FATIMA, Portugal—Emila Santos, who had been paralyzed and confined to bed for 22 years, now walks.

Repahadoras Sister Maria Luisa Dias Ferreira, in whose Fatima convent Santos is currently residing, said that the Portuguese woman had made a novena to Francisco and Jacinta Marto for help, “and was cured.”

The medical board of the Congregation of Saints unanimously agreed earlier this spring that there is no medical explanation for the cure.

Now, people all over the world are anticipating the imminent beatification of Francisco and Jacinta, two of the three children who saw the Blessed Virgin Mary appear at Fatima over a six-month period in 1917.

Interest has grown ever since the news of the miracle reached the world, said Mary Ann Sullivan, marketing director of the Blue Army, which is also called the World Apostolate of Fatima, based in Washington, N.J. Phone calls from pilgrims wanting to go to Fatima has tripled, she reported.

Santos could petition the children, who had died in 1919 and 1920 respectively, for help since they had been declared venerable by Pope John Paul II in 1989. This step on the road to canonization meant that they had displayed heroic virtue. The formal recognition of Francisco and Jacinta as venerable marked a significant development in Catholic doctrine.

For centuries, explained Society of the Divine Word Father P. Luis Kandar, vice postulator for the cause of Francisco and Jacinta Marto, the Church hadn't decided if non-martyred children could display the heroic virtue necessary for formal canonization. Although various young people's causes had been forwarded to the Vatican for approval, the causes lay in limbo.

Sister Mary John, of the Handmaids of Mary Immaculate, a congregation that spreads Marian devotion, said that the canonization of the children will be very much in line with the Second Vatican Council's universal call to holiness.

To canonize the children will emphasize “that everyone is called to be a saint,” she said.

Sister Mary John, who is based at the New Jersey Blue Army shrine, added she has seen firsthand the impact the examples of Francisco and Jacinta have on children.

“We give talks to … kids, and we tell them about what the children have done,” she said. “We tell them about the penitential path. We come out, and all the kids are at the shrine … on their knees.”

One young enthusiast, Lizzy Crnkovich, a 7-year-old from McLean, Va., is fascinated with the story of Fatima. Her mother, Liz, said that her favorite books and videos are those telling the story of Fatima.

“I have been reading a lot” about Jacinta, said Lizzy. “I like the part when Mary appears to them. They pray with their older sister [Lucia, their cousin]. We pray a rosary every night,” just like them, she said.

Lizzy said she hopes to go to Fatima herself, one day, to see the place “where Mary saw them.”

Sister Mary John said that the Fatima children show that “the message of the Gospel is simple. … The message is simple enough for children to live.”

In 1937, Pope Pius XI decided that causes for minors shouldn't be accepted because he felt that they couldn't display heroic virtue. He didn't believe that children could fully understand heroic virtue or practice it repeatedly, both of which are essential for canonization. For the next four decades, no sainthood processes for children were pursued.

Then, in 1979, recalled Father Kandar, he took Francisco's and Jacinta's cause to Rome. He and the bishop of Leiria-Fatima believed that Pope John Paul II, who had ascended St. Peter's throne a year earlier, would be more sympathetic to the idea of canonizing children.

Father Kandar was told that their cause was “impossible,” even though the brother and sister had “a universal fame for sanctity.”

Then the bishop of Leiria-Fatima asked all the world's bishops to write a letter to the Pope, petitioning him to make an exception for Francisco, who had died at age 11, and Jacinta, who had died at age 10.

More than 300 bishops sent letters to the Holy Father, noted Father Kandar. They wrote, he said, that “the children were known, admired and attracted people to the way of sanctity. Favors were received through their intercession.” The bishops also stated that the children's canonization was a pastoral necessity for the children and teen-agers of today.

In 1979, the Congregation of Saints convened a general assembly. Cardinals, bishops, theologians and other experts debated whether it was possible for children to display heroic virtue. Eventually, said Father Kandar, they decided that like the very few children who have a genius for music or mathematics, “in some supernatural way, some children could be spiritual prodigies.”

Father Kandar was given permission to continue with Francisco's and Jacinta's cause. The postulators of other children's causes were also given permission to proceed.

On May 13, 1989, Pope John Paul declared Francisco and Jacinta Marto venerable. They were the first non-martyred children to be acknowledged in this fashion. Because they have been recognized as venerable, public Masses can be said in their honor and churches can be named after them.

The next step on the children's road to canonization is beatification.

“One miracle is needed for beatification,” explains Father Kandar.

The Divine Word priest and many others believe that the necessary miracle is provided by Emila Santos' cure. And with the medical board's decision, a critical and difficult step on the road to sainthood for Francisco and Jacinta has been accomplished.

Father Kandar, who lives in Fatima, said the children's cause is now in front of the Congregation of Saints' commission of theologians. “They must prove that the miracle happened because the children were involved,” he noted.

The Divine Word priest said he believes that the commission of theologians will soon confirm the children's involvement and pass their positive conclusion on to the cardinal and bishops who head the Congregation of Saints, perhaps by the end of May. They would send their conclusion to the Pope, who makes the final decision about the mira-cle's validity.

When the Holy Father issues the decree of the miracle, said Father Kandar, “that marks the beatification date.” That could happen this year, he added.

When the Pope arrived in Fatima for the first time, in 1982, he said that he had come “because, on this exact date last year in St. Peter's Square, in Rome, there was an attempt on the life of your Pope, which mysteriously coincided with the anniversary of the first vision at Fatima, that of the 13th of May 1917. The coincidence of these dates was so great that it seemed to be a special invitation for me to come here.”

During this visit, Pope John Paul survived a knife attack by a young Spaniard who was dressed as a priest. He also met Sister Lucia dos Santos, the third and only surviving member of the trio of children who saw the three apparitions of the angel in 1915 and 1916 and the six apparitions of our Lady of Fatima in 1917.

Sister Lucia, now 92, and in good health, lives quietly in a Carmelite convent in Coimbra, Portugal, and continues to spread devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

On the Pope's second pilgrimage to Fatima, in 1991, which commemorated the 10th anniversary of his attempted assassination, he reiterated his gratitude to our Lady of Fatima for her intercession. In front of her statue, he recited the rosary with other pilgrims and placed a bullet that had been removed from his body after the attack in the statue's crown. He then consecrated humanity to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

If Pope John Paul arrives in Fatima for the third time, he is expected to perform an action that would bring great joy to Catholics in Fatima and around the world — the beatification of two modest yet intensely holy children.

Loretta G. Seyer is editor of Catholic Faith & Family.

New Church Is in the Works at Shrine

In addition to the expected beatification of Francisco and Jacinta Marto sometime in 1999, Fatima is looking forward to another significant development.

Plans are being made to build an enormous circular church opposite the Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima. This new structure will hold 10,000 seated people and be half buried in the ground. The road that currently runs across the site will be relocated to a tunnel under the church.

The structure will be built in a modern style, although a decision hasn't been made about the bell tower, explains Msgr. Luciano Guerra, director of the Fatima sanctuary.

He says the church will be named Most Holy Trinity for two reasons.

The first because of what occurred at the third apparition of the angel to Lucia dos Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto, which took place in September or October 1916.

The angel, who had told the children during his second apparition that he was their guardian angel and the angel of Portugal, held a chalice and Host. Drops of blood fell from the Host into the chalice. The angel, a shining white figure, left the Host and chalice in midair, dropped to his knees and began a prayer to the Holy Trinity.

The second reason for naming the new church after the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, says Msgr. Guerra, is because Pope John Paul II wants 2000 to be dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

Most Holy Trinity Church will be only part of a new complex dedicated to making the Fatima experience more reverential for pilgrims. A second church for reconciliation holding about 700 people will be built. A perpetual adoration chapel three times the size of the current one is also part of the plans, as are several small chapels holding congregations ranging in size from 50 to 200 and a series of spaces for examination of conscience, catechetical instruction and preparation for Communion.

The church and its attached complex are being designed by Taom Bazis, an architect from Athens, Greece, who won a two-phase international design contest.

The first phase was held in March 1998 and was open to any architect who cared to enter. This part of the contest asked architects to answer two questions with their designs, says Msgr. Guerra. The first was to determine if the new complex would be built behind the basil-ica or opposite it. The second was to determine if the complex would be fully underground or only partially buried.

Ten architects from Europe entered the competition. From that group, a building committee chose three architects to refine their designs for the second phase of the competition. In December 1998, Bazis was informed that he had won the contest.

His plans have been submitted to Bishop Serafim de Sousa Ferreira e Silva of Leiria-Fatima for final approval. He is expected to make a decision about the proposed project soon, perhaps by the end of May.

If the bishop approves of the plans for the new church and complex, and Msgr. Guerra believes his reaction will be positive, the director of the Fatima sanctuary says he hopes to break ground for the complex in either May or October 2000. He expects that it will take two-and-a-half years to construct.

Msgr. Guerra says the project's building costs will be funded out of pilgrims' contributions. He notes that the shrine has enough money to get the project started, but more will be needed to complete the complex. Msgr. Guerra hopes that the necessary funds will come from pilgrims' normal contributions to the Fatima sanctuary.

The project is expected to cost about $31 million.

— Loretta G. Seyer