What are we to make of the vision of hell which was seen by the Fatima children on July 13, 1917?
The vision was revealed in Sister Lucia’s Third Memoir – which was written in the summer of 1941 – when she stated that she was going to reveal the first two parts of the Fatima secret, and that the first part of this secret was the vision of hell.
This is how she describes it:
“Our Lady showed us a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium, and amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. The demons could be distinguished by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, all black and transparent."
After this horrifying vision, Sister Lucia went on to say:
“This vision lasted but an instant. How can we ever be grateful enough to our kind heavenly Mother, who had already prepared us by promising, in the first Apparition, to take us to heaven. Otherwise, I think we would have died of fear and terror."
Clearly, this vision was very brief, but very powerful and indeed terrifying. Sr Lucia then says:
“We then looked up at Our Lady, who said to us so kindly and so sadly: ‘You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace.’ "
Our Lady then went on to outline what needed to be done if souls would indeed be saved and peace given to the world – that is the second part of the secret.
The first point to make about this vision is that it strongly affirms the existence of hell, a fact which has been downplayed by some Catholics in recent years; the vision seen by the children, though, and the whole of Catholic tradition are opposed to that type of thinking. And in addition, Jesus mentions hell a number of times in the New Testament, and in quite graphic terms.
For example, in St Mark’s Gospel, after describing various sins that would make a person worthy of going to hell, such as corrupting little children, or using parts of the body for sinful purposes, he says: “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched." (Mark 9:42-48)
In St Matthew’s Gospel, in the parable of the sower, Jesus uses the weeds and the wheat of the parable as symbolic of the lost and the saved, saying: “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn" (Matthew 13:30).
There is a reference to the traditional concept of hell here in the fact that the weeds are burned.
Later on, Jesus explained the meaning of this parable to his disciples, saying:
“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth." (Matt 13:40-42)
So from these and other scriptural passages we get a general picture of hell as a place of eternal punishment, a punishment involving fire, a never-ending fire, and also as a place of remorse and despair.
Thus the thought of hell is meant to be a sobering one for us, and one we should take seriously. The vision of hell certainly made a very strong impression on the Fatima seers, and particularly on Jacinta, as Sister Lucia further relates:
“The vision of hell filled her with horror to such a degree, that every penance and mortification was as nothing in her eyes, if it could only prevent souls from going there."
In fact, hell became a preoccupation of young Jacinta. One time she exclaimed:
“Oh, hell! hell! How sorry I am for the souls who go to hell! And the people down there, burning alive, like wood in the fire!"
Lucia tells us that, she would then kneel down with her hands joined, and recite the prayer that Our Lady had taught them: “O my Jesus! Forgive us, save us from the fire of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are most in need."
At other times, she asked her cousin: “Why doesn’t Our Lady show hell to sinners? If they saw it, they would not sin, so as to avoid going there! You must tell Our Lady to show hell to all the people. You’ll see how they will be converted."
Before she died, Jacinta spent some time at an orphanage in Lisbon. The Sister in charge, who was known as Mother Godinho, was able to talk to Jacinta. In some cases, it seems that the things Jacinta spoke of came from Our Lady, but in others they resulted from the infused wisdom with which the little girl was gifted. In fact, Mother Godinho asked Jacinta about this, saying, ‘Who taught you these things?’ to which she responded, ‘Our Lady, but some of them I thought myself. I love to think.’
Jacinta reportedly told Mother Godinho that many people went to hell because of “sins of the flesh". She also apparently said that certain fashions would be introduced which would be very offensive to Our Lord.
Clearly we are living in a time when sexual immorality and immodest fashions are widespread, so these points very much apply to our age.
We are not likely to see either heaven or hell in this life, but in the first part of the Fatima secret we have been given a clear reiteration of hell’s existence and horror. Like Jacinta, we need to mediate on hell – in our case so as to ensure that we don’t end up going there.