Hell Exists, and We Could Go There
The Secret of Fatima opens with the terrifying vision of hell. Through this vision, Our Lady reminds us right away of the essential, the only thing that counts: our eternity. This first part of the Secret is of primordial importance. Even more than the prediction of famines, wars and persecutions, this striking, anguished reminder of the eternity in hell which threatens us is one of the essential points of the message of Our Lady. This is one of the most important truths of our Catholic Faith which Our Lady of Fatima wished to recall to our apostate, naturalist and materialist century, which is blindly set on purely earthly horizons.
The Horrible Vision: Only Too Real
Once again, let us recall the terrible and realistic description which Sister Lucy traces for us in her Memoirs: (1)
As Our Lady spoke these last words, She opened Her hands once more, as She had done during the two previous months. The rays of light seemed to penetrate the earth, and we saw as it were an ocean of fire.
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. (It must have been this sight which caused me to cry out, as people say they heard me.)
The demons could be distinguished (from the souls of the damned) by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, all black and transparent.
This vision lasted only a moment, thanks to our good Heavenly Mother who, at the first apparition, had promised to take us to Heaven. Without this promise, I think we would have died of fright.
Heaven or Hell
There it is. And how frightening is the spectacle! Yet in this lies the whole drama of our human life. Clearly, before all else the Blessed Virgin wants us to consider the extremely serious character of our short life, which must lead us to Heaven or hell for all eternity. We know that it must be one or the other; there is no other possible outcome. In the brief years of our mortal life, our final destiny is decided, and decided irrevocably…
“COME, YE BLESSED OF MY FATHER…” (Mt. 25:34) If by the grace of God we go to Heaven, introduced into the family of God, transformed and divinized by His glory and rejoicing in it, we will be happy for all times with an unspeakable joy. The Faith already lets us get a glimpse of this happiness which is promised to us, and for which we hope…
This will be the return of the Prodigal Son to the blessed bosom of His most loving Father. It will be the Heart of Jesus our Spouse and crucified Saviour, and His nuptial embrace. It will be the great banquet one-on-one, He present to us and we to Him, the hidden life for all eternity in the secret of His Face and the transforming fire of His Spirit of Love.
Heaven will be contemplation full of the joy of the beauties and glories of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, Her maternal arms and Her smile. It will be the canticles of the praises of God by the myriads of angels and saints, and life in their sweet presence, as among so many brethren and friends. It will be, finally, the joy of being reunited with our dear loved ones, all gathered together at the table of the Father, for the wedding feast of the Lamb.
How could such a state of beatitude not be perfect, overflowing and ever renewed? For it is ever increasing, as one sees the happiness of so many other persons in Heaven who are loved with an immense love. According to our Catholic Faith, such is the divine felicity reserved to the elect. It is immense and it surpasses anything we can conceive, imagine or feel here below. (2)
“DEPART, YE CURSED, FAR FROM ME, INTO ETERNAL FIRE!” (Mt. 25:41) But if, freely, and through our own fault, we merit eternal chastisement, what a contrast! An eternity of frightful misery awaits us: tortures of the soul, tortures of the body, atrocious sufferings in our whole being, at every instant, without any respite and for all eternity, without any hope of deliverance, ever. Eternally cursed, rejected and far from God, deprived forever of His presence, and of all peace, and all joy, and delivered over forever into the blackest despair…
This is what is expressed in an incomparable manner, with a striking force of expression, although in very sober fashion—in Sister Lucy’s account. If accepted literally, it will profoundly stamp our minds with this fear of hell, so salutary and so profoundly Catholic.
But must it be accepted literally? Here is the whole question, and rare are those who dare to answer with a firm yes. The well-nigh universal objection against this vision is important; it is worth examining.
I. Inadequate and Misleading Images?
The Rationalist Objections
FATHER DHANIS: A CHILDISH VISION. “Many readers (the critic of Fatima wrote), no doubt ask themselves what must be thought of the description of hell given by Lucy. Let us respond, without hesitating that we cannot imagine that it can be taken as a literal expression of reality… In any case, the demons do not have “a terrifying and repellent likeness of frightful and unknown animals”; they do not even have human forms at all; once the soul is separated from the body it no longer has any “human form”, according to which they could appear as “transparent embers”; and this is enough to prove that we can attribute no more than a symbolic significance to the vision described by Lucy.” (3) Also, we must “beware of taking literally what is meant to be taken otherwise”.
We have seen how Father Dhanis tried to cast suspicion on the supernatural authenticity of the vision of hell. (4) The most favourable hypothesis he suggests to explain it is that of a childish vision. Yes, although Heaven bent over backwards with condescension towards the three children, it could show them nothing more than… childish images: “If indeed (he writes), a supernatural agent wishes to give to children a vision to make them understand the horror of hell, should it not communicate to them a representation of hell which is recognizable for them, and therefore a representation which more or less corresponds to images already seen or descriptions already heard? But in all probability the images or descriptions of hell known to our little children presented it as a great pool of fire filled with souls and demons. Therefore, are not the various traits described by Lucy in some way “required elements” of a vision of hell given to these children?” (5) In short, Father Dhanis explains to us, the “images of hell” proposed by Sister Lucy are all well and good for childish imaginations, but cannot speak to informed and intelligent adults.
FATHER SERTILLANGES: MYTHICAL AND MEDIEVAL REPRESENTATIONS. It must be pointed out that our anti-Fatima author is far from being the only one to reject these images of hell, which are familiar to the whole Catholic tradition. Dhanis himself invokes the name of a theologian of repute, Father Sertillanges. Had the latter, already in 1930, adopted a similar position? “Hell is not a myth”, our defender of the faith wrote back then. But, “what is true is that our imagination portrays it under inevitably mythical forms, and sometimes, it must be admitted, more than is reasonable, if we consider so many paintings inspired by the Divine Comedy of Dante.” He goes on to repudiate “the images of the Florentine school, the Gothic Cathedrals, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Tiepolo, Jean Goujon, and so many others”, as so many medieval and therefore outdated images. “I take them for what they are: images, in other words, symbolic figures, which we must avoid taking literally, and which today must be replaced, because they depart too much from the underlying reality, and are misleading.” (6)
“REPRESENTATIONS IN IMAGE FORM” WHICH HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH THE FAITH. Since this book was written, the idea has made the rounds to the point where it is almost universally accepted. Today, the catechisms themselves imbue our children with this profound disdain for the traditional imagery, supposedly too medieval. One need only open Pierres Vivantes, “Living Stones”, the new catechism imposed by the French bishops on all children. Among the very few lines devoted to the subject of hell, we find the following statement, presented as an established fact: “One must not confuse this suffering (caused by separation from God) with imaginary representations which might have been made.” (7)
What an astonishing affirmation! Indeed, in his fascinating commentary on this “Catechism for the Eighties”, our Father asks: “By whom, then, have these “imaginary representations”, not to be confused with the faith of our bishops, been spread? By whom have these descriptions of horrors, designed to frighten poor human beings, been spread? BY JESUS CHRIST Himself!” (8)
IMAGES… FROM THE GOSPELS! As a matter of fact, regardless of what Father Sertillanges says, or what Father Dhanis says, these images are not medieval. They do not go back to Dante. Far from being the inspiration behind the Middle Ages, Dante was only, as has been said, the most eloquent and the last spokesman for them; and the sculptures of our Cathedrals were completed long before the Divine Comedy appeared! For centuries, St. Augustine and the other Fathers had set forth and explained the same images, quite simply because they go back to the words of Our Lord! Was not He the first to speak of gehenna, of its inextinguishable fire and of the worm which never dies, and threatened the reprobate with the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping, and the gnashing of teeth”? It was Saints Peter and John who depicted the demons as frightening and cruel beasts! So? Was it then Jesus, the Word of the Father and our gentle primordial Truth, and was it the Apostles who propagated these images “which are misleading”, and “which must today be replaced”?
From a Rationalist Apologetic to the Modernist Heresy
By the way, just what should the traditional imagery be replaced with? On this question our innovators are silent. Father Dhanis writes: “The pains of hell are not only the privation of the vision of God and the remorse of conscience, but the damned suffer other pains which affect them in various ways and even in their relations with the exterior world.” (9) These are simply nothing more than tranquilizing, anesthetizing abstractions.
“HELL IS NOTHING TO BE AFRAID OF!” Once we enter this slippery slope of demythologization, our fall is rapid. What remains of the doctrine of eternal hell in Pierres Vivantes? This quintessential abstraction which really cannot alarm anybody: “When Christians speak of hell, they mean the tragic situation of those who have refused God, and put themselves voluntarily and definitively outside of His love.” And that is all! In vain does Pierres Vivantes insist: “It is truly a “hellish suffering” to be so separated from God”, for this threat alone, without commentary or explanation, does nothing to put any fear into sinners! If hell is simply living without God, then, alas, millions of men can accommodate themselves to it; they even believe that in this theoretical and practical atheism lies the condition of their happiness! In short, with this type of catechesis, the Catholic Faith is emptied of all its content: no longer is there any judgment, or divine chastisement, hell is no longer a place of horrible torments; it is simply (from the Christian point of view!) “a tragic situation”.
When separated from the trauma-inducing “images”, fire, worms, darkness, the shouts and groans of the damned, hell becomes a very “bearable” reality, which any free man can envisage with serenity.
“HELL DOES NOT EXIST!” For that matter, once the principle of demythologization is admitted, there is no reason to stop at this stage. For a Hans Kung, for example, the very existence of hell and the eternity of its pains are myths from which we must be delivered. As for Satan and the legions of devils, the theologian of Tubingen sees only a “mythological representation”, which passed “from Babylonian mythology into primitive Judaism, and from there, into the New Testament.” (10)
Under the fallacious pretext of abandoning medieval images, arbitrarily judged inadequate and outdated, our theologians have managed to empty this Truth of faith of all concrete representations, as well as the slightest real content. Yet, this truth is of capital importance; on it depends all the other elements of our religion. The most daring of them openly deny the eternity of the torments of hell, and even the torments themselves, and finally the very existence of life in the next world. In any case, what all of them have in practice is that they never preach hell to anybody anymore.
In such a context of growing apostasy, the vision of hell granted to the three seers of Fatima takes on a prophetic significance: Our Lady willed to forewarn us against this blindness, the most terrible blindness that can exist, because it leads straight to the abyss which it strives in vain to ignore.
II. An Authentic, Completely Accurate Vision!
Granted, for our feeble human reason, which knows neither the sanctity of God, nor the true malice of sin, as well as for our poor heart and its spontaneous sentiments, often so strangely blinded, the existence and eternity of the torments of hell always remain a disconcerting mystery, an indemonstrable, incomprehensible truth. This is why, confronted with the terrible vision of Fatima, we always have the very natural temptation to avoid it, explain it away, or even openly rebel against it. Yet it would be folly to let ourselves be carried away by this instinctive reaction. For the only question, the only one of supreme importance to us, is to know if it is true that hell is really the way it is described to be.
On this question, no doubt is possible, and that is what we will demonstrate, showing the ludicrous and arbitrary character of all objections by which various people have pretended to minimize its significance. Our demonstration shall consist of two points.
JESUS CHRIST DIED TO DELIVER US FROM HELL. First of all the vision of Fatima is the pure echo, the most faithful expression of the teaching of Jesus Himself. Yes, it must be stressed that the vision of hell related by Sister Lucy is eminently evangelical. (11) For it cannot be denied that Jesus never ceased to teach and preach the doctrine of hell all His life, especially by His sorrowful Passion and Death on the Cross.
“What my human reason could not dare to conclude, Jesus with all His reasoning power as perfect man reflected on before me and understood; what my heart did not want to accept, His Heart, which had an infinitely human tenderness, consented to. How could I go on disputing, what could I say, what could I object, when the most beautiful of the children of men, the wisest, the most loving, the most generous, knew by Divine Knowledge what hell was, and intellectually accepted it? Not to want to believe what You have revealed to us, as terrible as it might be, would be to separate myself from You, O Word, O Christ, Master of perfect Wisdom!
“You were so sure of it, both by human and Divine Knowledge, that Your whole life was determined by it, without an obsession, but without any sort of distraction… Here is where the Christian mystery of eternal damnation begins. A God became man, and this man set about preaching, and this man was delivered over to the tortures of the Passion and Death to save us from hell.”
It must not be forgotten that the Mystery of the Redemption is at the same time the supreme mark of the infinite Love of God for men, and the most certain proof of the eternal damnation with which sinners are threatened:
“If I were tempted not to believe in Jesus Christ at all, because I could not believe in hell, how much I would be obliged to believe in hell anyway, because Jesus Christ has proved its existence to me by the atrocious peril of His sorrowful Passion.” (12)
JESUS SPEAKS TO US IN THE LANGUAGE OF TRUTH. A second point: these images so insistently employed by Our Lord, far from being remote approximations vaguely calling to mind the reality, appear to us, on the contrary, to be its most exact expression, to the point where one can say in all truth: “Hell is just that! It is at least that!” And let this be pointed out as well: after the horrible vision, Our Lady did not say to the three shepherds: “You have seen a symbol, an image of eternal damnation, which of course is quite different from the symbol, because damnation belongs to the purely spiritual order.” No, She simply said to them: “You have seen hell, where the souls of poor sinners go.” Hell is a real danger that threatens us! It is as concrete as it is frightful. (13)
What a lesson! The sufferings of hell, as well as the joys of Heaven are mysterious to human reason alone. The subject cannot be handled wisely without scrupulously following the teachings of the Gospel. The vision of Fatima calls to mind the urgent and eternal truth of these same teachings. In this domain where Faith is the sovereign Teacher, the supreme wisdom for human reason consists in bowing down humbly before these truths. We must understand that the images proposed to us by our Creator are surely much more true and exact than all the ideas that we can forge for ourselves, since it concerns the “beyond”, of which we have no experience. (14)
Let us return therefore to the description of Sister Lucy, as we bring out all the richness of the vision, its evangelical character, its exact theological and even philosophical truth.
“We Saw As It Were an Ocean of Fire”
Just as in the Scriptures, hell is described as a place. It is precisely “the pool of fire and brimstone” mentioned on several occasions by the Apocalypse: (15) “But as for the cowardly and unbelieving, and abominable and murderers, and fornicators and sorcerers, and idolaters and all liars, their lot shall be in the pool that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Apoc. 21:8.)
Here is the first important affirmation, which sweeps away all arbitrary watering-down of the text, which might lull us to sleep in a false security: hell is not only a state, “the tragic situation” of those who refuse God. It is the place of chastisement, a place of eternal torments: “an ocean of fire”.
Another observation, which struck the children into a sorrowful understanding: what they saw is an immense extension, “an ocean”, “a great sea of fire” filled with the damned. If in the very text of the Secret Sister Lucy does not mention it explicitly, in her Memoirs she often insists on this aspect of the vision. Thus she reports the frequent exclamations of Jacinta, who was unceasingly afflicted with this thought: “So many go there! So many!” Or again: “So many people go to hell! So many!” (16) We will see later that Sister Lucy herself did not cease to repeat the same thing, and her words resonate as so many cries of alarm: “Many are those who are damned.” “Many are lost.” “Souls go to hell in droves.”
But the vision of Fatima does not merely remind us that hell exists, and that it is filled with innumerable damned souls, it also teaches us—and with what realism!—the atrocious torments that they endure, and for eternity.
“Plunged in this Fire… Demons and Damned Souls.”
“Plunged in this fire (Sister Lucy continues), were demons and souls in human form, like transparent, burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze.”
“SOULS … IN HUMAN FORM.” This last trait, far from creating a difficulty, as Father Dhanis claimed, on the contrary illustrates a profound philosophical truth. Even when temporarily separated from the body, the human soul is not a self-subsisting spirit. It is, and essentially remains, the form of the body of which it was the life-principle. Before long, at the final resurrection, it will once again take on the body, from which it was violently separated only for a short lapse of time. Even after death, a mysterious but very real bond subsists in some way between the soul and the body; and in its spiritual being the soul remains proportioned to the body.
In all truth, therefore, and not merely in a vaguely symbolic manner, God in His Omnipotence can even cause a human soul to appear under its proper individual corporeal form. In short, if a soul is to be depicted in a manner perceptible to the senses, it cannot do so in a more exact fashion than under the very figure of the body which it once animated, and which, following the resurrection of the body, it will animate once more.
THE DEVILS: “TERRIFYING FORMS OF FRIGHTFUL ANIMALS.” “The demons (Sister Lucy relates) could be distinguished (from the souls of the damned) by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, all black and transparent.” Mythical symbols or medieval fantasies? No! The image, once again, comes from the Bible. It is the only image in creation willed by God to make us understand the unbearable hideousness of these fallen spirits, their malice and the atrocity of their presence, the terrible torments they make poor human beings endure. These are the terrible beasts of the Apocalypse who inhabit “the great furnace” of the infernal “abyss”, (17) the “great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns…” (18) As for Saint Peter, he compares the devil to “a roaring lion who goes about seeking someone to devour”. (19)
THE LANGUAGE OF THE CREATOR. Although it might be true that the symbolic representations invented by men through custom can at times be arbitrary, and perhaps vary according to the various civilizations that evolve with time, it is a gross error to believe that the same is true for the essential themes of biblical symbolism. We are forgetting that it is the Creator Himself Who through these images speaks to us.
When Our Lord tells us that hell is the eternal, inextinguishable fire, the worm which never dies, the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, it is the Word and Creator addressing us, the eternal Wisdom through Whom everything was made and by Whom everything subsists. If, avoiding all the vague and abstract formulas, He deliberately chooses to speak to us in this language which is so concrete, it is because this is the most accurate language: these terrifying realities were willed by Him in creation itself, to make us understand here below the mystery of eternal hell.
Likewise, when Saint Jude mentions the darkness and chains of an eternal prison, (20) when Saint John speaks of a second death, eternal death, a veritable unending agony, and the abyss which opens up in the centre of the earth over a pool of fire and sulfur, (21) when he describes the demons as frightful and cruel beasts, he appeals to created realities which are, in their very being, a language, a divine word addressed to us to make us see in a concrete and accurate way the frightful torments reserved to the damned.
Far from leaving us in ignorance about the beyond, in His immense goodness God willed certain creatures of His to see it already here, in all accuracy. There it was, with all the putrid miasms, the infectious pestilences, the hideous stench. There, too, were the ferocious, monstrous, unclean beasts, who awaken in us an instinctive fright. The Creator programmed this horror into us, that it might serve us as a motivation, a warning. Here, no doubt, is one of the most profound reasons for all the evils that God has created, willed or permitted in the world. In one of his Pages of Mystical Theology, our Father develops this idea at length. It is as important as it is little known. (22)
A Devouring Fire Which Is Never Extinguished
Above all else, there is the reality of the fire, expressly created by God to make us understand, through His Eyes as it were, the atrocity of the eternal chastisement. Nine times in a row, in the short text of the Secret, Sister Lucy mentions this devouring fire which, as it burns the damned, makes them undergo atrocious sufferings.
Here again, be it noted, there is a perfect correspondence with the entire New Testament, where there are dozens of references by Jesus or His Apostles to the “eternal fire” or to the “gehenna of fire”. By what blindness, today, do we neglect these innumerable texts, when they are so formal and explicit, and one or two would be sufficient to solidly ground our faith in the terrible chastisement of eternal fire?
“And if thy hand or thy foot is an occasion of sin to thee, cut it off and cast it from thee! It is better for thee to enter life maimed or lame, than, having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if thy eye is an occasion of sin to thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee! It is better for thee to enter life with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into the gehenna of fire.” (23)
And in that grandiose picture Jesus creates of the Last Judgment, He says: “Then He will say to those on His left hand: “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels… and these will go into everlasting punishment, but the just into everlasting life.”” (24)
The vision of Fatima is fully biblical: it lets us see how this terrible fire in itself summarizes the various torments of the damned.
A SPIRITUAL AND PHYSICAL FIRE. The fire of hell is a real fire with nothing metaphorical about it—of that we can be sure! It is a spiritual and physical fire which burns the whole being taken together, in all its powers or faculties, just as coal is entirely consumed by the fire. “The souls (writes Lucy) were like transparent, burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze”, and the devils themselves appeared “black and transparent, like burning embers.” In other words, nothing escapes this terrible sensation of burning. It is both physical, and, even more horribly, spiritual as well.
And the spiritual burning? It is the terrible “pain of loss”, the eternal and definitive privation of God. The most painful thing for the soul is the fire of the Divine Wrath, and His just judgment. What could be more terrible than the angry Face of God, the Thrice Holy? What could be more frightful than the sentence of the “jealous God”, spurned in His infinite Love? As the Apostle Saint Paul writes in his Epistle to the Hebrews: “For if we sin wilfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there remains no longer a sacrifice for sins, but a certain dread expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. A man making void the Law of Moses dies without any mercy on the word of two or three witnesses: how much worse punishments do you think he deserves who has trodden under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant through which He was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of Grace? For we know Him Who has said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the Hands of the Living God.” (Heb. 10:26-31) “For Yahweh your God”, we read in Deuteronomy, “is a devouring fire, a jealous God.” (Dt 4.24)
The fire of hell is also a physical, mysterious fire, no doubt different from the fire we are familiar with here below, but a real and terrible fire nevertheless. It is the instrument of the divine chastisement, this “pain of sense”, which combines its torments with those of the “pain of loss”.
AN INTERIOR FIRE. While he is burned from without, the damned finds in himself the source of another fire which redoubles his sufferings: the souls of the damned, having human forms, “floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke”. Does not this interior fire correspond to the ever-renewed flame of remorse, fury and despair? Does it not express the same interior torture as “the worm which never dies”, mentioned by Our Lord? (25)
“Shrieks of Pain and Despair”
One last trait completes the picture of the frightful lot of the damned: the absence of all peace, stability, and repose in themselves: “They were floating in this fire… falling back on every side, like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium…” Without any mastery over their own being, they are the plaything of the flames which devour them.
Along with this horrible spectacle, Lucy relates, there were “shrieks and groans of pain and despair which horrified us and made us trembles with fright.” And this recalls for us the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” so often mentioned in the Gospel: “So will it be at the end of the world. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from among the just, and will cast them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Mt. 13:49-50).
Here then is hell, exactly as Our Lady willed to show it to the three innocent shepherds. It is simply the teaching of Jesus which is recalled for us, literally and insistently, by the Mother of God. It is as if She wanted to arm us in advance against the modernist heresy, which has succeeded in getting this tragic reality almost completely forgotten, even within the Church: because the majority of pastors no longer preach hell, many of the faithful no longer believe in it, and those who do believe in it hardly ever think of it. That is why this part of the Secret is more relevant than ever for us.
To understand the real implications of the vision of hell, its central place in the message of Fatima, it is sufficient to listen to our little seers, Lucy, Jacinta, and Francisco, since they actually saw it. They are the best interpreters of what they contemplated, seized with fright, for as Sister Lucy herself tells us, “ordinarily God accompanies His revelations with an intimate and detailed knowledge of what they signify.” (26)
III. The Testimony of the Three Seers
A Terrifying Fear
Several witnesses of the apparition of July 13, as we have already said, mentioned the sudden fear which came over the children. (27) Lucy’s face became livid, and she cried: “Aie, Our Lady! Aie, Our Lady!” Witnesses whose testimony is all the more valuable, since they were present at the apparition, did not learn the reason for this sudden fright until much later on. Lucy tells us that if Our Lady had not promised, on May 13, to take the children to Heaven, “I believe we would have died of fright.” Since that day, this terrifying fear remained imprinted on their souls. The few passages in the Memoirs, where Sister Lucy explains how this fear came to have a decisive importance in their mystical life, are among the most stirring parts of the book.
“… HORRIFIED… TO THE POINT OF BEING CONSUMED WITH FRIGHT.” “Jacinta (she writes) was very impressed by certain things revealed in the Secret. This was in fact the case. The vision of hell had horrified her to such a point that all penances and mortifications to her seemed insufficient to save some souls from hell …”
“Certain people, even pious people, did not like to speak of hell to the children, so as not to frighten them (Lucy records). But God did not hesitate to show it to the three children, one of whom was only six, and He knew quite well that she would be horrified, to the point of being consumed with fright, I would go so far as to say.” (28)
“WE FOUND HIM TREMBLING WITH FEAR…” And Francisco? “At the third apparition (Lucy informs us), he seemed to be the one least impressed by the vision of hell, although it did have a considerable effect on him.” (29)
Nevertheless, although he was in no sense a timorous or fearful character, he did strive “never to think of hell, so as not to be afraid”. “When Jacinta would become disturbed at the thought of hell, he used to say to her: ‘Do not think of hell so much! Think about Our Lord and Our Lady instead. I never think about hell, so that I won’t be afraid.’” (30)
Yet, if the Most Holy Virgin willed to show this terrible spectacle to Her three privileged souls, it was so that they would remember it, and the constant thought of the eternal ruin of the damned would incite them to unceasing prayers and sacrifices for sinners. So Francisco tried to forget about hell? Heaven reminded him of it by a new vision. Here is Sister Lucy’s account:
“One day we were looking for a place called the Pedreira, and, as the sheep passed by, we climbed from one rock to another, trying to make our voice echo from the bottom of these great ravines. Francisco, as usual, retired into the hollow of a rock. After a long pause, we heard him crying, calling on Our Lady and invoking Her.
“We were very disturbed, thinking something had happened to him. We began to look for him, saying: “Where are you?” “Here! Here!” But it still took us a little while to reach where he was. We found him, finally, trembling with fear, still on his knees, very much shaken and incapable of getting up. “What’s the matter with you? What happened?” In a voice half suffocated with fear, he told us: ‘One of those great big beasts from hell was just here, breathing fire.’” (31)
An Immense Pity
Jacinta was almost seized with dizziness, so great was her pity for poor sinners. “What astonished her the most (says Lucy) was eternity. Even while she was playing, from time to time she would ask: ‘Even after years and years, hell still doesn’t end?’” (32) And Lucy would always supply the astonishing, but correct, reply of the catechism: “No, never, never! Hell is eternal.”
“Jacinta would often sit on the ground or on a rock, and she would say, growing pensive: “Oh, hell, hell! How sorry I am for the souls that go to hell! And the people who are there, being burned alive, like wood in a fire!” And she would kneel down, half trembling, with her hands joined, to recite the prayer Our Lady had taught us: “O my Jesus, forgive us, deliver us from the fire of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are most in need”… And Jacinta would remain kneeling for a long time, repeating the same prayer.” (33)
To see that Lucy is not making anything up, it is enough to look at the admirable photograph of the two cousins, taken in October of 1917, while they were staying at Reixida: Lucy is standing and Jacinta is seated on a rock next to her. Jacinta’s hands are joined in prayer, and she is going through the beads of her Rosary; she has an extraordinarily profound look, unspeakably sad although still peaceful. (34) Lucy remembered her friend, and gave us an intimate picture of her. Jacinta had seen hell. She knew that many souls go to hell. She never got over it. This was her torment, but also the source of her heroic generosity. Let us take a few more texts, for they are so eloquent, so moving.
“So Many People Go to Hell! So Many!”
“Sometimes (Lucy recalls) Jacinta would call me or she would call her brother (as if she were waking from sleep): “Francisco! Francisco! Are you praying with me? We must pray a lot to save souls from hell. So many go there! So many!” (35)
“Other times, after reflecting for a moment, she would say: “So many people fall into hell! So many are in hell!” To reassure her, I would say to her: “Don’t worry, you’re going to Heaven.” “Yes, I’m going”, she would say calmly, “but I wish everyone would go there also!”” (36)
Under the movement of grace, her childlike heart grew in an astonishing degree, to the dimensions of the crowds at the Cova da Iria, to the dimensions of the whole world.
Another time Lucy relates a terrible secret her cousin told her, as Jacinta was riveted to her bed by the sickness that would soon take her away:
“One day, I went to her house to stay a little while with her. I found her seated on the bed, very pensive. “Jacinta, what are you thinking of?” Jacinta replied, “About the war which will come. So many people will die, and almost all of them will go to hell!”” (37)
“SO MANY ARE DAMNED!” Lucy herself, during her whole life, never ceased bearing witness to what she had seen. She never tired of repeating the great warning of July 13, 1917.
Father Lombardi, founder of the “Movement for a Better World”, visited her on October 13, 1953 [according to Father Alonso, this interview took place on February 7, 1954]. He got around to questioning her on the subject of hell. The conversation is worth quoting:
““Do you really believe that many people go to hell? I myself hope that God will save the greater number (I wrote the same thing in a book entitled, The Salvation of the Unbeliever).” “Many are those who are lost.” “Certainly the world is a cesspool of vices… But there is always hope of salvation.” “No, Father, many are lost.”” (38)
More recently, in a letter to a young man tempted to leave his seminary, three times she recalled to him the grave danger of falling into hell. Here is how she ends her plea to the young man to remain faithful to his vocation:
“Do not be surprised that I speak to you so much about hell. This is one truth that it is necessary to recall often in these times, because we forget that souls are falling into hell in droves. Why? All the sacrifices that you make so as not to go there, and to prevent many others from going there—will you not find them well worth it?” (39)
Sister Lucy does not elaborate, nor does she add anything to these words.
In her conversation with William Thomas Walsh, the latter laid a “trap” for her—the thorny theological question of the number of the elect. It came in the form of a question:
““Our Lady showed you many souls going to hell. Did you get the impression from her that more souls are damned than saved?” This amused her a little. “I saw those that were going down. I didn’t see those that were going up.”” (40)
What wisdom in this response! It is not for us to compare and make this calculation. The Gospel tells us nothing explicit, and the controversy is futile. We must be content with what God wants us to know, and with what Our Lady recalls to us so insistently: “Many are those who are lost”, and at the end of their life of sin, they fall into this “ocean of fire” which is hell.
“Oh! If Only I Could Show Them Hell!”
What can be done to preserve souls from falling into this fatal state? Seeing the great crowds at the Cova da Iria—this was in July, August or September, 1917, and the pious pilgrims, as well as the unbelieving and the curious were coming by the thousands every thirteenth of the month –, Jacinta had an idea:
““Why doesn’t Our Lady show hell to sinners?” she asked Lucy. “If they could see it, they wouldn’t sin, so as not to go there. You must ask Our Lady to show hell to all these people… You’ll see, they’ll be converted.”
“After the following apparition, she was somewhat unhappy and asked me: “Why didn’t you ask Our Lady to show hell to all these people?” “I forgot”, I answered. “I forgot too”, she said, looking sad.” (41)
Jacinta had understood well that the horrifying vision was not for themselves alone, but for the salvation of sinners. Since it did not enter into the designs of Our Lady to “show hell to all these people”, it was necessary that Lucy at least speak to them about it:
“Sometimes, she would suddenly grab my arm and say: “I’m going to Heaven. But since you are staying here, if Our Lady lets you, tell all these people what hell is like, so that they don’t commit any more sins and don’t go there!”” (42)
How right she was! Of course, it is not conformable to the designs of God to give all men the vision of hell. Besides, not even that would suffice to convert hardened sinners, and Dom Jean-Nesmy is right to remind us of the parable of poor Lazarus and the words attributed to Abraham: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, they will not believe even if someone rises from the dead.” (Lk. 16:31) Still, that does not change what all of Holy Scripture and Jesus Himself teach, as well as all the Saints who came after Him and followed His example: We must preach about hell untiringly, so that all souls of good will are averted, and, moved by a salutary fear, are converted. The greatest victory of the devil is to succeed in making his existence forgotten, so that nobody fears the chastisements of hell any more. This is a well known truth. The Venerable Pope Pius IX told the priests of Rome that the devil feared those priests who preach about hell. This kind of preaching is so beneficial to souls—the most miserable as well as the most perfect—because it makes them all grow in their horror and hatred of sin.
“How Sorry I Am for Sinners!”
“You have seen hell, where the souls of poor sinners go”, the Most Blessed Virgin had said. Concerning these last words, Jacinta had a question:
“Sometimes (Lucy recalls) she would ask: “What sins do people commit to go to hell?” “I don’t know. Perhaps the sin of not going to Mass on Sunday, of stealing, saying bad words, or swearing.” “And for one word, they go to hell?” “It’s a sin.” “What would it cost them to be quiet and go to Mass? How sorry I am for sinners! Oh, if only I could show them hell.”” (43)
This question preoccupied Jacinta. To warn souls, she wanted to know for what sins so many souls are damned. She was not satisfied with Lucy’s answers, so she asked the Most Holy Virgin during the apparitions she had during her sickness. A detailed account of these new apparitions we will give later on. Here we will give only the response of Our Lady: “The sins which lead the most souls to hell are sins of the flesh.” (44) What a lesson for our modern society, even more corrupted now than it was at the beginning of the century!
To Save Souls by Prayer and Sacrifices
Jacinta, as we shall see, was not satisfied with warning us of the danger. With an unbelievable generosity, she completely devoted herself to prayer and penance to preserve souls from being eternally lost. She was truly goaded on by this thought, to unceasing and constantly renewed acts of love and reparation. Sister Lucy could truthfully write this about Jacinta: “All the penances and mortifications seemed to her as nothing, if through them she could save a few souls from hell.” (45)
To pray, to ask pardon of God, to offer Him sacrifices in the name of sinners and in their place, in reparation for their faults and to console the Holy Hearts of Jesus and Mary—here is the whole spirituality of Fatima, which was the program of sanctity for Lucy, Jacinta, and Francisco. And how simple it is! It goes right to the essential: Heaven and hell, the thought of sin, of Redemption, and the Communion of Saints.
In a single sentence, Our Lady summed up the whole drama of our life, the danger menacing us, and the most pressing appeal to generous love: “Pray, pray much and make sacrifices for sinners”, She said on August 19, growing somewhat sadder in Her appearance, “for many souls go to hell because they have no one to pray and make sacrifices for them.”
Conclusion: “Hell Exists, and We Could Fall into It!”
This is what the Blessed Virgin wished to teach us at the Cova da Iria, before all else. Sister Lucy never stopped insisting on this point. On December 26, 1957, she is quoted as saying to Father Fuentes:
“My mission is not to announce to the world the material chastisements which will surely come if the world does not pray and do penance. No. My mission is to indicate to everyone the imminent danger we are in of losing our souls for ever if we remain obstinate in sin.” (46)
On July 11, 1977, after a visit to Sister Lucy in the Carmel of Coimbra, Cardinal Luciani, the future Pope John Paul I, summarized this first part of the Secret, in words that can hardly be improved on:
Hell exists, and we could fall into it (he wrote). At Fatima, Our Lady taught us this prayer: “O my Jesus, forgive us, deliver us from the fire of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are most in need.” There are important things in this world, but there is nothing more important than to merit Heaven by living well. It is not only Fatima that says so, but the Gospel: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mt. 16:26) (47)
1. Cf. our Vol. I, p. 179, sq. (III, p. 108; IV, p. 165-167). (return)
2. On the subject of Heaven, the series of twenty-two Pages mystiques of our Father, the Abbé de Nantes, is must reading. They are at once mystical, biblical and always very concrete. There is nothing more beautiful to give a glimpse and a lively desire for the joys of Heaven. Some titles are sufficient to evoke this prodigious richness: “The home awaiting us”, “The family reunited”, “Friendship recovered”, “In the communion of saints”, “I shall go to see Her one day, in Heaven, in our homeland”, “In the fire of the Holy Spirit”, “Towards the Father”, “Jesus, my happiness”, “The Heaven of poor people”, “The secret of a nuptial love”, “Oh! my final secret”, etc. (Contre-Réforme catholique, nos. 103 to 128, March 1976 – April 1978, Vols. VIII, IX and X.) (return)
3. “Concerning Fatima and criticism”, Nouvelle Revue théologique, 1952, p. 591-592. (return)
4. Cf. our Vol. I, p. 399, 404-405; and the review Streven, 1944, p. 196-198. (return)
5. NRT, p. 592. (return)
6. Catéchisme des incroyants, Vol. II, p. 186, Flammarion, 1930. (return)
7. P. 118. (return)
8. La foi catholique. Réponse à “Pierres vivantes”, catéchisme moderniste. CRC no. 183, All Saints, 1982, p. 20. (return)
9. NRT, p. 591. (return)
10. Etre chrétien, p. 425, Seuil 1978. To measure the extent of the apostasy we have reached, it will not be in vain to quote a long passage concerning hell: “In any case, hell is not to be conceived mythologically as a place located in the upper world or the lower world. It signifies, in a theological sense, the exclusion of communion with the living God as a last and final possibility, an exclusion presented figuratively under a thousand different images, and which nevertheless remains inexpressible. When it speaks of hell, the New Testament does not intend to pass on information on the beyond destined to satisfy curiosity or the imagination. It is for this world that it means to recall the extreme gravity of God’s demand, and the urgency of man’s conversion here and now. The “eternity” of the punishment of hell (of “fire’’), which the New Testament has affirmed many times in figurative terms, remains subordinate to God and to His will. Some neo-testamentary passages, too isolated to balance those we have just discussed, suggest, at the moment of the final consummation, a reconciliation for all, a universal mercy.” (p. 425-426.) And here we have the old heresy of Origen revived, the apocatastasis, a heresy which has no foundation in Holy Scripture, for not one of the rare texts brought forward even suggests this solution, which is as convenient as it is false.
Alas! Hans Kung is not the only “master in Israel” to profess such a heresy. Karl Rahner also dares to declare: “However, I have the feeling that we can say: I hope—no, I know—that the final conclusion of the world’s history will be such that what the traditional theology understands by the name of “hell” will no longer be a reality.” In other words, hell will not be eternal!
And he continues: “How, in the last analysis, can the mercy of God, which the present Pope has wanted to celebrate, coexist with His justice and with the possibility that a man, by his free decision, would go to perdition? I would not venture to propose here who knows what “synthesis”. As a theologian and a Christian, I know that I must reckon with the possibility of this perdition. Still, there is no need to affirm that it is really actualized.” What does that mean? That hell is only a purely theoretical possibility. Let us sleep on, calmly: if it exists, hell is empty (Interview with La Croix, April 13, 1983, p. 9).
We find the same reductionist theology in François Varillon, La souffrance de Dieu, p. 110. (Le Centurion, 1975.) And even in Urs von Balthasar (Cf. CRC 128, April 1978, p. 14.) (return)
11. Dom Jean-Nesmy has very justly remarked as much: Lucie raconte Fatima, p. 212. (return)
12. Pages mystiques, “L’enfer après Jésus-Christ”, CRC no. 93, p. 12, June 1975. (return)
13. Sister Lucy was glad that Our Lady asked her to keep secret, for a long time, the description of this terrible vision. Being still a child, she would have been incapable of expressing the reality of it with exactitude. She writes in 1941, “For me, keeping silent has been a great grace. What would have happened had I described hell? Being unable to find words which exactly express the reality—for what I say is nothing and gives only a feeble idea of it all…” III, p. 115. Cf. her letter of August 31, 1941, to Father Gonçalves, where she expresses the same feelings (Documentos, p. 445). (return)
14. In the face of all the minimizations of the rationalist apologetic, our Father has never failed to affirm the literal truth of biblical symbolism concerning Heaven or hell. In it, he explains, we must see the adequate expression, the only one willed by God to make us understand realities that surpass us. Cf. his Pages mystiques on hell: CRC 92, May 1975; CRC 93, June 1975; CRC 79, April 1974. The doctrine set out there exactly corresponds to the Fatima message. (return)
15. Apoc. 19:20; 14:10; 20:10. (return)
16. III, p. 110. (return)
17. Apoc. 9:1-11. (return)
18. Apoc. 12:3. (return)
19. I Pet. 5:8. On this theme of cruel and deadly beasts as symbols of evil and the demons, mentioned many times in the Bible, cf. the article “Bête et Bêtes” in Vocabulaire de théologie biblique, p. 98-101. Cerf, 1966. (return)
20. Jude 6, 7. (return)
21. Apoc. 14:10; 19:20; 20:10; 21:8. (return)
22. “Concentration camps are nothing, the worst tortures men have invented to make their fellow man suffer are nothing compared to the sufferings of the damned. All this exists here below and is permitted by God precisely to make us fear what is worse…
“No, life is not misleading and nobody will be able to say that he did not know when already, by the light of the Gospel, all human joys and sufferings are like a faint image of the punishments and rewards of hell and Heaven. Hell is present among us, frightful enough to make us horrified! And Heaven is even more present, already ravishing us and filling us, to attach us to it! But right until the end, nobody must forget the remembrance of both the one and the other, so as to be attached to his Saviour by the double and triple bond of fear, hope and love…” (Abbé Georges de Nantes, CRC 93, June 1975, p. 12.) (return)
23. Mt. 18:8-9. (return)
24. Mt. 25:41; 25:46. (return)
25. In the account where she describes how one day, being in prayer, she seemed to be transported body and soul to hell, Saint Teresa of Avila insists particularly on this suffering: “In my soul I felt a fire whose nature I am powerless to describe, while my body went through intolerable torments… If I tell you that it was as if your soul was being continually wrenched away from itself, it is nothing because in this case it is somebody else who seems to take away your life. But here the soul itself tears itself to pieces. I confess that I can hardly give an idea of this interior fire and this despair which are combined with such terrible torments. Being tortured by the fire of this world is almost nothing compared with the fire of hell. I was terrified, and although about six years have gone by since then, such is my terror in writing these lines that my blood runs cold in my veins, right where I am…” Auto-biography, chap. 32. (return)
26. III, p. 116. (return)
27. The fact is solidly attested by the concordant and repeated declarations of Ti Marto, Maria Carreira and Antonio Baptista. (return)
28. III, p. 109. (return)
29. IV, p. 132. (return)
30. IV, p. 143. (return)
31. IV, p. 143. (return)
32. I, p. 30. (return)
33. III, p. 109-110. (return)
34. Cf. our reproduction, Vol. I, among the photographs following p. 270. (return)
35. III, p. 110. (return)
36. III, p. 110. (return)
37. III, p. 114. (return)
38. Quoted by Alonso, The Secret of Fatima: Fact and Legend, p. 106. (return)
39. A.M. Martins, Cartas da Irma Lucia, p. 120-122, Porto, 1979. Later on we will quote from this important letter at length. Unfortunately, Father Martins does not give us the exact date of its writing. (return)
40. Our Lady of Fatima, p. 219, Image Books, 1954. (return)
41. III, p. 110. (return)
42. III, p. 110. (return)
43. III, p. 110. (return)
44. According to Mother Godinho’s testimony. Cf. De Marchi, p. 279 and 274; III, p. 111. (return)
45. III, p. 109. (return)
46. Quoted by Alonso, La vérité sur le Secret de Fatima, p. 92. (return)
47. Mt. 16:26. Quoted by the review, Les Voyants de Fatima, bulletin for the beatification causes for Francisco and Jacinta, September-December 1978, p.7. (return)