Pope St John Paul II celebrates Mass at Fatima on 12 May 1991. It was the day before the tenth anniversary of the assassination attempt, when the Virgin “deflected the bullet” and saved his life (Derrick CEeyrack/AFP via Getty Images)
Hell is real. That is one of the key takeaways from the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima. It’s because of this part of the Fatima message I’m still Catholic.
My Portuguese-American maternal grandmother taught me from the time I was a toddler to believe in Jesus and His Mother. It was an idiosyncratic religious education. She read the Golden Children’s Bible to me so often I memorized the stories. But she mostly read the Old Testament, perhaps out of concern for my father, who was Jewish.
Throughout my 1970s childhood, my Jewish father and Catholic mother sent my brother and me to the Church of the Nazarene’s Sunday School. From them I learned most of what I then knew about Jesus. I’m the only cradle Catholic I know who grew up memorizing the King James Bible.
But Catholic I remained. The reason for that is the other thing my grandmother emphasized.
An Intense Devotion
She had an intense devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, which she passed on to me. From Our Lady’s words to the children, I learned that Hell was real. Life mattered. The way we lived mattered. I learned that the Church would tell me the truth when I didn’t want to hear it. I learned that Hell was real, and so was the possibility of damnation, but so was God’s love and mercy.
The two things that most stayed with me from my grandmother’s devotion was a desire to make reparations like the Fatima children for sinners, and a fear of Hell. I never followed through in imitating the heroic efforts of the Fatima children on behalf of sinners, but I did say the Angel of Portugal’s prayer of reparation every night before I went to sleep.
In 1985 my grandparents took my brother and me to Portugal to see the country my grandfather had come from. My mother met us halfway through the trip and revealed that a good friend had suffered a catastrophic brain injury in a motorcycle accident.
The next stop on our trip was Fatima, where some pilgrims crawl a long ways towards the shrine to ask Mary to intercede for a special intention. My brother and I did it in for the intention of healing my mother’s friend. She recovered, mostly, and lived another 14 years.
It was from this experience with Our Lady of Fatima, at the age of 15, that I began to pray the rosary daily. I would need that grace. Not just in dealing with the struggles of adolescence. My faith would soon be challenged from within the Church itself.
Pope St. John Paul II’s 1987 trip to the United States now seems largely forgotten, but it left a powerful impact on me. It was the first time I learned about the culture of dissent in American Catholicism. The public expressions of dissent were a daily staple of news coverage. Raised in my grandparents’ Old World Catholicism, with a devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, it was unfathomable to me that any Catholic — even an American Catholic — would approach the Pope as you would your Congressman, with a litany of complaints and a demand that he adjust his policies accordingly. Didn’t they know the difference between democratic politics and divine doctrine?
Soon a youth group started at my childhood parish and my 17-year-old self fell under the sway of the youth minister. He was a charismatic fellow, a Democratic activist who was a dissenter on all the usual issues except for abortion, and by the end of the year I was too.
Always That Tug
And yet, there was always that tug. That little voice inside my head saying, “This is not right. This is not what you know to be true.”
I was one of the youth leaders, tasked with coming up with topics for the next meeting whenever my turn came up. The youth group was social justice-oriented — visits to soup kitchens and so forth — and my two previous topics had been focused on contemporary issues.
But when my next turn came up, I wanted to talk about Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. I led a discussion on how the choices we make in this world, our personal sins, can have eternal consequences. My teenage peers had, like me, been catechized by the inadequate CCD classes of the 1970s and 80s. But unlike me, they had not been exposed to Our Lady of Fatima. They seemed to be hearing about the possibility of eternal damnation for the first time.
The youth minister, clearly uncomfortable with the topic, assured them that they need not fear. God loved them and they were all going to Heaven. The message of Fatima was outdated. We knew better now. (A teacher at the local Catholic high school, he later left the Church to become a Congregational minister.)
The experience left me confused. He was the adult authority and his way seemed easier. But what about Fatima? Was Our Lady wrong?
In college I gravitated toward Catholic orthodoxy, n the New Oxford Review mode. This was the faith of my grandmother again, combined with intellectual treasures with which I had been completely unfamiliar. But upon graduation I fell again under the sway of a dissenter, the priest I described in The Failings and the Surprising Virtues of the Vatican II Priests.
His was an ambiguity shading into dissent. He did not usually come right out and say it. The dissent was more what he did not say. The National Catholic Reporter and America were regular subjects for parish discussions. The people were encouraged to attend Call to Action conferences.
Under his influence, I immersed myself in the culture of dissent. But there, again, was that tug. I remained the boy who learned devotion to Our Lady of Fatima from his grandmother. By my mid-twenties, I could no longer resist the tug.
What Our Lady of Fatima Showed Us
I read my way back into orthodox Catholicism. The faithful magazines and books were so much more persuasive than the Reporter and America.
The final break came when my then-atheist girlfriend (who is now my wife) decided to convert to Catholicism and took RCIA courses at my parish. The teacher informed her class that the devil is not an actual person and that our prayers have no effect on the souls of the dead. That was it for me. That’s not what Our Lady of Fatima showed us. That was not the Catholicism I had learned from my grandmother. I was done with dissent.
When no less a person than the Mother of God herself comes down from Heaven, tells you to pray the rosary, gives specific instructions for the Pope, makes predictions about world events that later come true, and makes them to three small children who have no idea what she is talking about, and then brings about a miracle that is witnessed by 70,000 people and is reported on in atheist newspapers, then attention must be paid. And the truths of Catholicism cannot be denied, especially by Catholic dissenters who would like to erase the parts that make them uncomfortable.
Catholicism is something real. It is something concrete. It is not your invisible friend. It is not something that you make up as you go along in order to soothe your anxieties. Catholicism is something outside of you, something that challenges you. It sets a goal that, if you are careless, you may not reach. But therein lies your need for God’s mercy, and for your faith.
It was Our Lady of Fatima who guided me back to my faith and, indeed, saved my faith, by showing the children Hell. Thank you, Mary.