Pope celebrates the faith of innocents

Last month, as Pope Francis canonised two young shepherds in Fátima, Portugal, a special mass was being celebrated in the war-torn city of Aleppo, in Syria. The two holy rites, thousands of miles apart, were nevertheless united in common purpose.

At Fátima, half a million Catholics gathered to celebrate the elevation of two new saints, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, who together with a cousin witnessed several apparitions of angels and the Virgin Mary in 1917.

In Aleppo, at a special mass in the Cathedral of Saint Francis of Assisi, the ravaged city was consecrated to our Lady of Fátima.

For the service, a statue of Our Lady of Fátima had been sent directly from its shrine in Portugal to Aleppo. Afterwards, for the first time since the civil war erupted in Syria six years ago, the statue was carried in procession through the Christian neighbourhood of al-Azizieh.  Many locals were reportedly in tears. “After six years we’re able again to organise the procession through the streets of Aleppo without fear of missiles,” said one. “We hope that the Virgin Mary will pray for peace for all of Syria.”

It’s a deeply moving thought: that the simple faith of shepherd children could bring solace to a ravaged, predominantly Muslim country a century later.

Even though Francisco and Jacinta were poor and illiterate, their piety humbled millions of Catholics beyond rural Portugal. And although the Marto children died not long afterwards, falling to the Influenza pandemic of 1918, the strength of their faith transformed the town of Fátima into one of the Roman Catholic church’s most important shrines.

What was it about these young shepherds that inspired such a devout following? I wonder if it was their very lack of worldliness that brought them closer to enlightenment? Faith is often at its most powerful when it is pure and innocent. The Pope himself has made the point that people do not need to be sophisticated to be devout.

For some of us, meditation can help to achieve that state of spiritual innocence, where we stop asking questions and just exist in the moment. For others, though, it is a humble unquestioning faith that opens the heart and quietens the mind.

Thomas à Kempis, who wrote The Imitation of Christ, one of the most popular and best-known Christian books on devotion, said: “Purity and simplicity are the two wings with which man soars above the earth and all temporary nature.”

So at this time when all nations seem threatened by war and terrorism, I have to wonder whether we can perhaps find inspiration in innocence and pure faith again? We lose nothing by trying.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation