St. Francisco Marto, Pray For Us!

Pope Francis canonized Francisco and his sister Jacinta together in 2017 during the centennial celebration of the Fatima apparitions.

The three children of Fátima — from left to right: St. Jacinta Marto (age 7), Lúcia Santos (age 10) and Francisco (age 9) — are pictured around Sept. 13, 1917.
The three children of Fátima — from left to right: St. Jacinta Marto (age 7), Lúcia Santos (age 10) and Francisco (age 9) — are pictured around Sept. 13, 1917. (photo: Public Domain)

Our priest was just sitting down after delivering his homily when out of the corner of my eye I spied an errant hand darting out. Turning my head, I watched as my 4-year-old son grinned mischievously, his hand moving toward his 2-year-old brother’s ear. Before I could intervene, my younger son had squirmed away from his brother, wearing an impish smile of his own that threatened retaliation.

Fearing that their antics could escalate, I whispered a quick admonishment to my sons, reminding them that church time is not play time. They earnestly nodded their understanding and obediently pulled back the offending limbs. Not entirely reassured, I kept one eye trained on them while attempting to pay attention to the liturgy. A few moments later, I watched as my older son bowed his head during the Eucharistic Prayer, and quietly instructed his little brother to do the same. I whispered a quick prayer of joyful thanks as I looked at the two bowed heads beside me, adding a fervent petition that these sweet boys would retain their childlike faith.

St. Francisco Marto, whose life we honor today, along with his sister, St. Jacinta, was a young boy, much like any other, who was canonized not because of the extraordinary events of his life, but because of the grace with which he received them. Francisco, Jacinta and their cousin, Servant of God Lúcia, were the three children to whom Our Lady appeared at Fatima in 1917.

The three children of Fatima are often grouped together, especially Jacinta and Francisco, the canonized siblings who share a feast day and who died of influenza shortly after the apparitions. I admit however that Francisco holds a special place in my heart. Perhaps it is because my first two children are boys, that this little sainted boy brings me so much joy. Francisco was a young boy, a few years older than my own sons, who loved games and sports. A fun-loving child, he enjoyed playing innocent mischievous pranks on his younger brother, and he had a sensitive heart. A favorite anecdote of this holy child tells how he gave his friend a penny in exchange for a bird that the other boy had captured. Having given his earthly treasure to save the poor creature, Francisco immediately set the bird free.

In these vignettes of this sainted boy’s life that have come to us through the decades, I see not just a haloed child but a little boy who, in another life, might have played with my boys. I hear his laugh as a friend tells him a joke, or watch his bemused mother shake her head, her eyes filled with love as her little boy brings home another snake or lizard he found in his travels.

Francisco, alone of the three children at Fatima, never heard Our Lady’s voice. His sister and cousin told the 8-year-old boy what the Virgin said to them. When they asked her if Francisco would go to heaven, she responded that he would, but he would need to pray many Rosaries. I imagine a little boy turning down his friends’ requests to play, and instead dutifully picking up his well-worn beads and piously reciting the prayers he’s known since infancy, anxious to please his heavenly mother and her son. In his puckered brow I see my own sons, kneeling beside me at Mass with their rosaries as their little voices stumble over the prayers they are still learning to say.

Less than two years after the first apparition, Francisco lay dying of influenza. Unafraid of death and determined to get to heaven, he asked only to receive Jesus in First Holy Communion. His wish granted, the little saint died the next morning.

When the cause for Francisco and his sister’s canonization was first suggested, Pope Pius XI said that it could not be accepted because non-martyred minors could not understand or practice the heroic virtue necessary for recognized sainthood. More than 300 bishops petitioned Pope St. John Paul II in 1979 to reconsider the children’s case, and in 2000 they were beatified. Pope Francis canonized them together in 2017 during the centennial celebration of the Fatima apparitions.

A key argument of the petitioners was that young people needed the example of young saints. As a mother of small children, I am eternally grateful to these bishops for their perseverance in the cause of Francisco and Jacinta’s canonization. I thank God for the life of St. Francisco, and I thank his instruments on earth for ensuring that this young boy’s example would be shared throughout the Church so that other children, including my sons, could know that the communion of saints includes boys and girls like themselves who managed, despite their young age, to lead lives of heroic virtue and unwavering faith.

St. Francisco Marto, pray for us!