On the feast of Our Lady of Fatima we should remember that hell is real

Women hold images of Our Lady of Fatima inside the Metropolitan Cathedral during Mass in Managua, Nicaragua, May 13 (CNS photo/Oswaldo Rivas, Reuters)

An excellent blog by “Chalcedon” on All Along the Watchtower has reminded me that today is the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. Next May will be the centenary of the first of her apparitions to three peasant children, Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco, in a small hamlet in Portugal. Some of the prayers that were given to the children have since become familiar to countless Catholics throughout the world; indeed, they have entered the unofficial canon in our vocal relationship to God.

The Angel of Portugal, who appeared to the children first in 1916, taught them the prayer “My God, I believe, I adore, I hope and I love you. I beg pardon of You for those who do not believe, do not adore, do not hope and do not love you.”

It is a prayer of personal surrender, as well as charity towards others; emphasising that to love God is to long for others (including those among our family and friends who have lapsed) to come to know and love him as we do.

In the Angel’s third apparition that same year, he gave the children another prayer to repeat, which directed them to offer up to the “Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, present in all the tabernacles in the world, in reparation for all the outrages, sacrileges and indifference whereby he is offended.”

It reminds us that it is only in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches that the Real Presence of Christ is taught and believed – and that all attacks on the Church are in reality attacks on the person of Christ himself.

The Real Presence might be a theological concept, but it is also easy for children to grasp.

I recall when my daughter who has Down’s syndrome was preparing to make her First Communion, the priest asked her, somewhat solemnly, “Where is Jesus in the church?” She answered without hesitation, “In the tabernacle”. It was more or less all she knew and all she needed to know (she never quite mastered the correct form of the Sign of the Cross.)

When Our Lady appeared in 1917, the following year, she appealed to the children with her traditional message of reparation, penance, prayer and recitation of the Rosary. In her third apparition (there were six in all) she showed them a vision of hell and gave them another prayer to be recited after each decade of the Rosary: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell and lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of Your Mercy.”

Even Catholics find this apparition disturbing, and sometimes query the fact of Our Lady revealing to young and innocent children the most horrible sight they – or we – could ever possibly imagine.

Yet it reminds us that hell is very real and much as we would rather not dwell on the fact, there are people who choose to go there. Indeed, in her fourth apparition, Our Lady directed the children to pray and offer sacrifices for sinners because “You know that many souls go to hell because there is none who pray for them.”

Catholics are not bound to believe in the Fatima apparitions – but the fact that several popes, not least St John Paul II, have had a devotion to her, should make us hesitate before rejecting them.

Perhaps some Catholics find Our Lady’s messages too hard to accept? We do not live in an age of such black and white statements; they are definitely not politically correct and don’t show the kind of “tolerance” we are always expected to display towards everyone at all times.

But if her words are true – and they certainly don’t contradict the Gospels – we live in a much more dangerous world than we can imagine, in which the salvation of immortal souls is at stake.

When we pray the Fatima prayers, the phrase “living in the world but not of the world” starts to make sense.