On Saturday, two shepherd children from Portugal will officially become saints of the Roman Catholic Church.
The canonization honors the experiences of Francisco and Jacinta Marto, and their cousin Lucia dos Santos, who all claimed to have received visions of the Virgin Mary during World War I. The children were aged 9, 7, and 10, respectively, at the time of the apparitions.
Pope Francis is set to canonize Francisco and Jacinta, who died in 1919 and 1920 respectively, during a mass in their hometown of Fatima this weekend. Up to a million pilgrims are expected to flock to the Shrine of Fatima for the ceremony, with some faithful Catholics completing the final stretch of the journey on their knees as a sign of devotion.
Catholic faithful believe that the Virgin Mary began appearing to the young shepherds on May 13, 1917, while the friends were caring for sheep. Mary apparently gave the children three messages, which came to be known as the Three Secrets of Fatima.
The site of the apparitions is now home to a giant basilica, which holds the tombs of the Marto siblings and their cousin. The shrine attracts millions of pilgrims every year.
Francisco and Jacinta Marto died of influenza two years after the apparitions, but their cousin, Lucia dos Santos, lived until 2005 and helped to spread news of the visions. She died at the age of 97.
According to dos Santos, the children first saw a vision of hell that called for people to pray and convert. Without heeding that call, the world risked facing another World War ― which came to pass a few decades later.
The second secret predicted the “immense damage that Russia would do to humanity by abandoning the Christian faith and embracing Communist totalitarianism,” according to the Vatican.
The third secret is believed to have predicted the 1981 assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II.
The children’s stories were initially doubted by the church, but gained official affirmation as an authentic apparition by 1930.
Dos Santos is currently being considered for beatification, which is the first step towards sainthood in the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis is hoping that the message of peace the children delivered during World War I will appeal to Catholics today.
The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told the Italian newspaper La Stampa that the children gave Fatima’s priest a “counter-current” message during a time of war by speaking about love, forgiveness, and the ability to be a gift to others.
The Virgin “did not appear to the rich, did not appear to the powerful, did not appear to the influential people, but appeared to children, the ones considered as ‘the last of society, to use Pope’s terminology as society’s ‘discarded,’” Parolin said, according to La Stampa.
Francisco and Jacinta Marto aren’t the only young Catholics to be made saints of the church.
Before the Martos, the youngest non-martyr to become a saint was apparently St. Dominic Savio. Savio was a devout, bright Catholic from northern Italy who showed an early aptitude towards becoming a priest. He died in 1857 at the age of 14, and was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1954.
There are also several Catholic children who are currently being considered for the sainthood. One example is Antonietta Meo, an Italian, who died at the age of six in 1937. After being diagnosed with a bone cancer, she wrote more than 100 remarkably passionate letters to Jesus and the Virgin Mary, earning her the reputation of being a mystic.
Further back in history, there are fantastic tales of young boys and girls who were martyred for their religion ― children who were threatened with rape, incest, and torture because of their Catholic faith, managed to stay true to the religion, and eventually became saints.
One particularly extraordinary legend is that of the 9-year-old St. Justus of Beauvais, of France. He is said to have been beheaded in the third century for being a Christian. According to tradition, he then went on to stand up, and pick his head up with his hands ― which caused the soldiers who had persecuted him to flee.
Catholic saints are people whom the church recognizes as role models who have lived holy lives. After their canonization on Saturday, Catholics believe that the Martos of Fatima will be able to intercede with God on behalf of the faithful.