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Simcha Fisher: Of Our Lady, Lucia, and Literacy

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The Fatima children in an undated photograph. From left: Jacinta, Lucia and Francisco. PHOTO: CNS

Francisco and Jacinta Marto, the two children who saw visions of Our Lady at Fatima, are to be canonised on May 13 when Pope Francis visits Portugal. But their older cousin, Lucia dos Santos, also saw and spoke with Our Lady. Why isn’t Lucia being canonised along with her cousins?

The cute answer is: Our Lady is to blame. More on that later!

The longer answer is that Lucia will almost certainly be canonised soon. The cause for her beatification and canonisation was opened in 2008, just a few years after she died. Pope Benedict XVI gave a dispensation to waive the typical five-year waiting period after death.

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Francisco and Jacinta were beatified (declared “blessed,” an affirmation that someone is in Heaven, and one of the last steps on the way to being declared a saint) in 2000.

They were only eleven and nine, respectively, when they died; but their cousin Lucia lived to be 97 years old, dying at her Carmelite convent in 2005. And that’s why her canonisation cause lags behind her cousins’. Not only did she live a long time, but she left behind reams and reams of evidence about her life, and every word must be closely scrutinised and evaluated.

The modern canonisation process is immensely thorough, rigorous, and deliberately slow, designed to put on the brakes so there is ample time to uncover any unpleasant evidence about the person in question, and to make sure all the evidence of holiness is factual, and not just wishful thinking from enthusiastic devotees. Two separate bodies of scholars are appointed: one to study the alleged saint’s theological writings, hunting for any errors, and one to study his life to examine his life, scrutinising all his words and deeds. Witnesses are interviewed; secular doctors and scientists are charged with uncovering any natural causes for any miracles attributed to the intercession of the alleged beatus or saint.

In the case of Sr Lucia,

thousands of pages have been gathered to testify to [her] holiness …

The documentation gathered for Sr Lucia consists of over 15,000 letters, testimonies, and other documents that would support the nun’s cause for beatification. Bishop Virgilio Antunes of Coimbra, Portugal noted that these pages have taken more than eight years to track down, as they consist of personal letters and witness statements from more than 60 people.

Sr Lucia dos Santos, who was known in her lifetime as Sister Maria Lúcia of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart, is currently known as a “Servant of God,” a title given to someone for whom a cause for beatification and canonisation has begun. The next step is for her to be declared “venerable,” meaning that the Pope has recognised her heroic virtue. Next comes beatification, meaning that we recognise she is in Heaven, and we may pray for her intercession. And finally comes canonisation, when the Church infallibly declares that she is worthy of universal veneration and imitation.

Lucia had been illiterate as a girl, but Our Lady instructed her to learn how to read and write, despite Lucia’s mother’s scepticism. And write she did. She produced six memoirs and countless letters, and was enjoined by her superiors to write down the “secrets” entrusted to her by Our Lady, including the famous “third secret,” first publicly revealed in 2000, which foretold the assassination attempt of John Paul II. Shortly after her death, a small publisher also produced a long-buried 64-page volume of her writing, including a detailed account of her experiences at Fatima.

It’s a delightful to realise that Our Lady is, perhaps, to blame for the delay in her beloved Lucia’s canonisation. If Lucia had remained illiterate, there would be far less evidence to plough through, rather than the reams and reams of pages that there are. But the Church is dedicated to sorting out the fullest truth, no matter how long it takes; and Our Lady is nothing if not patient.

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