The Pope is mourning the loss of a friend who saved his life. This friend had been rallying prayer support for the Holy Father since she was 10 years old until her death last month at the age of 97. She said she had been told to do so by another friend, Mary. John Paul II credits her prayers and the prayers that she helped stir in others with surviving an assassin’s bullet that by all normal circumstances should have killed him within seconds. The Pope’s friend was Lucia, a little shepherd girl from Portugal, and she died a few weeks ago, on February 13th. In this lesson we will look at her life, her friendship with Mary, and her mission in the world.
Chosen for a mission
In 1917, Mary appeared in Fatima, Portugal to the 10-year-old Lucia dos Santos along with her two younger cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto. For the next six months, from May to October, the Blessed Mother would appear to the shepherd children on the 13th of every month (except for the August apparition). She spoke to them like friends, and gave them a serous message for the world, telling that terrible events were coming for people, and asking everyone to pray the rosary daily and do acts of penance, praying in a special way for the conversion of sinners. She also entrusted them with three secrets. The last secret would not be made public until more than 80 years later.
This special friendship with Mary was a gift that the children did not expect nor ask for. They were only poor, humble shepherds who knew nothing about fame and worldwide events. When Our Lady asked them to pray in a special way for Russia, they thought that Russia may have been some lady or sinner who needed to be converted. These children became heroes because they were not looking to be more important or famous than everyone else, but just to focus on being who God wanted them to be.
Even from the beginning, their mission was not easy, but children can often surprise us by their courage. The government at that time in Portugal was anti-Catholic, and at one point, the children were jailed in a town called Ourem, and the Mayor threatened to boil them in oil if they did not say that the visions were a lie. One by one he lead them away to what they thought was certain death. It turned out that the threat of the Mayor was a bluff, but the children had believed it was true. Even with the possibility of death they would not betray Our Lady.
In the words Pope John Paul II sent for Lucia’s funeral last month, he reminded us of Lucia’s fidelity to her mission. “The visit of the Virgin Mary, which little Lucia received in Fatima together with her cousins Francisco and Jacinto in 1917, was for her the beginning of a singular mission to which she remained faithful until the end of her days.”
A mission to save souls
At one point, Mary showed the three children a vision of hell. They saw a great sea of fire with demons like frightful animals and souls shrieking and groaning in pain and despair. It was not an illusion. It was real, terribly real. Lucia said that they would have died of fear and terror right there, except that they had already been allowed a special experience of God´s love and Mary had already promised to take them to heaven.
The purpose of the vision was to show them the need to save souls. Seeing how bad hell was increased their apostolic zeal, and they decided to do anything possible to stop souls from ending up there. Mary promised that many could be saved through devotion to her Immaculate Heart, and helped the children to realize that their prayers were powerful for the salvation of souls. It was a simple mission, to dedicate time every day to pray and offer sacrifices for others, but the children were convinced that it was the most important thing in the world. They lived it seriously, and inspired countless others throughout the world to do the same.
Life of prayer
When, a fter the apparitions, so many people came to pray in Fatima, they often wanted to see little Lucia too. She was glad people were coming to pray, but did not want to be the center of attention. With the help of her parents and her bishop, Lucia was secretly enrolled in a girls’ boarding school in another town in 1921. Her classmates did not even know she was the famous Lucia of Fatima. Her cousins had died in 1919 and 1920, and even though Lucia was very sad, she found strength and joy because Mary had promised she would bring them to heaven. Lucia wanted to dedicate the rest of her life to prayer. When she was 18 years old, she was admitted as a postulant in the Institute of the Sisters of St. Dorothy in Spain. Fourteen years after making her perpetual vows, she transferred to the Carmel of Saint Teresa in Portugal where she dedicated her life to prayer in a cloister, taking the name of Sister Maria Lucia of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart.
She would remain here for the rest of her life, seriously working to fulfill her mission to save as many souls as possible through her prayer and sacrifice. She did not look for special treatment and simply lived the life of the convent like all the other nuns. Once, when a new sister came to live there, she did not even realize that Sister Maria Lucia was Lucia of Fatima until over a week after her arrival. Lucia was chosen by Mary because of her humility, and she wanted to keep practicing that humility for the rest of her life.
Guardian of the Pope
On May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II was struck down by the bullet of a professional assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca. The gunman fired several shots at very close range, and he was confident that there was no way he could miss. The bullet entered the Holy Father’s abdomen, and exited out the other side, also breaking his elbow and cutting a finger before falling to the floor of the Popemobile. By a miracle, the bullet that pierced the Pope was somehow deflected around vital organs, and the Pope’s life was spared. The doctors could not explain how this had happened. The Holy Father immediately accredited this to the intervention of Our Lady of Fatima, and the strength of the prayers of her friend, Sister Lucia.
To this day, the assassin is still trying to figure out what this mysterious “Fatima” secret is, that could have foiled his master plan so successfully. He would never believe that a little nun who was praying hard in a country far away, would be able to guard the Pope’s life against his gun. On May 13, 1982, Pope John Paul II traveled to Fatima in thanksgiving, putting the bullet in Our Lady’s crown as a sign of her victory, and meeting with his prayer-bodyguard, Sister Lucia.
A secret is revealed
Sister Lucia had received three secrets from Our Lady in 1917, which were revealed little by little. She said that the third one could not be known until after 1960, and so she carefully wrote it out, sealed it in an envelope, and gave it to her bishop to be kept in the Vatican secret archives. Recently, it was revealed that Mary’s third secret to Lucia and her cousins had been a type of vision. They saw the Church under attack, many martyrs, and the Pope himself being killed by enemy gunfire under a huge wooden cross. She did not know what it meant at the time, but in humility she recognized that it was only her job to report it, not to try to figure it out. Only the Popes were able to see it until a few years ago when it was revealed to whole world.
What does it mean?
Lucia’s vision does not imply that God was planning to have the Pope shot, nor that she was able to predict the future. The vision was an image of what would happen in the 20th century: the battle of the atheistic systems against the Church and all Christians, and in a particular way against the Pope. It shows the great sufferings of all those people who take their faith seriously and refuse to betray Christ. Lucia and her cousins were constantly motivated by this reality, repeating, “Poor souls! Poor Holy Father!” The vision also shows that the martyrs who successfully give witness to their faith earn more graces to strengthen the rest of us.
When Mary came to Fatima, she reminded the world that she and her Son are actively involved in human history. Though we normally do not see their actions, our faith assures us that they are interested and participate in everything that goes on in our world.
Our Lady of Fatima showed the children that prayer can change the course of history. In explaining the third secret of Fatima, the Church has confirmed that this happened. History was changed through prayer in a real way, when Pope John Paul II was shot, and yet lived on for many more years to see the fall of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe.
The silent army general
Lucia led the way of prayer and penance that millions of believers would follow. Silently, from her cloister she gathered an army around the Pope and the Church . Her faithful transmission of the Blessed Mother’s message has inspired countless others to offer simple prayers and sacrifices for the good of the Church and the souls that are in danger of being lost. Her example led many others to strive hard towards heaven.
Lucia taught us a prayer that is very powerful. It helps us focus on our main goal in life and calls us to join in her spiritual combat for others. The Holy Father invites us to repeat this prayer often:
“Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fire of hell.
Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of your mercy.”
- “Seeing his mother there with the disciple whom he loved, Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, there is your son.’ In turn he said to the disciple, ‘There is your mother.’ From that hour onward, the disciple took her into his care.” (John 19:26-27)
- “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.'” (Matthew 11:29)
- “Our battle is not against human forces but against the principalities and powers, the rulers of this world of darkness…You must put on the armor of God… ” (Ephesians 6:12-13)
Excerpts from the message of Pope John Paul II, read at the funeral of Sor Lucia (14 February, 2005):
With profound emotion I learned that Sister Maria Lucia of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart, at the age of 97 years, was called by the heavenly Father to the eternal dwelling of heaven. She has thus reached the end to which she always aspired in prayer and in the silence of the convent.
The visit of the Virgin Mary, which little Lucia received in Fatima together with her cousins Francisco and Jacinta in 1917, was for her the beginning of a singular mission to which she remained faithful until the end of her days. Sister Lucia leaves us an example of great fidelity to the Lord and of joyful adherence to his divine will.
I remember with emotion the various meetings I had with her and the bonds of spiritual friendship that, with the passing of time, were intensified. I have always felt supported by the daily gift of her prayer, especially in the harsh moments of trial and suffering. May the Lord reward her amply for the great and hidden service she has done to the Church.
I love to think that the one who has received Sister Lucia in the passing from earth to heaven has been precisely She whom she saw in Fatima so many years ago. May the Holy Virgin accompany the soul of this devoted daughter of hers to the happy encounter with the divine Spouse.
Saints and Heroes:
Blessed Francisco and Jacinta Marto were beatified in the Jubilee year, the youngest non-martyrs to achieve this recognition of holiness. Martyrs can be canonized automatically, but other saints have to be seen as an example of heroic virtue. These children were not beatified because they saw an apparition, but rather because of the way they responded to Mary’s call to holiness. Francisco was born on June 11th, 1908. He was a boy who liked animals and liked playing songs on his shepherd’s flute. Jacinta, born on March 11th, 1910, was active and loved to dance to her brother’s music. They helped their cousin Lucia to tend the sheep, and together the three children saw the apparition of Our Lady at Fatima in 1917. When Mary asked them to pray the rosary and offer sacrifices for sinners, they took it seriously. They would give their food to beggars, give up drinking water on hot days, and pray often. In 1918, both children caught the Spanish flu, and Mary appeared to them to tell them she was going to take them to Heaven soon. Francisco, whom she promised to take first, was thrilled at the thought of going to Heaven, and tried to offer as many sacrifices as he could before dying. He would take any medicine or food that he was told to eat, without complaining. He received his first Communion on April 13, 1919, and died the next day. Jacinta was lonely without her brother, but was ready to offer any suffering to save souls from hell. On February 20, 1920, she also went with Our Lady to eternal life.
Apostolic zeal: Intense enthusiasm and work for bringing souls to Christ.
Cloister : Literally: “enclosure”. A place of religious seclusion. Usually it refers to a religious community with a central with ministry of prayer, who live exclusively within a convent or monastery, with minimal contact with the outside world
Devotion to Mary: Friendship with the Blessed Mother of God, characterized by speaking with her in prayer and imitating her virtues. Mary is a “prayer partner” who helps us focus on God and do his will.
Supernatural hope: Confidence in God’s gift of heaven. Confidence in God’s mercy.
Human hope: Confidence that good will happen. Confidence that things will work out well
Humility: Virtue that reminds us we do not know everything and that God can be trusted to guide us as a good Father.
Penance: Expressions of conversion and repentance. Some examples of penance: helping the needy, prayer, fasting, reconciling with our neighbor, etc.
Postulant: A period of discernment for candidates who would aspire to enter the novitiate of a religious congregation.
Rally: To come together for a common purpose, especially to assist or support a cause or person, etc
Discussion Question Options
- What qualities constitute true friendship (write on the board)? Which of these is it possible to live in your friendship with Mary, and how?
- Can you think of other stories that you have heard, or experienced personally, in which you can see how Christ or Mary played a role in making things turn out a certain way? Or is there a time when you prayed for something specific, and knew that your prayers affected the way it came out?
- Why was it important for Sor Lucia to enter the convent? What did she hope to accomplish there? Do you think she was more effective in her mission? Why or why not?
- How many different examples are given in the text about the humility of Sor Lucia? How did she live it (in ways that are not necessarily pointed out in the text)?
- Some people try to deny that hell is real. Why do they say this? Why is it important for us to believe that hell is real? Why is it important to believe that purgatory is real?
Journal Writing Options
- What is your relationship with Mary like? Do you consider her a friend, a mother, or just a distant statue? Have you ever done any special activities or prayers surrounding Mary? Write about what your friendship with Our Lady is now, and what you would like it to be.
- Imagine that Our Lady said to you, as she said to Lucia: “Pray, pray very much and make sacrifices for sinners; for many souls go to hell because there are none to sacrifice themselves and to pray for them.” What would you answer to her? Would it change the way you live your life? Do you truly believe that some people around you are entrusted to your prayers, and if you do not pray for them, no one will?
- Sor Lucia was a friend and guardian of Pope John Paul II before she even met him personally. Have current magazines and newspapers so each student can choose someone in the news that they can pray for in a special way (presidents, religious figures, criminals, actors, etc.).
- Write the names on slips of paper for the bulletin board to remind them of their prayer intentions.
- As a class, come up with a sacrifice resolution that they can offer for their specific intention (no TV on a certain day, etc.)
- Have a timed Bible search. Give students 10 minutes to try to find all the passages that they can find that has some reference to the reality of heaven (teams are optional). Students report their findings, reading the verses aloud. List the results on the board, and have students make their own list on an index card for future reference. Do the same for all mentions of Heaven.
- Find out if there is a local cloistered community, and plan a trip to visit there. Many cloisters welcome the public for Mass, although the sisters remain in a separate part of the chapel. Look for a Poor Clare monastery, Cloistered Carmelite community, etc.
- In groups, prepare presentations for the rest of the class, going more in-depth on the story of Fatima:
- Give the history of the apparitions
- Give an overview of the more important words that Mary spoke to Lucia
- Present the three secrets of Fatima
- Describe the modern-day Fatima shrine
- Students may go to the internet to see pictures from Fatima (http://www.santuario-fatima.pt/portal/multimedia.php)
More information on Fatima
The secret of Fatima
Pope John Paul II’s message for the funeral of Sor Lucia
Memory and Identity by Pope John Paul II, published February 2005.
(Last pages deal with Fatima and the May 1981 attempt on the Pope’s life.)