St Jacinta and Francisco Marto

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Child visionaries. Between 13 May and 13 October 1917, three children, Jacinta, Francisco and Lucia, Portuguese shepherds from Aljustrel, saw apparitions of Our Lady at Cova da Iria, near Fatima, a city 110 miles north of Lisbon.

At that time, Europe was involved in an extremely bloody war. Portugal itself was in political turmoil, having overthrown its monarchy in 1910; the government disbanded religious organizations soon after.

During the first appearance, Mary asked the children to return to that spot on the thirteenth of each month for the next six months. She also asked them to learn to read and write and to pray the rosary "to obtain peace for the world and the end of the war." They were to pray for sinners and for the conversion of Russia, which had recently overthrown Czar Nicholas II and was soon to fall under communism. Up to 90,000 people gathered for Mary's final apparition on October 13, 1917.

Less than two years later, in 1919, Francisco died of influenza in his family home. He was 11. He was buried in the parish cemetery and then re-buried in the Fatima basilica in 1952. Jacinta died the next year of influenza in Lisbon. She was just 10. During her illness she offering her suffering for the conversion of sinners, peace in the world and the Holy Father. She was re-buried in the Fatima basilica in 1951.

Their cousin, Lucia dos Santos, became a Carmelite nun and was still living when Jacinta and Francisco were beatified on 13 May 2000 by Pope John Paul II during his pastoral visit to Portugal. She died on 13 February 2005. This year, on the third anniversary of her death, at a special Mass in the cathedral of Coimbra, Portugal, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins CMF, president of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, announced that an exception was being made so that the usual five-year wait could be waived and the diocesan stage of the cause for her beatification would begin.

The shrine of Our Lady of Fatima is visited by up to 20 million people a year and is particularly dedicated to prayers for peace and reconciliation.

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