She was only an unlettered seven-year-old at the time of the visions at Fatima in Portugal in 1917, but Blessed Jacinta (Giacinta) Marto was one of the great Catholics of the 20th century. Together with her brother, Francisco (9) and their cousin, Lucia dos Santos (10), Jacinta was one of the three shepherd children who had visions of the Virgin Mary at Fatima, in Portugal, over a period six months in that year.
The story of Fatima is well-known to most Catholics.
Mary appeared to the three children on 13 May 1917, and again five times at monthly intervals, in a remote field where they were tending the family's small flock of sheep. At the first apparition, about midday, Mary urged them to "Pray – pray the Rosary daily", and she also showed them a graphic vision of Hell and the suffering souls – something which was to haunt the children from then on.
At subsequent appearances, Our Lady said that she would soon come to take Jacinta and Francisco to Heaven, but that Lucia would remain: "Jesus wants to use you to make me known and loved ... to establish devotion to my Immaculate Heart."
The news of the apparitions soon spread. At the second apparition in June about 50 people were present. At this visit, Mary told them: "My very dear children ... please do remember the importance of saying as many Rosaries daily as you can manage, for me, because the Rosary is a devotion which is very pleasing to my Son!"
The crowd increased to about 5,000 in July, and an estimated 20,000 – mostly faithful – in August, while the final apparition on 13 October became one of the biggest-ever public gatherings at that time in Portugal, with a huge crowd (estimated at between 50,000 and 70,000 people) flowing over the hills and pastures near Fatima, in pouring rain.
At this last appearance, Mary showed the children the Holy Family – St Joseph holding the Child Jesus, and herself as Lady of the Rosary. Jesus and St Joseph both gave the crowd a blessing, after which Mary pointed at the sun, and it started to spin and dance in the sky, emitting rays of colour "like a catherine wheel", in what became known as "the Miracle of the Sun".
Jacinta and Francisco were the children of Manuel and Olimpia Marto, a devout peasant couple who lived in a small, rough cottage in the hamlet of Aljustrel, near the small regional town of Fatima, in mountainous country at the heart of Portugal.
Lucia lived nearby, and the three children usually spent time together, either at play or caring for the family's small flock of sheep. As the youngest of the three, Jacinta was a rather quiet and serious child. She was also very pretty.
Sometimes she would play joyfully with her two companions, we are told, but often she would keep to herself and reproach other children for improper behaviour. All three carried their Rosary beads with them when they went out with the sheep, and it was while praying Hail Marys that Our Lady first appeared to them.
At the time of the apparitions, their daily routine was to rise early, and after a breakfast of bread and soup, to carry their lunch packs as they released the sheep from their pens to lead them out to the pastures.
At the time of the apparitions, Portugal had a secular government which was antagonistic towards the Church, but the Rosary – the special devotion to Mary – had been an important feature of each day for the people of the district, for many generations. The midday sound of the Angelus bell was the signal for the devotion to begin, and every time they heard it, the three children would kneel on the grass, make the Sign of the Cross, and begin their devotions.
Although she was the youngest of the three, Jacinta showed a burning love for her "Little Mother from Heaven", and a deep understanding of the devotion of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and its central place in saving sinners from eternal punishment, both during their time on earth, and in the afterlife.
She often said to Lucia: "The Lady said that her Immaculate Heart would be a refuge and the path to God. Don't you love her so much? I love her Heart so much!" Her two favourite invocations were: "Oh my Jesus, I love you!", and "Sweet Heart of Mary, be my salvation!" Both astonishing pronouncements for a child of seven.
Her older cousin, Lucia, who – on Mary's instruction – was learning to read and write, recorded many of the wise sayings and visions which have given Jacinta a special place in the Fatima legacy.
One day the little girl told her: "I cannot say how, but I saw the Holy Father (the Pope) in a very large house, kneeling beside a table with his hands on his face. He was crying! Many people were outside the house. Some were throwing stones at him; others were insulting him and saying ugly things about him. Poor Holy Father – we have to pray much for him!"
One day in the fields, she asked Lucia: "Do you not see so many highways, roads and fields full of people, weeping in hunger and having nothing to eat? And the Holy Father in a church before the Immaculate Heart of Mary? And many people praying with him?"
In August 1917, before the final apparitions, she told Lucia: "About the war that Our Lady said is to come [World War II] – so many will die, and almost all of them will go to Hell! Many homes will be destroyed, and many priests will be killed."
In October 1918, both Jacinta and Francisco fell ill in the Spanish flu epidemic which was sweeping Europe. When Lucia visited them, an elated Jacinta told her: "Our Lady came to see us, and told us that she is coming to take Francisco to Heaven very soon. She asked me if I still wanted to convert more sinners. I told her I did. She said I would be taken to a hospital, and that I would suffer greatly there, but that I should suffer for the conversion of sinners, in reparation for the sins committed against her Immaculate Heart, and for love of Jesus ... She said I would remain in hospital, alone."
Not long before leaving to go to hospital (and now aged 8) Jacinta told Lucia: "It will not be long before I go to Heaven. You will stay here to make known God's wish to establish devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the world. When the time comes to say it – don't hide! Tell everyone that God grants us his graces through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and that Jesus wants the Immaculate Heart to be honoured along with his Sacred Heart. Oh – if only I could put into everyone's heart the flame that burns in my breast, making me love the Hearts of Jesus and Mary so much!"
At another time: "You know, Our Lord is very sad because, when Our Lady told us he should not be offended any more ... nobody paid any attention – people still commit the same sins!"
In late December 1919 – only weeks before her death – Mary appeared to her again. Afterwards, Jacinta told Lucia: "She told me I am going to another hospital in Lisbon, and I will not see you or my parents again. I will die alone, but I will not be afraid, because Our Lady will be there to take me to Heaven".
One of the last things she said to Lucia before her death was: "It is the sins of the flesh that will take most people to Hell. In the future, there will be certain fashions among the peoples of the world which will greatly offend Jesus. Those who follow God should not follow these bad fashions, but should speak out against them. Oh! The sins of the world are so very great! Our Lady has told me that there will be many wars and disturbances, unless humanity rejects sin. All the wars and troubles will be a direct punishment for the sins of the world."
Before her short stay in the hospital in Lisbon, Jacinta was admitted to the orphanage of Our Lady of Miracles, founded and directed by the Rev Mother Maria of the Purification Godinho. During her stay at the orphanage, Mother Godinho recorded many of the things which the little girl told her. There was a chapel adjoining the orphanage, and Jacinta spent much her time there. One day, she asked Mother Godinho to correct visitors who laughed and chatted in the chapel, showing lack of respect for the Real Presence in the Tabernacle, and added: "Our Lady does not want us to speak in church."
During her stay in the orphanage, and only weeks before her death, Jacinta spoke regularly to Mother Godinho, who carefully recorded the astonishing things the dying little girl told her. Some of Jacinta's most important messages are repeated here:
On war: "We have to repent! If people correct their ways, Our Lord will be able to save the world but if they do not correct themselves ... Our Lady will send a punishment to the world, the likes of which have never been seen before ... Great global events are going to happen around 1940."
On priests: "Pray a lot for priests! They should only attend to the affairs of the Church ... Priests must be pure, very pure ... The disobedience of priests and religious towards their superiors and the Holy Father greatly offends Our Lord."
On governments: "Godmother (Mother Godinho) pray a lot for governments!" and "Woe to those who persecute the religion of Our Lord!"
On sin: "The sins of the world are very great ... If men only knew what Eternity is, they would do everything to change their lives ... Many are lost because they do not think of the death of Our Lord, and do not do penance ... Many marriages are not good – they do not please Our Lord, and they are not of God."
On virtue: "My Godmother, do not walk in the midst of luxury – flee from riches. Be very fond of holy poverty and silence ... Have much charity, even for those who are bad ... Mortification and sacrifices please Our Lord greatly."
On penance: "Confession is a sacrament of mercy therefore one must approach the confessional with confidence and joy. Without confession, there is no salvation."
When Mother Godinho asked: "Who taught you all these things?" Jacinta answered: "It was Our Lady. But some I think of myself."
Before she was transferred to the hospital where she was to die, Jacinta made some astonishing predictions. She confided to Mother Godinho that the Blessed Virgin would have wanted two of Mother Godinho's younger sisters to become nuns, but because their mother objected, Our Lady would take them to Heaven – which happened soon after Jacinta's own death.
A doctor who was caring for her asked her to pray for him when she was in Heaven. Jacinta told him she would, but that he must prepare himself, as he would also die soon. She also predicted the death of another doctor, as well as his daughter, in the flu epidemic.
In the orphanage chapel, after hearing the sermon of a popular priest, she declared: "Godmother, at a moment when we will least expect it, we will see that this priest is bad." No long afterward, he abandoned the priesthood, and began a life of scandal.
When she finally entered the hospital less than three weeks before her death, she calmly predicted that the surgical operation planned for her (to remove two infected ribs) would be useless. It was performed 10 days before she died, under local anaesthetic because of her weakened state, and Jacinta wept that her chaste little body was to be exposed to the hands of the surgeons.
Her final prediction was: "I will return to Fatima, but only after I have died."
Mother Godinho visited her regularly in the final days of her life, and on the last visit – four days before her death – Jacinta told her: "Our Lady came to see me again. She has taken away my pain, and she will soon come to fetch me."
Finally, on Friday, 20 February 1919, the predicted day of her death, a priest from a nearly parish came to hear her last confession at six in the evening. When she asked for Holy Communion, he promised to bring it to her next day. But four hours later, Mary came to fetch the little girl, as she had promised. A young nurse who had befriended her kept vigil by her body for the rest of the night.
Blessed Jacinta was eight years old at the end of her holy life, and died just three weeks before her ninth birthday.
Jacinta was buried at Vila Nova de Ourem, in the family vault of a local nobleman. Fifteen years later, in 1935, her body was transferred to a special tomb built for her and her brother, Francisco, in the cemetery at Fatima, under the inscription: "Here lie the mortal remains of Francisco and Jacinta, to whom Our Lady appeared." In 1951-1952, they were taken to the newly-built Basilica of Fatima.
On 13 May 2000, Pope John Paul II made a special pilgrimage to Fatima. In the presence of some 400,000 people, he solemnly beatified "the Servants of God, Francisco and Jacinta". Their joint anniversary is celebrated each year on 20 February.