturally to him because of his quiet and submissive character.
In the life of Bl. Francisco we see manifested Our Lady’s unique role in the divine plan of salvation as Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher). She showed herself to be the “Instructress of Saints” by teaching him how to be “perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). This she did by enrolling him in her “school” and immersing him in the mystery of prayer, which itself is a mystery of silence, and in particular the prayer of the Rosary. Francisco’s labor along the tortuous paths of prayer would ultimately find its consummation in his silent holocaust, in his “Passover” from this world into heaven. “Francisco was the first holocaust offered to God through the Immaculate Heart of Mary: his illness and death were like those of the great saints who were consumed in silence, in serenity, and in joy, hiding their pain under a heavenly smile.”4
By means of his inner inclination towards solitude, Bl. Francisco was already well-inclined to the heart of God by the time of the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima. For him, these apparitions were shrouded in the mystery of silence. Though he was unable to hear audibly the words spoken by Our Lady during the apparitions, Bl. Francisco was nonetheless privileged to “listen” to her in the silence of his heart and to receive her purely gratuitous love in an intimate rapport of his heart with hers. While Jacinta and Lucia were to “listen to Our Lady’s secret with their ears” and then communicate it to Francisco at a later time, Francisco was to “remain hidden in that secret” and to bear the mystery in silence, pondering it in his heart. He was to abide in the “shelter of Mary’s presence” and in the “silence of Mary beyond all words.”5 In other words, he was to be a “son of Mary’s silence”: to be engendered by her maternal love in the innermost depths of her Immaculate Heart.6
In this silence Mary poured into his heart the burning love that is in her Immaculate Heart, and she called him to mystical union with herself, and through her, with God. And, little contemplative that he was, he responded to her “with surrender and joy in the pure receptivity of her absolutely gratuitous love, and made available his whole being, body, and soul, to receive, in praise and joy, the incredible gift of God Himself” through her Immaculate Heart.7 At her prompting he immersed himself totally in the life of prayer and reached the heights of contemplation! St. John Paul II describes Bl. Francisco’s transformation in these words:
A transformation takes place in his life, one we could call radical: a transformation certainly uncommon for children of his age. He devotes himself to an intense spiritual life, expressed in assiduous and fervent prayer, and attains a true form of mystical union with the Lord. This spurs him to a progressive purification of the spirit through the renunciation of his own pleasures and even of innocent childhood games.8
When Our Lady first appeared to the three shepherd children on May, 13, 1917, her presence filled them with peace and expansive joy. Sr. Lucia, in her Fourth Memoir, gives her impressions on Francisco’s reaction to the appearance of Our Lady. Although, as we have already said, he was unable to hear the words spoken by Our Lady, he was nevertheless immersed in the grace of God which poured forth from her hands. Lucia writes that “Our Lady opened her hands for the first time, 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 soul, making us see ourselves in God, who was that light, more clearly than we see ourselves in the best of mirrors.”9
Our Lady began Francisco’s first “class” on attaining sanctity with an in-class demonstration, with a motherly gesture. She began teaching him by means of a kind of infused contemplation, nourishing him with her maternal grace, that is, with “pure spiritual milk, that by it he might grow up to salvation” (1 Pt 2:2). Mary, the Immaculate Spouse of the Holy Spirit, transmitted to Francisco the presence of God pervading her and the fullness of grace as “sweetness.” It was in light of this mystical experience that Bl. Francisco exclaimed, “I loved seeing the Angel, but I loved still more seeing Our Lady. What I loved most of all was to see Our Lord in that light from Our Lady which penetrated our hearts. I love God so much! But He is very sad because of so many sins! We must never commit any sins again.”
Our Lady compelled all three shepherd children to silence, but this had particular significance for Bl. Francisco, because he was unable to hear the words spoken by Our Lady and thus was unable to say anything directly to her in response. Instead, he learned of Our Lady’s designs for him through Lucia:
“Shall I go to Heaven too?” “Yes, you will” “And Jacinta?” “She will go also.” “And Francisco?” “He will go there too, but he must say many Rosaries.”10
“Afterwards,” recounts Lucia in her fourth memoir, “we told Francisco all that Our Lady had said. He was overjoyed and expressed the happiness he felt when he heard of the promise that he would go to heaven. Crossing his hands on his breast, he exclaimed, ‘Oh, my dear Lady! I’ll say as many Rosaries as you want!’ And from then on, he made a habit of moving away from us, as though going for a walk. When we called him and asked him what he was doing, he raised his hand and showed me his rosary. If we told him to come and play, and say the Rosary with us afterwards, he replied: ‘I’ll pray then as well. Don’t you remember that Our Lady said I must pray many Rosaries?’”11
The generosity and immediacy of his response is emblematic of episodes we encounter over and over again in the lives of the saints. And, like the others, the example set by Francisco is instructive for the remainder of mankind, enjoined by Our Lady to pray the Rosary daily.
One day, “a peasant woman from São Mamede with her son” were among a crowd of pilgrims who had come to interrogate the shepherd children. The woman and her son “couldn’t get anywhere near the girls seated on top of the wall and had no chance of addressing them. However, seeing Francisco in the shadows of the opposite wall, they crossed over and knelt on the stony path before him. They begged him to ask Our Lady to cure her sick husband and not to let him be conscripted into the war because they had no other support. Francisco showed no sign of anger or even embarrassment at seeing this woman and her son kneeling at his feet. His reaction was to kneel down too, remove the cap from his head, take out his beads and ask if they would care to pray a Rosary with him. Before long, the questioners were shamed into curbing their curiosity and tongues and kneeling to pray alongside the two boys and the mother.”12
“I think,” states Lucia, “that this special injunction to Francisco is for all of us. It is not that saying many Rosaries, as such, is an indispensable condition for going to heaven, but that we must pray much.”13
Experience of God
Whereas most people were overly concerned with what they were to do for Our Lady and God, the active dimension, Bl. Francisco emphasized the superiority of the experience of Our Lady and God and what they were to be or become in God and in the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the contemplative dimension. “These people are so happy just because you told them that Our Lady wants the Rosary said, and that you are to learn to read! How would they feel if they only knew what she showed to us in God, in her Immaculate Heart, in that great light! But this is a secret; it must not be spoken about. It’s better that no one should know it.”14
Instead of showing interest in what the three shepherd children were shown “in God, in her Immaculate Heart, in that great light,” Francisco notes that the people were content to know that Our Lady wanted them to pray the Rosary. In so doing, Bl. Francisco was not downplaying the importance of Our Lady’s request for the praying of the Rosary, for he prayed the Rosary unceasingly until his death, but rather, he was highlighting in a more explicit manner the ultimate goal of praying the Rosary: union with Our Lord through Our Lady. He is teaching us the importance of interior prayer, of prayer as communion with Mary and God, of prayer as a personal encounter with the Beloved.
But this is a secret; it must not be spoken about. It’s better that no one should know it. Here we see just how contemplative Bl. Francisco was. Though he knows the people would be exceedingly happier if they knew what Mary showed to them “in God, in her Immaculate Heart, in that great light,” he keeps it a secret and does not speak to them about his experience. He keeps hidden in his heart the delightful experience he had of God through the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Like Mary, “he receives the Word as a lover’s secret. He bears it in his heart…The Word hollows out in him an abyss of silence.” The fruit which springs forth from this seed of life “is more of the order of life and love…It is a matter of becoming rather than of speaking.”15
Another emergent theme in the life and spirituality of Bl. Francisco Marto is that of consoling Jesus. It is a theme we encounter often in the writings of various saints. “I don’t know how to live without God,” writes St. Faustina Kowalska in her Diary, “but I also feel that God, absolutely self-sufficient though he is, cannot be happy without me.”16 God is “absolutely self-sufficient,” but when the second Person of the Most Holy Trinity assumes human flesh, he becomes “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief… wounded for our transgressions… bruised for our iniquities,” because “the Lord has laid upon Him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53:3-6).
The members of the Mystical Body of Christ can have a share in the Passion of Christ by uniting their prayers and sacrifices to His supreme Sacrifice, thereby in a mysterious but real way offering consolation to the Christ who entered into this world about 2,000 years ago and suffered for the transgressions of all men in all times and places. It is in this light that we can interpret the words of Jesus to St. Faustina, such as these: My daughter, I want to repose in your heart, because many souls have thrown Me out of their hearts today.17 And again: The loss of each soul plunges Me into mortal sadness. You always console Me when you pray for sinners.18
The first appearance of this element in the Fatima message is with the third apparition of the Angel of Peace. When he offered the chalice to Jacinta and Francisco, he said, “Take and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, horribly outraged by ungrateful men! Make reparation for their crimes and console your God.”19 The angel thus conjoined reparation for sin, which is part of the central message of Fatima, with consolation of Jesus.
Francisco became consumed with the desire to console the Lord at the third apparition of Our Lady herself, on July 13, 1917. It is on this occasion that Our Lady revealed the vision of hell to the shepherd children. The vision left various distinct impressions upon the children, terrified by what they saw. For Jacinta, it was the impression of hell itself with all its torments and eternity that inspired her to offer many and great sacrifices, in order to prevent souls from going there.
Francisco, instead, experienced a great desire to console Our Lord: “We were on fire in that light which is God, and yet we were not burnt! What is God? We could never put it into words. Yes, that is something indeed which we could never express! But what a pity it is that He is so sad! If only I could console Him!”20 He was thus inspired to pay frequent visits to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament in the nearby parish church. Later, on another occasion, “I [Lucia] asked him one day: ‘Francisco, which do you like better—to console Our Lord, or to convert sinners, so that no more souls will go to hell?’ ‘I would rather console Our Lord. Didn’t you notice how sad Our Lady was that last month, when she said that people must not offend Our Lord any more, for He is already much offended? I would like to console Our Lord, and after that convert sinners so that they won’t offend Him any more.’”
The fact is that the desires of Jacinta and Francisco converged in the same reality, for we offer consolation to Jesus (and His Mother) precisely by uniting our prayers and sacrifices to the sufferings of His Passion, which thereby become fruitful for the conversion of sinners. This conclusion is confirmed by Francisco himself: “One day, when I [Lucia] showed how unhappy I was over the persecution now beginning both in my family and outside, Francisco tried to encourage me with these words: ‘Never mind! Didn’t Our Lady say that we would have much to suffer, to make reparation to Our Lord and to her own Immaculate Heart for all the sins by which they are offended? They are so sad! If we can console them with these sufferings, how happy we shall be!’”21
For the contemplative soul, a desire to console Jesus quite spontaneously leads to a thirst to become conformed to Him crucified. This thirst led Bl. Francisco to make of his whole life a holocaust: “The day before he died, he said to me: ‘Look! I am very ill; it won’t be long now before I go to heaven.’ ‘Then listen to this. When you’re there, don’t forget to pray a great deal for sinners, for the Holy Father, for me and for Jacinta.’ ‘Yes, I’ll pray. But look, you’d better ask Jacinta to pray for these things instead, because I’m afraid I’ll forget when I see Our Lord. And then, more than anything else I want to console Him.’”22
We see in the life of Bl. Francisco Marto of Fatima the wonderful effects that the practice of devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary produces in the life of the soul. The soul devoted to her Immaculate Heart learns to listen to and speak the language of silence, waiting for Our Lady to communicate the saving counsels of God. Once received, these counsels become “a joy and the delight of [one’s] heart” (Jer 15:16), leading the one who perseveres to a life of deep prayer, a personal encounter with the hidden God which is “a matter of becoming rather than speaking.” Then, contemplating the life of the Word made flesh, there arises the need of the soul to console Jesus, that is, to constantly, lovingly offer up sacrifices for the conversion of sinners for the love of the One who laid down His life for the salvation of the world.
May we draw fresh inspiration from the stellar example of Bl. Francisco Marto to lay hold of this precious gift by drawing from the wellsprings of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
1 Fatima in Lucia’s own words: Sister Lucia’s Memoirs, 16th ed. (Fatima, Portugal: Secretariado dos Pastorinhos, 2007), p. 140.
2 The Wound of Love: A Carthusian Miscellany (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, Inc., 1994), p. 161.
3 The Wound of Love, pp. 161-162.
4 Sr. Maria Gabriella Iannelli, F.I., “The Mediation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the lives of Bl. Francisco and Jacinta of Fatima,” in Mary at the Foot of the Cross, VII: Acts of the Seventh International Symposium on Marian Coredemption (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2008), p.453.
5 The Wound of Love, p. 206.
6 Cf. The Wound of Love, p. 206.
7 The Wound of Love, p. 193.
8 Pope St. John Paul II, Homily at the Beatification of Francisco and Jacinta Marto (May 13, 2000). https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/travels/2000/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20000513_beatification-fatima.html.
9 Memoirs, p. 175.
10 Memoirs, p. 175.
11 Memoirs, p. 143.
12 Leo Madigan, The Children of Fatima: Blessed Francisco and Blessed Jacinta Marto (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2003), p. 218.
13 Sister Lucia, “Calls” From the Message of Fatima (Fatima: Secretariado dos Pastorinhos, 2000), p. 126.
14 Memoirs, p. 146.
15 The Wound of Love, p. 94.
16 Sister M. Faustina Kowalska, Divine Mercy in My Soul, 2nd ed. (Stockbridge, Massachusetts: Marian Press, 1990), 1120.
17 Divine Mercy, 866.
18 Divine Mercy, 1397.
19 Memoirs, p. 79.
20 Memoirs, p. 147
21 Memoirs, pp. 143-144.
22 Memoirs, p. 163.