Last month we watched Pope Francis travel to Fatima for the centenary of Our Lady’s apparitions to the three shepherd children, Lucia dos Santos and her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco Marto. Much has been said and written about Fatima this year. I’ve learned a great deal about how the Fatima message encapsulates the essential elements of Christian life — prayer, sacrifice, redemptive suffering and holiness of life.
I’ve also discovered that the last apparition at Fatima, which took place on October 13, 1917, is the only approved apparition in the history of the Church in which the Holy Family appeared together. While the immense crowd that day witnessed the miracle of the sun, the children saw Our Lady standing with St. Joseph and the child Jesus, both of whom were blessing the world.
Lucia, the oldest of the visionaries, became a Carmelite and spent her life spreading the message of Fatima. She felt that through the vision of the Holy Family, God wished to remind us of the true purpose of the family in the world.
“In the message of Fatima, God calls us to turn our eyes to the Holy Family of Nazareth, into which he chose to be born and to grow in grace and stature, in order to present to us a model to imitate, as our footsteps tread the path of our pilgrimage to Heaven,” Lucia wrote in her book, Calls from the Message of Fatima.
Lucia stressed that parents’ greatest mission is to instill in their children the knowledge of God and his commandments. “Nothing can dispense parents from this sublime mission,” she wrote, noting that God has entrusted it to them and they are answerable to God for it. “Parents are the ones who must guide their children’s first steps to the altar of God, teaching them to raise their innocent hands and to pray, helping them to discover how to find God on their way and to follow the echo of his voice.”
What remains engraved in the hearts of children, Lucia wrote, is what they have received “in their father’s arms and on their mother’s lap.” These words touched me in a very personal way as I paused to recall those memories of my own parents that are most deeply engraved in my heart, especially those of my dad. As a stay-at-home mother who was outgoing and talkative by nature, my mom played the more prominent role in the life of my family, but my father was a quiet, strong and faithful presence as well. For this I am very grateful.
My father fulfilled what Pope Francis wrote in his recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, “A father helps the child to perceive the limits of life, to be open to the challenges of the wider world, and to see the need for hard work and strenuous effort” (no. 177). These words remind me of the quiet yet consistent way my father helped me to succeed in math and science, and of the efforts he made to help me explore college and career possibilities.
God sets the father in the family, Pope Francis wrote, “to be close to his children as they grow – when they play and when they work, when they are carefree and when they are distressed, when they are talkative and when they are silent, when they are daring and when they are afraid, when they stray and when they get back on the right path. To be a father who is always present” (Amoris Laetitia, no. 177).
When I read these words I remembered the time my father showed up, silent and stern, at a cast party my sister and I were attending following our high school musical. He had come to bring us home rather than let us ride with another teen in the middle of a blizzard. Although we were quite embarrassed at the time, I later appreciated the fact that my father cared enough to inconvenience himself.
Finally, I thought of my father when I read these words from Pope Francis: “Some fathers feel they are useless or unnecessary, but the fact is that children need to find a father waiting for them when they return home with their problems. They may try hard not to admit it, not to show it, but they need it” (Amoris Laetitia, no. 177).
How often, over the years, my siblings and I tried to assert our independence, trying hard to hide the fact that we needed Dad’s help or advice. Yet he was always there to share his knowledge, skills and wisdom with us.
As we continue to honor Our Lady during this centenary year of her apparitions at Fatima, let’s also thank God for St. Joseph, and for our own fathers, who faithfully fulfill their vocation in the heart of our families, whether they are still with us or have already passed on from this life to the Father’s house.
Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.