The Cross, the Crown, and the Children of Fatima
Amen I say to you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, shall not enter into it.
This simple teaching is easy to recall, but difficult to live out. Venerable Bede tells us the meaning: we must have innocence and purity of mind, docility to what the Church teaches, and awe-inspired obedience. Adults are stubborn; it is difficult to keep ourselves from questioning God’s will, or to answer the call to rid ourselves of sinful habits. As for purity of mind and innocence—once lost, only God's supernatural grace can restore us to that state.
Despite the encroaching world, I glimpse this childlike faith in my Catholic students: awe toward mysteries and miracles, imaginations engaged in envisioning water turning into wine and the God-man walking on water.
As the feast of Our Lady of Fátima arrives, I think of the children of Fátima, particularly Saints Francisco and Jacinta. Their words and actions showed their deep faith, their obedience and docility toward God’s will for them. They spent the rest of their short lives in prayer and sacrifice, consoling the Heart of Our Lord and working fervently for the conversion of sinners. Their wholehearted trust in and acceptance of Our Lady’s message embodies childlike faith perfectly. No wonder they are saints!
However, there is another aspect of their sainthood: their deep suffering. The children were interrogated, beaten, and put in prison, but did not recant having seen Our Lady. And they knew that this was not the end of their trials. After receiving visions of death and destruction in another coming war, Jacinta told her cousin Lucia: “Don’t you see that no one can just run off to heaven?” As a child, she was given to understand that one does not simply enter heaven by being a child, or simply by living. She knew that all of us enter heaven through suffering, and she did not fear the suffering: she knew that the cross comes before the crown. For the Lord tells us:
Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer. ... Be thou faithful until death, and I will give thee the crown of life.
Her brother Francisco took this lesson to heart. After the apparitions, he often went to pray alone, consoling Christ for all the sins we commit. At ten years old, he became gravely ill from complications of the Spanish flu, yet he was joyful at the thought of death. For the conversion of sinners, he offered his last pains without complaint; his eyes were fixed on heaven, where he would soon be with his beloved Jesus and Mary.
Similarly, after the apparitions began, Jacinta loved and sought out suffering. She contracted the flu as well, and suffered from related infections. Treatment worsened her condition. Our Lady appeared, asking if Jacinta wished to go to heaven earlier, or to remain on earth to suffer for souls. Despite already having the assurance of heaven, she chose to stay on earth. Her choice led to great physical and emotional suffering. But she was glad for it: when two of her ribs were removed without full anesthesia, she knew that her suffering would bring about the conversion of many sinners. Soon after, the 9-year-old died alone. Yet that death was a joy for her: she had chosen it.
Many child saints willingly met painful ends. St. Maria Goretti was brutally murdered, choosing death rather than acts of impurity; St. Tarsicius was beaten to death by a mob in defense of the Blessed Sacrament; St. José Sánchez del Río did not recant his faith, despite being tortured before his execution by anti-Catholic government officials. We know that “being like a child” means being full of trust and openness to the Lord. What we do not consider is that childlike faith is necessary because it enables saints—including children—to suffer.
And children do suffer. We recoil at the thought—but it is a consequence of living in a fallen world. Our love alone cannot prevent our children from being hurt. And children of faith will necessarily suffer as they live out that faith.
The same is true of us. We are all called to follow in our Lord’s path, from the Cross to the Resurrection.
Not all suffer great physical pain, but all suffer. For suffering is not merely physical; Jacinta’s willingness to wait for heaven shows that suffering is, fundamentally, patience in trials. The Latin pati is the source of the words patience and passion, the latter used for Christ's suffering and for that of many saints.
We do not think of children as patient; but by grace, they are capable. Blessed Imelda Lambertini did not suffer physically, but she waited patiently for her Holy Communion. At five years old she already desired to receive Him; ordinarily she would have to wait until she was 14. When she was 11, God caused a miraculous sign at Mass; a priest then gave her Holy Communion. A few hours later, she was found still kneeling in the Church with a beatific smile; she had died. Her six years of desire and patience had been rewarded. She had received her Lord, not only once, but forever.
The suffering of holy desire may not be visible to us, but we all bear this cross. Our children are made for God, and they too desire Him. Like every one of us, they suffer when anything takes them away from the source of all Joy, whether it be physical pain, emotional distress, doubt, or the burden of witnessing or being victim to sin.
To bear with the thought of suffering—and even moreso, to bear the thought of being unable to prevent our children’s suffering—we must ask for and seek out the childlike faith that gives suffering meaning. With such faith, we can then embrace the crosses in our own lives–the humiliations and the defeats, the illnesses, the losses, the horrors we wish never to imagine. By faith we, like the saints, will be able to offer these for the conversion of our loved ones and for sinners.
Then, by example and word, we will be able to teach our children how to bear suffering, and to offer it for their salvation and the salvation of others. Not only will we teach them thus to bear the trials of this world, but then we will have peace in fulfilling our duty and our desire: we will do our part in preventing their eternal suffering.
To become like a child is not to live a simple life with little suffering. Rather, being “like a child” results in being able to bear great suffering: the saints, children and adults alike, suffered with joy because they held fast to the vision of heaven, to God’s gift of unwavering faith. To become like a child, then, makes us able to do as Jacinta and Francisco did: to embrace and offer our powerlessness and our pain with wholehearted trust.
May our Lady give us the visionary hope of Saints Francisco and Jacinta, that, in the midst of our agony, we look forward to heaven. Would that she bring us the faith of these children, that we may trust with all our heart that God uses our suffering for souls.
Blessed are the childlike, the pure in heart; for they shall see God.