By Donal Anthony Foley –
We celebrate the feast day of Saints Francisco and Jacinta on February 20 and then, two days later, Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. And so, it is timely to see how the spirituality of the Little Shepherds can impact our own celebration of the Lenten season.
But before doing that, let’s look at the traditional season of Shrovetide, the pre-Lenten period beginning on Septuagesima Sunday, the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday. While it is no longer officially observed in the Western Church, the idea was that it helped believers properly prepare for Lent.
The name Shrovetide comes from the fact that this period leads up to Shrove Tuesday, the day on which medieval Catholics were “shriven” – that is, they went to Confession. This day was also known as Pancake Day, a time when Catholics would use up any excess food which could not be consumed during Lent. It is also known as “Mardi Gras,” or Fat Tuesday, a reference to the rich foods traditionally eaten, again as a way of “clearing the decks” before Lent.
We know from various biographies and Sister Lucia’s memoirs that after they saw Our Lady, Saints Jacinta and Francisco began to live hidden penitential lives, and so, by studying their spiritual lives, we can learn how to better approach the penitential season of Lent.
Three practices the Church encourages us to undertake during Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Certainly Jacinta and Francisco, during their short lives, were assiduous in practicing both prayer and fasting. As for almsgiving, as they were only young children in a poor village, this was not really a part of their lives.
But the Little Shepherds managed to combine a type of almsgiving with fasting by giving their meager lunches away. On one occasion, with a heartfelt desire for sacrifice, they gave their lunches to the sheep they were looking after. A different time, when they met some poor children, at the suggestion of Jacinta, they gave their lunches to them.
It’s worth noting that Jacinta’s motive for this act of charity was the conversion of sinners, and that in place of their regular lunch that day, they ate some bitter acorns.
Apparently, Jacinta made this one of her regular sacrifices, to the extent that one day, Lucia told her not to do this because the acorns were too tart. Jacinta replied it was because they were bitter that she kept eating them “for the conversion of sinners.”
In fact, in her memoirs, Lucia tells us that “these were not the only times we fasted. We had agreed that whenever we met any poor children like these, we would give them our lunch. They were only too happy to receive such an alms, and they took good care to meet us; they used to wait for us along the road. We no sooner saw them than Jacinta ran to give them all the food we had for that day, as happy as if she had no need of it herself.”
As for prayer, it can be said that after seeing the Angel of Peace and Our Lady, the Seers simply immersed themselves in it. They offered many prayers and sacrifices in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary, as well as for sinners and the Holy Father.
Lucia tells us that Jacinta meditated frequently on the subject of hell, often praying the decade prayer: “O my Jesus! Forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are most in need of your mercy.”
She further tells us that “Jacinta remained on her knees for long periods of time, saying the
same prayer over and over again.”
Francisco, like his sister, was also given to prayer. According to Lucia, he would go apart to pray so he could “think of Our Lord, Who is sad on account of so many sins.” Also, she says that “sometimes on our way to school, as soon as we reached Fatima, he would say to me: ‘Listen! You go to school, and I’ll stay here in the church, close to the Hidden Jesus.’” He would then stay all day in church in prayer.
Sister Lucia comments that “while Jacinta seemed to be solely concerned with the one thought of converting sinners and saving souls from going to hell, Francisco appeared to think only of consoling Our Lord and Our Lady, who had seemed to him to be so sad.”
Jacinta and Francisco practiced the Lenten precepts of fasting and prayer with great diligence, and to a lesser extent, too, almsgiving in kind – but for us, the situation is probably the opposite. We can usually afford to give at least some money to charity, but prayer, and particularly fasting, have become more difficult in our time.
As regards prayer, this is because of the increasingly frenetic nature of modern society, with all its noise and bustle and distraction, especially TV and the internet. And so, genuine prayer demands a real effort if we are to find the time and space in order to pray well.
Fasting, too, is more difficult than in former times – our food is less nutritious given all the additives and pesticides, meaning we are not as well-nourished as previous generations. Apart from that, the stresses of life make fasting challenging.
Strictly speaking, the penitential fasting which the Fatima Seers practiced is more for our admiration rather than imitation, but that doesn’t absolve us from making an effort to cut back in some way on what we eat during Lent, even if it is just a question of avoiding cakes, chocolate, and sweet things in general.
To make up for modern difficulties with fasting, we can try to pray more and practice almsgiving more freely during Lent. We can, for example, make time for prayer by cutting back on our TV and internet/social media use, and also by maybe getting up a little bit earlier to pray or read the Bible. With almsgiving, maybe we can avoid some not strictly necessary purchases, instead giving the money to charity.
Whatever we do for Lent, be it great or small, let us do it cheerfully, since, as Saint Paul tells us, God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor 9:7). Through our Lenten prayers, sacrifices and generosity, we will imitate the children of Fatima in the best possible way.
Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related website at www.theotokos.org.uk. He has also written two time-travel/adventure books for young people, and the third in the series is due to be published shortly – details can be seen at: http://glaston-chronicles.co.uk