“The Lady in the Light”

by the Rev Father John De Marchi, IMC, 1952.

Re-published by Patrimonium Publishing, 2016.


Jacinta Marto was a lamb of the Lord, who remains the delight and living lesson of the Fatima story as it is known to date. Because Lucia loved her so, and has made her own earliest memoirs almost a sheer biography of her cousin (with the apparitions mentioned hardly at all), we have a heroine, small but complete, dainty yet brave, and as gay in the paths of sorrow and trial as only the saints can be.

She never grew much bigger than a plaster cherub, anyhow. She died when she was not quite ten years old, already on speaking terms with actual angels, and with Mary, the Queen of the Kingdom. It was the running head-start to heaven that Jacinta had clearly earned.

She was two years younger than Francisco, whom she resembled. Her prettiness was an asset that undoubtedly pleased her, and it was marked enough to prompt the special attention of her mother. Her expression was soft and her features exquisitely modelled. Her health was excellent; her energies endless; she flowed into motion with easy grace and dancing was one of her joys.

“She wasn’t as plump as Francisco,” her mother reports. “Her eyes were light in colour and brighter than my own when I was young. She liked to have her hair tidy and I used to do it for her every day. A little jacket and a cotton skirt and shoes were what she wore each day, for I was always able to keep my children shod.”

Jacinta’s grasp on the affections of all who knew her is made clear by endless testimony. “She was a darling,” her father still declares, “and none of the others could compare with her.”

This is almost excessive praise from the just and moderate Ti Marto, whose inclination would not normally be to raise the prestige of a single child like a bright flag over the rest:

She was always gentle and sweet, and she was like that from the beginning. If she wanted anything she would let us know in her own way, or just give a tiny cry, and then no more trouble at all. When we went out to Mass, or for some other reason left the house, she did not mind. We never had to go through any nonsense because of her. She was naturally good and was the sweetest among our children. When her mother told her some little fib, such as that she was only going to the cabbage-patch, when she was really going much farther, Jacinta would always detect the deception and not hesitate to scold her own mother.

Such rectitude in a child of this age may seem smug to some, or to others suggest a precocious and self-conscious scold. But there is no reason to believe that this was so. Love worked in Jacinta like a motor – a sixteen cylinder apparatus in a very small body. There were countless targets for her affection – her family, her little friends, her sheep – but above all creatures (prior to the apparitions), she loved her cousin Lucia.

The three-year difference in their ages was no barrier to their friendship or freedom of communication. Their love was rare and undoubtedly touched with grace. Envy or competition did not exist between them, though Jacinta now and then moved out from under any premature halo long enough to pout and be unhappy when she was unable to possess each of her cousin’s waking hours. When Lucia attained the age of ten and was assigned by her parents the daily task of tending the family sheep, a crisis arose. For Lucia it meant a graduation from endless games with other children to responsible chores in sometimes distant pastures; and for Jacinta, held to village doorsteps, it meant a desolate loneliness that she was not at this age willing to bear. Olimpia Marto solved this problem by permitting Jacinta a few of their own flock to take along with Lucia. Jacinta’s desire to praise and to please the older shepherdess is displayed in touching detail by Lucia’s own testimony:

My cousin went one day with her mother to a first Communion ceremony at which tiny “angels” strewed flowers before the Blessed Sacrament. After that she would often leave us at our play to gather armfuls of flowers which she would throw at me in the same way. When I asked her why she did it, she said she was doing what the angels did.

By Lucia’s account, the Gospel stories and the personality of Jesus were in Jacinta’s firm possession long before the apparitions raised the faith of these children to a status of angelic knowledge:

When she was five years old, or less, she would melt with tears on hearing the story of the Passion of our Lord. “Poor Jesus,” she would say. “I must never sin and offend Him more.”

But in the rocky fields of the serra, Jacinta was happy. She had Lucia for the length of every day, and the sheep had become her precious friends. Out of her affection she gave them the choicest names her fancy could provide: “Dove” and “Star” and “Beauty” and “Snow.” Lucia continued:

She used to sit with them, holding and kissing them on her lap. At night she would attempt to carry a little one home on her shoulders to save it from tiredness, as in pictures of the Good Shepherd she had seen.

Flowers enchanted her. It was her habit to gather them in volume and myriad colours to festoon her hair with their brightness, and especially to make garlands for Lucia. Her aesthetic appetite was not only sharp but, for such a knee-high apprentice to the world’s delights, voracious. She had a romantic label for all the natural beauties she was able to behold. The stars were to her “the angels’ lanterns,” and she would challenge Francisco to eye-crossing, sense-rocking contests in which they would attempt to count each one of them. The sun, casting soft light on the rough hills at the end of the day, was to Jacinta, “our Lady’s lamp.”

Lucia says that her cousin’s singing voice was sweet and that she was fond of perching on some high hill now and then so that her voice could echo in the valley.

“And the name which echoed best,” says Lucia, “was Maria.”

Dancing, of course, was an enterprise that flourished endlessly with both of them, and according to Lucia, Jacinta brought to it a special talent and grace. All this is very nice, and very sweet; yet fairness requires those few descriptions by Lucia that reveal some moth bites in her little cousin’s mantle of innocence. She could, at times, be disagreeable:

The least quarrel, when she was playing with other children, was enough to put her into a fit of the sulks. To make her return to the game it was not enough to plead and pet; she had to choose both game and partner.

Possessiveness was another fault in Jacinta, and her accustomed success at games, plus pampering, seem now and then to have shaken a little salt on the angels who hovered so near. Lucia recounts that:

I was very upset with her, because after a game of “buttons” I would have none on my dress when I was called home to meals. She nearly always used to win them from me, and this meant a scolding by my mother. But what could I do when, in addition to sulking, she would not give them back to me? Her plan was to have them ready for the next day’s game without having to use her own. It was only by threatening not to play again that I managed to get them back.

Lucia’s honest memoirs also provide an admission that in those early days prayer was not as popular as play:

We were told we must say our Rosaries after our lunch on the serra, but as the whole day seemed too short for prayer, we thought of a good way to get it done quickly. We simply said, “Hail Mary, Hail Mary,” on each of the beads, and then, at the end of the decade, “Our Father,” with a rather long pause. That way, in a very few minutes, the Rosary was off our minds.

Here then were the seers of Aljustrel – human and warm and somewhat less perfect than time and grace would permit them to become.

On those days when Francisco and Jacinta were allowed to join Lucia in taking the sheep to pasture, their mother would wake them to the darkness and the mountain chill preceding dawn. Still half asleep, they would mumble the required prayer of the day: “Praised be the ever holy Sacrament of the Eucharist….”

Senhora Olimpia remembers that they did not always respond with model devotion; they were much too groggy. “They used to make the sign of the cross,” she explained, “and then say as much of the prayer as they could. Children of that age very soon get tired of praying.”

This ultra-early rousing, of course, was not a calculated penance but a sound concession to the preference of the sheep for nibbling in pasture still fresh with the dew of the night.

While the children were dressing, Olimpia customarily produced for them a breakfast of soup and chewy bread made moist with a splash of olive oil. There’s no indication that the morning menu ever got much fancier. For lunch they would carry with them bread and olives and dried fish or sardines, supplemented with anything else the cupboard could provide. The aim of the children was not food, anyhow, but the company of Lucia and the gladness of the day.

Lucia would wait with her flock, and make the choice of pastureland. Sometimes she chose the fields near Fatima or those close by a village known as Moita. But best of all she liked a place called the Cabeco, where her family owned part of an olive grove. This was a pasture on a rise of land that overlooked their village, near home, and lumpy with odd-shaped stones. Grazing was good at the Cabeco, while the olive and pine trees gave pleasant shade when the heat of the day was high.

Other shepherds often joined them here at Lucia’s invitation, the sheep to dine off the countryside, the children to play at their games. This mingling of flocks appears to have gone well enough, with never a crisis of ownership, since sheep, like puppies, or sociable cats, always know to whom they belong.

Consistent with her habit of leadership, Lucia was the organiser and leader of the games. Being then, as now, a combination of excellent humour and practical energy, her leadership stirred no resentment. It was natural, and it was encouraged by the dependence of the others. Time and again, not from Lucia’s own testimony, but from the willing evidence her old companions provide, their affection for this markedly plain little girl is evident.

A middle-aged housewife of Aljustrel, named Teresa Maitias, remembers happily the games they used to play:

Lucia was very amusing. She had a way of getting the best out of us so that we liked to be with her. She was also very intelligent, and could sing and dance and taught us to do the same. We always obeyed her. We spent hours and hours dancing and singing, and sometimes forgot to eat.
Besides the hymns we sang in church I remember one to Our Lady of Mount Carmel that I still sing as I go about my work, and which all my children have learned.7 (Here Senhora Teresa was happy to demonstrate with four verses and a chorus.) We sang folk songs, too, that I can’t remember now, and the little boys used to play their pipes while we danced.

[7. Senhora Teresa is the mother of nine children, the oldest being approximately twenty-one. In this part of Portugal the crowding of so many heirs to heaven under a single roof is still considered to be far more a blessing than a burden. It is rare to find a family with less than four or five dividends of marriage in a community where all the sacraments appear to be honoured by love and obedience.]

Lucia’s first direct experience of the supernatural between April to October of 1915 was not shared by Francisco or Jacinta. It was at a time that remains uncertain, though she was probably eight years old. Her own recollections set the event between April and October of 1915 and it must have occurred during one of her first assignments with the sheep. She was with three other girls who still remember, though in a kind of grey confusion, what happened that day on the slopes of the Cabeco.

Lucia’s companions were Teresa Maitias, Teresa’s sister, Maria, and a little girl named Maria Justino.

Lucia remembers:

We’d had our lunch, and were just beginning the Rosary, when suddenly we saw, above the trees in the valley below us, a kind of cloud that was whiter than snow. It was transparent and in human form.

The exact emotional reactions of these children are not clear, and later awareness that the figure was an angel has not prompted them to colour the event with imagination. The figure, or visitor, was vague, and admittedly did not etch itself very clearly in their minds.

One of the children reported home to her mother that she had seen something white on a tree and that it looked like a headless woman. This account was enough to raise some lively speculation, but it was a puzzle so beyond solution that, when curiosity had wearied, the problem was shrugged away. Twice again in the days that followed the same strange figure appeared to these children, leaving with Lucia a reaction she could neither describe nor explain.

“The impression slowly disappeared,” she has said in this same memoir, “and I fully believe if it hadn’t been for the events that followed, we’d have forgotten all about it.”


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