Fátima, Portugal – “It was kind of heartbreaking to see this lonely little figure who was just suffering on his own.” In his first hours into a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine at Fátima, Bishop David O’Connell, born in Ireland and serving in Los Angeles, told the story of having been on a recent trip to Honduras and meeting a young boy named Gabriel. He had just watched an older boy bully Gabriel, and Gabriel had no one to cry or complain to.
“The Archangel Gabriel has a special love for you,” the bishop told him, explaining the great messengers and protectors who are God’s angels. “And he was very interested.” The bishop urged the boy to talk to the Angel Gabriel, making clear what a part of the boy’s life he could be.
“In both rich and poor areas, there are so many children growing up and they don’t know that they are loved — that the Lord loves them — and they are connected. They are connected to unseen, benevolent angels and the Blessed Mother.”
He talked about the Gospel of the day and how it explains a great, beautiful mystery. “To welcome children, to love them, to guide them is a beautiful way of welcoming and serving Jesus Himself,” he said.
Something terrible has gone wrong in our world — and probably in our generation more than any other generation. We have become more interested in our own fulfillment, our own meaning, our own rights, and somehow we have neglected to focus on the next generation and helping our children know that they are precious in the eyes of God, and that they are guided and blessed.
O’Connell described his work in South Los Angeles, where he sees violence, drugs, and gangs, He talked of bringing children surrounded by these things together to encourage them to talk to Jesus and Mary. “For many children, their relationship with Mary and with Jesus is the only loving relationship in their lives.” Traumatized, in broken homes, they find “strength and consolation” in relational religious faith. “We have to teach children to know Jesus and to love Jesus.”
I asked him later, playing “devil’s advocate”: Surely this doesn’t always work? Surely there’s an age cut-off point where this sort of piety doesn’t work?
He shared that never had he found anyone who, when presented with the invitation to come to know Jesus in His heart, wasn’t intrigued and didn’t find some joy in the possibility. People find strength and consolation here, he explains.
As O’Connell thanks the pilgrims for their love of Mary, I think back to the last time I was here. Pope Benedict XVI was celebrating Mass on the May feast day, and he said, among other things:
At a time when the human family was ready to sacrifice all that was most sacred on the altar of the petty and selfish interests of nations, races, ideologies, groups, and individuals, our Blessed Mother came from heaven, offering to implant in the hearts of all those who trust in her the Love of God burning in her own heart.
I thought, too, of my own closer encounter with “B16,” as Pope Benedict XVI is known, when he handed me a message intended for every woman in the world, which read, in part: “Women of the entire universe, whether Christian or non-believing, you to whom life is entrusted at this grave moment in history, it is for you to save the peace of the world.” At the time, in October 2012, the United States was nearing the end of a presidential election, perhaps quaint by the most recent standard.
Bill once wrote, ‘What disturbs me most about the opposition to Mary is that it is so unchivalrous.’
Today, in the light of Fátima, we mark the centenary of the news here about three shepherd children who reported seeing Mary, the mother of Jesus, on multiple occasions. The children conveyed a certain clarity about the reality of hell and evil, a reality that their youth seemed to make them more receptive to.
I’m now here with a group of pilgrims from Los Angeles. In conversations, they discuss their experiences with the likes of sexual trafficking, seeing their own grandchildren perhaps at risk, perhaps targeted by traffickers looking to expand their illicit business.
In Fátima, you encounter that innocence that children have; you seem to enter into a recovery of it; people demonstrate a childlike faith. It’s a tradition that I feel very much at home with, as a longtime editor at National Review, where William F. Buckley Jr. once wrote a cover story on his pilgrimage to Lourdes, the Marian shrine in France that so many flock to for healing. And for those skeptical or too sophisticated for Marian devotion, Bill also once wrote, “What disturbs me most about the opposition to Mary is that it is so unchivalrous.”
One would have to be dangerously wedded to cynicism to not notice that there is something renewing happening here, something that the world needs. In the wake of the carnage in Las Vegas and so much unnecessary violence and heartache in the world today, it would be best to embrace the hope in this place and better appreciate how motherhood can change the world.