The Fatima Shepherd Children: The Role of Children in the Cause of Peace

Remarks by Anna Halpine at the United Nations

Anna Halpine, the founder of the World Youth Alliance, was invited to reflect on the role of children in bringing about peace for an event at the United Nations hosted by the Permanent Mission of Portugal and the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See on the “Centenary of Fatima and the Enduring Relevance of Its Message of Peace.” Anna’s remarks highlight lessons from the Fatima shepherd children and the role that children and young people can continue to play in fostering peace. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the apparition at Fatima, Portugal. The text of Anna’s remarks as prepared follow. They were delivered on May 12, 2017, at the United Nations. 

Click here to view video of the event.

On May 13, 1917, three Portuguese shepherd children say they saw a Woman who asked them if they would pray and sacrifice to save souls and bring peace to the world.

They agreed.

Tomorrow, on the 100th anniversary of this apparition, the two youngest shepherds, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, will be canonized by Pope Francis. They will be the youngest non-martyr saints in the Church.

Today, the Mission of Portugal to the UN and the Mission of the Holy See to the UN are hosting this event inside a secular institution, to discuss the message of Fatima. This is a clear sign that they believe that Fatima has something important to say to us, regardless of our religious status, and to say to the nations of the world. It has something in particular to say about peace in this institution dedicated to preventing the scourge of war.

I therefore want to thank our co-hosts, the Missions of Portugal and the Holy See, for bringing together this most unusual, and, I believe, important event that touches on the mission and identity of the UN so closely, and for having invited me to participate.

When I was asked to reflect on the little shepherds of Fatima as examples of the role of children in the cause of peace, I thought first of my visit to Fatima last year. I had the chance to visit the tombs of Jacinta and Francisco Marto, who died so young, and Lucia dos Santos, who lived as a witness to these events until she was 97. I had the privilege to go to the Capelinha built on the spot that they say that the Lady in white appeared to them. I had a chance to be surrounded by people, seemingly from every continent, heading there not simply because of its role in past Church, Portuguese or world history, but because, like me, they believe deeply in the ongoing pertinence of the Lady’s message and summons for the good of the world today and tomorrow.

As the Founder of the World Youth Alliance, dedicated to training and motivating young people from around the world to contribute to the promotion and protection of human dignity, to take up their role in the world not just in the future but also in the present, I could not help but be amazed at the enormous responsibilities that the shepherd children were entrusted by the Woman they say appeared to them. Their response to the mission they were given is a model for all young people to follow. And insofar as they testify quite clearly that the Woman came on a mission of peace, appealing to their freedom to assist in the cause of peace, I think that there’s much we can learn from them about the ways children, even very young children, can participate with precocious dedication, maturity and gravity as peacemakers according to their conditions.

I would like, therefore, to reflect upon the historical importance of Fatima, what Fatima teaches all of us, no matter how young we are, what it means and requires of us to be a peacemaker, and what Fatima can teach those of us in particular who work for peace at the UN.

Historical importance of Fatima to peace

The little shepherds of Fatima were promised that with enough prayer and sacrifice another great war could be avoided, the world would convert, and sinners would be saved. They were also shown a horrific vision of the death of “the bishop in white,” with a clear call of the need for prayers to protect the Pope.

The shepherds immediately gave themselves up to prayer and sacrifice. It was the response of children who opened their heart completely to this cause, and gave everything they had. They suffered illness cheerfully, forewent water on hot and humid days, gave up their lunch or breakfast for the poor, sacrificed childlike pleasures like dancing and playing with friends, and suffered their final illnesses, from the complications of the Spanish influenza of 1918, without complaint.

Francisco spoke of what they had seen, saying, “We were burning in that light which is God and we were not consumed.” But quiet, reserved Francisco was transformed. His only remaining desire in life became to please God through doing what Mary had been sent by God, he thought, to ask of him.

Jacinta, two years younger and more outgoing, felt the anguish of the visions that they saw. When Francisco lay dying, she said that the lady came to tell her Francisco would soon be going to heaven. She asked this little girl whether she still wished to suffer and convert more people. “I said yes,” said Jacinta.

There are many things that are unique about these small children: their prodigious early spiritual growth, their willingness to sacrifice and pray, their sanctity.

But the reason we are discussing them, and who they are today, here, inside the UN, is because of their extraordinary contribution to peace.

Let us examine the historical record.

Portugal did not enter the Second World War. One of the treasures of the Shrine at Fatima is the great crown of jewels created in 1941, out of an offering of the jewels of the women of Portugal in thanksgiving for being spared WWII. The world was not spared, but the homeland of the little shepherds was, and the women of Portugal remembered the Woman from Fatima and the three small children who had been promised peace in return for prayer and sacrifice.

On the 13th of May 1981, the anniversary of Fatima, Pope John Paul II was struck by an assassin’s bullet at a public audience in St. Peter’s square. According to the doctors and to the vision of the death of the “bishop in white,” he should have died. Mehmet Ali Acga’s bullet pierced five vital organs. John Paul II later said, “One hand shot, and another hand guided.” On the first anniversary of the assassination attempt, on May 13, 1982, he traveled to Fatima where he gave the bullet meant to pierce his heart, in homage to the Lady of Fatima, where it has now been placed in her crown of jewels. He stated in that homily, “I seemed to recognize in the coincidence of the dates a special call to come to this place. And so today, I am here. I have come in order to thank Divine Providence in this place which the Mother of God seems to have chosen in a particular way.” (Homily, May 13, 1982). Two years later, in May of 1984, he prayerfully consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, as requested at Fatima. On May 13, 2000, during his homily for the beatification of Francisco and Jacinta, John Paul II thanked Jacinta “for the sacrifices and prayers offered for the Holy Father, whom she saw suffering greatly” (Homily of Beatification, 13 May 2000).

Pope John Paul II clearly thought that he was the Pope of the Fatima messages; he felt that divine intervention linked to the message of Mary in Fatima had saved his life; and that the prayers and sacrifices of these small children, were intimately linked to his life and mission.

The crown with the bullet as the center jewel can be viewed at Fatima. 100 yards away, across the plaza, another piece of history presents itself. It is a large piece of the Berlin Wall. Inscribed on a plaque beside the wall are the words:

Erected: 1961.03.13 (March 13, 1961)

Dismantled: 1989.11.09 (November 9, 1989)

Thank you, heavenly shepherdess

for having guided the people

with maternal affection

for freedom


John Paul II was sure that Mary’s hand had halted the bullet meant to kill him. In thanksgiving, he consecrated the world to her Immaculate Heart as she had requested at Fatima. His life spared in 1982, he went on to play a central role in bringing down the Berlin wall, and the collapse of Communism. This piece of the Berlin wall, located at Fatima, is a gift secured by subscription of the people of Portugal. They remembered the promise of Fatima. They, too, see and understand the link between the Woman, the three shepherd children, the Pope whose life she spared, and the peaceful collapse of communism that ensued.

Can children be architects of peace?

At the beatification of the two youngest shepherd children, John Paul II entrusted all the children of the world to their school of peace, encouraging them to look to the same Good Teacher that the little shepherds had. It was the “school of Our Lady,” he said, and their willingness to do whatever she told them had allowed these children to rise to such precocious heights.

History provides us with many young people who are witnesses to courage as peacemakers, and who live greatly even at the cost of their own lives:

  • Sophie Scholl, a German teenager who gave her life as part of the German resistance, refusing to live the lie of Nazi propaganda, and the many thousands of young people who have joined resistance movements to fight tyranny in all times including today;
  • The children of the underground railroad, who were critical links in the chain of heroism necessary for the running of the great rescue train of freedom for slaves from the south to the north;
  • Malala Yousafzai, the young woman who has spoken here at the UN, and who was shot by the Taliban at the age of 15 for daring to be a girl going to school.
  • And many, countless more.

We highlight these and many more witnesses to courage and peace in our Human Dignity Curriculum which, starting with young people as young as age 4, works with them to develop the habits of human excellence in order to build a world of freedom and peace.

It is an education for the heart, and is addressed to the moral imagination, in order to inspire young people to live lives of self-gift, human freedom and peace each and every day. Our street children in Mexico, slum children in Manila, and young people from the most privileged homes in Manhattan show us what Francisco and Jacinta showed us so many years ago; that the very young are eager to do what is necessary to grow in virtue, become excellent, and contribute to building peace.

Working for peace is the task of each of us. What is not so easy to find, and is the crown of every diplomat, Ambassador, and Statesman, is the ability to bring peace.

The fact that three shepherd children — mostly unschooled, living in a tiny, rural village in the middle of Portugal, their daily tasks primarily focused on tending sheep – should be credited with bringing peace to their country, and later, with saving the life of a Pope, and later, with being a central force in the peaceful collapse of communism, is unthinkable. It is absurd, and wonderful, and, dare we say, true.

Does Fatima have a message for the UN today?

The Preamble of the UN Charter describes the commitment of nations “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small… [in order to:] practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security.”

The promotion of peace, rooted in the defense of the dignity and reality of the human person, is the very purpose of the United Nations. This is why human rights are so central to achieving the goals of the UN, and debates about the content of human rights are so critical.

The message of Fatima and peace is clear: peace comes from the heart, and the sacrifices needed for peace are most receptive in the pure of heart.

Fatima, in which the star peacemakers are a woman and three children with minimal schooling, thus poses an important challenge to the UN in its commitment to peace. In our attempt to ensure women’s and children’s rights we must not overlook the freedoms and contributions that women and children already make, many times in difficult circumstances. Even where economic and social rights are lacking, women and the pure of heart are often the leaders in building peace and reconciliation in their families and communities.

Fatima reminds us that the human person is at the heart of peace. Human rights must never become ideologies that therefore subjugate or override the subject at the heart of these rights. To do so would be more than a grave injustice; it would be a perversion of the language and content of the entire human rights project, and would lead away from peace itself.

Fatima reminds us of the power of the human heart to offer itself in free self-gift for others. It is not a message or political or economic empowerment. It is a reminder of the freedom we each have to choose the way we live, even within the bonds that constrain us, and to choose to sacrifice for that which is important each and every day. A life of sacrifice for others is arguably a life that engages us at our most human. A life of sacrifice for others is also the hallmark of those who actively build peace.

Today, once again, the great and the powerful bow before three shepherd children, and their mission of peace. Kings, Queens, Presidents and Popes have gone to them as an example, and in thanksgiving. They have been humbled. In front of children, not much more than infants, in homespun clothes, without wit or wisdom or power, these children have instructed us in the ways of peace. And they have achieved them. Their approach is radically different from the approaches normally taken in the halls of the UN, but few, if any, here, can boast the successes in building peace that these three children have had. Today, for this hour, the powerful study at the feet of the shepherd children. Maybe new lessons will be learned.

The little shepherds of Portugal remind us that sometimes flashes of the divine are given to us in the simplest and most unexpected places. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, “for they will be called children of God.” Francisco and Jacinta witness clearly that peacemaking is a path to beatitude and that every peacemaker has something of the dedication, innocence and abandon of a child responding with trust and confidence to a higher calling.

The little shepherds remind us that great things happen in the littlest ones around us. And they show us that by doing what is asked of us, each one of us can do great things to build peace.

The little shepherds of Fatima remind us that peace is the task of each of us, and that none of us are too small or insignificant to contribute. On the contrary, we are often surprised at the great things that the little ones do. The power of the powerless surprises us in every generation, and in the great task of building peace, it will most likely remain these little ones who guide our steps and show us the way.

Thank you very much once again Ambassador Mendonça e Moura and Archbishop Auza for the privilege of participating in this historic conference and thank you everyone for your kind attention.


Learn more about the values of the World Youth Alliance by reading our Charter.