By Francis Johnston
Without anticipating the final judgment of the Church, there seems a distinct possibility that the name of Alexandrina da Costa, who died as recently as 1955, may one day blaze among the brightest stars in the celestial firmament. Her extraordinary life as a victim soul, punctuated by incredible flashes of the supernatural, prove that the prodigies manifested by the great mystical saints of history still survive, even in this skeptical, self-sufficient age of nuclear energy and space flight.
Such is the repute of her sanctity that in the early 1970's, her cause for beatification had advanced beyond that of the revered Padre Pio and the ecclesiastical authorities had taken the unprecedented step of erecting a chapel over her tomb. "The finger of God is here," averred Cardinal Cerejeira, Patriarch of Lisbon, acknowledging the storm of miracles reported from her shrine at Balasar, in northern Portugal. Thousands from all over the world flock there every year, imploring the intercession of this outstandingly holy woman whose life reminds one of St. Catherine of Siena.
Alexandrina was born on March 4, 1904 of devout, hard-working peasants in the obscure Portuguese village of Balasar, some 40 miles north of Oporto. As a child, she was gay, attractive and full of lively wit and humor, though without compromising an almost precocious spirituality which few suspected, judging from her spontaneous joviality. By the time of her first Communion when she was seven, she had already acquired a deep love of the Blessed Sacrament, visiting the village church with unusual frequency and making Spiritual Communions whenever she was unable to attend daily Mass. When an aunt suffering from cancer begged Alexandrina to pray for her, the child responded with such perseverance that the habit of prayer became entrenched in her young soul.
After only eighteen months at school, Alexandrina was sent to work on a farm at the age of twelve. Though a strong, capable child, the heavy manual labor, shot through with incessant bad language, proved too much and five months later, she was brought home. She became a daily communicant, but shortly after fell dangerously ill with typhoid. When the end seemed near, she was given a crucifix to kiss, but she shook her head, insisting that she wanted nothing but the Eucharist. She finally recovered, but after a spell in a sanatorium at Povoa, was pronounced unfit for physical work again. She finally settled down as a seamstress in Balasar, joined by her sister Deolinda. She might have remained in this undramatic capacity, buried away in the wild and beautiful Portuguese countryside, had not a fateful event occurred in 1918 which utterly transformed her life.
While she was busy sewing one day in a neighbor's house with Deolinda and another girl, three men approached and demanded admittance in suggestive language. Alexandrina recognized one of them as her former employer who had previously tried to assault her, and whom she had driven off with an unexplained force in her rosary-clenched fist. She quickly bolted the door. But the men broke their way in through a trap door in the roof and attacked the girls. Deolinda and her companion managed to escape, but Alexandrina was cornered in an upstairs room. "No! No!" she screamed, edging back to the wall. Like St. Maria Goretti, she would rather die than consent. Behind her was a window, thirteen feet above the ground. It was her only chance. Desperately she jumped.
The pain was shattering. Gritting her teeth, Alexandrina seized a stout piece of wood and crawled back to the house, lashing out fiercely at the startled men, who promptly fled. But her spine had been irreparably injured. Long years of increasing pain, incapacity and depression followed, though she never yielded to despair. Total paralysis set in and on April 24, 1924, she became bedridden for life. Her anguished family prayed desperately for a cure, but her condition remained critical: several times she hovered close to death and received the Last Sacraments.
Towards the end of the year, she was seized by an unaccountable desire to offer herself to God as a victim soul for the conversion of sinners. With St. Paul, she yearned to "make up in her own body what was lacking in the Passion of Christ." After praying earnestly for guidance, she felt inwardly certain that God was calling her to a life of love and reparation through suffering willingly offered up to Him on behalf of sinners.
Meanwhile, news had filtered into the village of Our Lady's apparitions at Fatima, some 200 miles to the south, and the numerous miraculous cures reported there. A local pilgrimage was organized and Alexandrina, wishing to be certain of God's will regarding her vocation of suffering, asked Our Lady to let her accompany them. But the doctor insisted that the journey would be suicidal, and the pilgrimage left without her.
After most of the village had gone, Alexandrina brokenly closed her eyes in prayer and offered to God the crushing sacrifice of her abandonment and isolation. As she prayed, her thoughts strayed longingly across to the Blessed Sacrament in the nearby church, and suddenly she realized that Our Lord in the tabernacle was also a prisoner. This touching link with Christ led her to visit Him in spirit, to remain constantly before Him, keeping watch with unceasing love, prayer and self-immolation, to console His Sacred Heart and obtain the conversion of sinners. With a surge of tearful love, she begged Our Lord to allow her to stand a surety for sinners before Divine Justice to suffer to the limit of her endurance if thereby sinners could escape the fire of Hell.
Seemingly in response to this remarkably courageous request, her pain steadily intensified until it became almost unendurable. Night after feverish night, she would lie awake gasping and struggling to pray, her head soaking the pillow, her fingers clenching her rosary with tight desperation as if squeezing relief from the clamped beads. "O Jesus”, she would pant, repeating the prayer taught by Our Lady at Fatima, "this is for love of Thee, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for the offenses against the Immaculate Heart of Mary."
Finally in 1934, Alexandrina reported hearing for the first time, through the red haze of her agony, the compassionate voice of Christ, overflowing with love and tenderness.
Give me your hands, because I want to nail them with mine.
Give me your head, because I want to crown it with thorns, as they did to me.
Give me your heart, because I want to pierce it with a lance, as they pierced mine.
Consecrate your body to me; offer yourself wholly to me.
Alexandrina bravely accepted. She begged Our Lord to give her strength and patience to endure whatever further suffering He might have in store for her. From then on, she began to manifest extraordinary signs of mystical, besides physical agony, culminating in a series of unprecedented ecstasies of the Passion of Christ which she underwent for three hours every Friday from October 3, 1938 to March 27, 1942. Awed witnesses would see her recover the use of her paralyzed limbs and, leaving her bed, undergo the agonizing motions of Gethsemane to Calvary. While she staggered under the crushing weight of the invisible Cross, several strong men tried in vain to lift her, though her weight was only seventy pounds.
The ecstasies were filmed and the pictures form an important part of the deposition of her cause in Rome. Her spiritual director, Fr. Mariano Pinho, S. J., felt it prudent to keep the ecstasies secret, but word of them leaked out and by 1941, thousands were flocking to see the "Victim of Balasar," as she became known throughout Portugal.
APOSTLE OF FATIMA
Alexandrina's life continued in a fiery world of pain. Every breath was a struggle and the long dragging hours, especially at night, were like an interminable torture session. Nor did Our Lord abandon her when the relentless agony threatened to-overwhelm His victim. At such times, she would be consoled by radiant ecstasies in which the Suffering Christ filled her with profound mystical illumination. The mission entrusted to her corresponded with the message of Our Lady of Fatima. To the thousands who flocked to seek her counsel, she repeatedly urged frequent Communion and the devout, daily recitation of the Rosary as the cure for the world's ills. Penance was her insistent refrain and she never tired of urging consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary through the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Beside her bed hung a beautiful picture of Our Lady of Fatima and another of Jacinta Marto (one of the three children who saw Our Lady at Fatima in 1917). Alexandrina would draw attention to these two pictures and beg her listeners to heed Our Lady's message and the heroic example of little Jacinta.
As for sin, Alexandrina would plead in a heartbreaking voice for its permanent renouncement. To offend God, she stressed, was the supreme evil in life and the most resolute personal efforts must be made towards its total elimination, cost what it might in prayer and sacrifice. "Oh, sinners," she would weep, "I am enduring a life of terrible suffering on your behalf. Convert yourselves! Sin no more! Sin no more!" Great numbers complied, as evidenced by the long queues at the confessional in the village church. According to Alexandrina, Our Lord told her, "Your house has become the Calvary of sinners."
In response to a command that she reportedly received from Our Lord in 1939, Alexandrina wrote to Pope Pius XII asking for the consecration of the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Holy Father had already heard of Alexandrina and a favorable report on her by the Archbishop of Braga further impressed His Holiness. After receiving a similar request from Sister Lucia, the last survivor of the three children who saw Our Lady at Fatima, Pope Pius XII undertook the consecration in 1942.
Alexandrina's concern for sinners was manifested in a special way towards youth, and she joined the Third Order of the Salesian Congregation (known as Salesian Co-operators) to further her efforts to help teenagers combat sin. According to Alexandrina, Our Lord told her in 1938:
My daughter, I chose you from your mother’s womb...
I watch over you in your great difficulties.
It was I who chose them for you, that I might have a victim to offer me much reparation.
Lean on my Sacred Heart and find therein strength to suffer everything.
Lean on my Sacred Heart and find therein strength to suffer everything...
Keep me company in the Blessed Sacrament...
I remain in the tabernacle night and day, waiting to give my love and grace to all who will visit me. But so few come...
I am so abandoned, so lonely, so offended...
THE DEVlL STRIKES
The patent success of Alexandrina's life of expiation for sin provoked a violent response from the powers of darkness, reminiscent of the assaults sustained by the Cure of Ars a century earlier. In the presence of Fr. Pinho and numerous witnesses, she was repeatedly hurled from her bed and flung against the wall by unseen hands. At night, she was assailed by hideous visions and howling, blasphemous taunts that God had abandoned her, that suicide was the imperative alternative to a life of agonizing futility. Shaken witnesses occasionally saw Alexandrina's bed wreathed in black, billowing smoke from which issued an insufferable stench. Fr. Pinho himself was sometimes attacked. When, in the Name of God, he demanded the identity of his invisible assailant, everyone in the hushed room heard the fearful reply: "I am Satan. Do not doubt it is I." The devil cursed the priest and threatened to tear him to pieces.
One morning after Mass in her room, Alexandrina suddenly felt she could endure no more. Tearfully, she begged Our Lord to intervene and end the attacks. Gently and compassionately, Alexandrina said, He explained how He wanted this further suffering of hers to help more sinners. Finally, in 1944, after ten years of unremitting savagery, the devil abandoned her; but by then, Alexandrina was suffering fresh torments, having offered herself as a victim for peace in World War II. Her condition grew so grave that she was given the Last Sacraments. Once again she rallied, but her agonizing pain continued to rack her night and day, bringing tears of compassion to the eyes of endless files of pilgrims who came from all over the Iberian Peninsula, pleading for her prayers and favors.
LHE EUCHARIST ALONE
There now began a marvel which illumined Alexandrina's poignant life with a white glow of the sublime. For the last 13 1/2 years of her lite, she ate and drank nothing but the Eucharist, which she received with moving devotion every morning. News of this fresh wonder spread far and wide and eventually reached the ears of Rome. The Holy See requested the Archbishop of Braga to investigate the reported prodigy and Alexandrina was invited to enter a hospital in Oporto. For forty days and nights, she was watched round the clock by an impartial team of doctors and nurses (many of whom were skeptical or even hostile to her), to insure that no food or water reached her. At the end of this period, her health and weight remained unchanged and the stunned physicians were compelled to certify the prodigy as "scientifically inexplicable". Alexandrina disclosed that Our Lord had told her:
You are living only by the Eucharist because I want the world to know the power of the Eucharist and the power of my life in souls."
She reputedly underwent a mystical sojourn in Purgatory, experienced several mystical deaths, transports of the Resurrection and the Ascension, and sublime mystical union with the Most Holy Trinity. Like several of the greatest saints, her heart was exchanged with Our Lord's Sacred Heart and she underwent a mystical matrimony with Him. She received a piercing gift of prophecy, foretelling many events which subsequently happened. Frequently while in ecstasy, she was heard praying and lamenting for the Church, which she saw in danger of a great crisis and threatened by a "wild beast." In a searing vision in 1948, according to Alexandrina, Our Lord showed her a vast expanse of ruins with lost souls lying dead in the debris. Snakes, representing sin, were sliding over them. Alexandrina reported she was told:
The chastisement will be as never before. The destruction you have seen will come when Marxism has taken over the entire world.
It is perhaps significant that only "lost" souls were seen lying dead in the devastation engendering the fervent hope that a singular protection will be accorded to the just when and if divine punishment overwhelms a sin-drenched world. Certainly a number of saints have indicated this in their prophetic utterances, underlining the words of Scripture:
I will not destroy the just with the wicked.
Alexandrina further revealed that Our Lord had pleaded for more victim souls in the present permissive age, to turn the scales of Divine Justice. She herself admitted that she felt as if she was carrying a mountainous burden almost alone. Occasionally, she would cry out in anguish that she was literally "poisoned" by humanity's sins. The word "sinners" in the Ave made her shudder involuntarily.
Shortly before her death, Alexandrina reported that Our Lord appeared to her in all His radiant glory and disclosed that "many thousands" had been saved by her terrible sufferings. "After your death” He added "I will make your name widely known. I shall see to it myself... If anyone should invoke your name when you are in Heaven, they will never do so in vain... I appoint you a protectress of mankind. You will be powerful with the All-Powerful."
HER FINAL PLEA
In 1955 Alexandrina's condition suddenly deteriorated. Through the long hot summer, her condition steadily worsened and on the morning of October 13th, the 38th anniversary of the miracle of the sun at Fatima, it was clear that the end had arrived. Her unremitting agony racked her to the very end, but she withstood the quivering pain with dogged, prayerful serenity. Pressing the crucifix to her ashen lips, she murmured with indomitable steadiness: "Do not weep for me. I am so happy today... I am going to Heaven at last." To the priests, pilgrims and journalists crowding the hushed stillness of her room, she gave a last piercing message to all mankind in this perilous nuclear age:
Do not sin. The pleasures of this life are worth nothing.
Receive Communion; pray the Rosary every day.
This sums up everything.
Finally, at 8:29 that evening, after a last embrace of her crucifix, she expired peacefully.
Twelve years later, the process for her beatification was solemnly opened by the Archbishop of Braga, and in 1973 it was successfully completed and forwarded to Rome. Meanwhile, the Church authorities had erected a chapel over her tomb and throngs of pilgrims from all over the world have since flocked there and visited her nearby room - "that altar of great sacrifice," – as Cardinal Cerejeira termed it. Of the dramatic cures reported there, Fr. L. S. Mascarenhas, a local Blue Army priest, exclaimed: "She is doing wonders... wonders. It is almost as if anything asked through her intercession cannot be refused by Jesus." Cardinal Cerejeira disclosed that he had received "two incredible graces" (one concerning the foundation of a Catholic University in Lisbon against all odds), after praying in Alexandrina's room.
Shortly before she died, Alexandrina dictated her epitaph, underscoring the yearning that animated her tormented body. The moving words have been engraved on a white marble slab covering her tomb and they echo the final plea of Our Lady of Fatima on October 13, 1917:
Do not offend God any more, for He is already too greatly offended.
Sinners, if the ashes of my body could be useful to save you, approach ...
If necessary, pass on the ashes, trample on them – but do not sin any more.
Never again offend our dear Lord...
Do not lose Jesus for all eternity.
He is so good.
Washington. N. J. 07882
With Ecclesiastical Permission
First printing May 1978