Sainting Fatima children, Francis calls for a church 'poor in means, rich in love'

A man reaches to touch Pope Francis after the pope blessed the sick with the Eucharist at the conclusion of the canonization Mass of Sts. Francisco and Jacinta Marto, two of the three Fatima seers, at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal May 13. The Mass marked the 100th anniversary of the Fatima Marian apparitions, which began on May 13, 1917. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Fatima, Portugal — During a Mass canonizing two of the shepherd children who saw Mary appear in a field here exactly 100 years ago, Pope Francis on Saturday called on Catholics to work to renew the church so that it might be "poor in means and rich in love."

In a homily given to hundreds of thousands at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, where some had camped for days to reserve their spots, the pontiff also said Catholics should be "sentinels of dawn" who work for a church that is missionary, welcoming and free.

"Thank you brothers and sisters for being here with me!" Francis told the crowd, which kept a notably silent, prayerful atmosphere throughout the morning. "I could not fail to come here to venerate the Virgin Mary and to entrust all her sons and daughters to her."

Francis' homily Saturday came on the second and last day of his visit to Fatima, where Jacinta and Francisco Marto, seven- and nine-years-old, and their cousin Lucia dos Santos, ten-years-old, first reported seeing Mary on May 13, 1917.

Their vision, in which Mary appeared six times over as many months and told them to tell others to pray for peace during the gruesome First World War, sparked a century of devotion and pilgrimage. The Martos would die in the Flu pandemic just a few years after the visions, while dos Santos would live until 2005.

In the culmination of his 25-hour visit to Portugal, Francis made the Martos siblings saints with a few short words in Latin at the beginning of Saturday's Mass, making them the youngest saints in the church not to have been martyred.

Having "sought the counsel of many of our brother bishops," the pontiff intoned, "we declare and define Blessed Francisco Marto and Jacinta Marto be saints and we enroll them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole church."

Francis' trip to Fatima has differed greatly from the other voyages of his pontificate. Unlike previous trips, in which the pope has delivered complex geopolitical messages, the pontiff is undertaking what the Vatican has called an "apostolic pilgrimage."

Saturday's celebration was marked by an atmosphere of high reverence. Before the pope arrived, other bishops and priests processed to the altar behind a statue of Mary that was being held aloft as people tossed flower petals before it.

Local officials said some 2,000 priests, 71 bishops, and eight cardinals were taking part in the Mass, which was celebrated in Portuguese and Latin.

Francis reflected in his homily Saturday on a reading from John's Gospel in which Jesus, dying on the Cross, presents his mother to one of the disciples and tells him, "Behold, your mother."

"Dear pilgrims, we have a mother," the pope told the crowds. "Clinging to her like children, we live in the hope that rests on Jesus."

"With Mary’s protection, may we be for our world sentinels of the dawn, contemplating the true face of Jesus the Savior, resplendent at Easter," the pontiff asked. "Thus may we rediscover the young and beautiful face of the Church, which shines forth when she is missionary, welcoming, free, faithful, poor in means and rich in love."

On Friday, Francis had offered a prayer at the Fatima sanctuary's Chapel of the Apparitions that humanity might have the courage to choose a culture of encounter over a culture of conflict and would "tear down all walls."

The pope also told pilgrims taking part in a candlelit rosary recitation Friday evening that God emphasizes mercy over judgment.

"Great injustice is done to God's grace whenever we say that sins are punished by his judgment, without first saying -- as the Gospel does -- that they are forgiven by his mercy!" he said.

"Mercy has to be put before judgment and, in any case, God's judgment will always be rendered in the light of his mercy," said the pontiff.

Dos Santos, the third Fatima child, became a Carmelite nun and died at age 97. The devotion given to Our Lady of Fatima is tinged by controversy due to her memoirs, in which she said she and the other children were told three secrets by Mary.

The first two secrets were revealed by dos Santos in the memoirs. They concerned a vision of Hell, taken by many as a prediction of the Second World War, and a need for the world to pray.

The third secret, originally not revealed by the nun, inspired decades of conspiracy theories about what it revealed. In 2000, the Vatican said the secret was a prediction of the May 13, 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square.

John Paul credited Our Lady of Fatima with saving his life that day, saying it was evident "a mother's hand" had deflected would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Ağca's four bullets so they did not kill him.

Pilgrims have been arriving in Fatima over recent days so they could be present for Francis' trip. Some have even walked from nearby cities to emphasize the sense of pilgrimage.

While Francis' security in Fatima has not appeared as high a concern as on other papal visits, Portugal has taken a series of abnormal measures for the pope's trip.

The country has reinstated border controls for a few days by suspending the Europe-wide free travel agreement. Officials have also put in place large cement blocks in the open spaces around Fatima to deter the possibility of drivers undertaking attacks such in recent months in Stockholm and Nice.

Following Saturday's Mass, Francis is to have lunch with the Portuguese bishops. He is due to leave the country in the afternoon, arriving back in Rome in the evening.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here