In the apparitions of Our Lady of Fátima, there are 2 striking aspects. These aspects are the miracle of the sun and the famous three-part secret. Recently, I had cause to think about one of the parts of the secret, namely the vision of hell. There are some intriguing questions about Fátima and hell in relation to some contemporary theological views that deserve some treatment.
To begin treating these questions, it is first necessary to state the contents of the three-part secret of Fátima.
The Three-Part Secret: the Vision of Hell
In July, 1917, Our Lady gave a revelation to the three little seers—Bls. Francisco and Jacinta Marto, and Lúcia Santos who later entered the religious life and is best known as “Sr. Lúcia.” This revelation was composed of three parts and known as “the secret.” These parts are: 1) a vision of hell, 2) a prediction of World War II, and 3) a prediction of Russia spreading its errors.
While the secret is meant to be seen as an integral whole, I will focus here upon the vision of hell. Here is how Sr. Lúcia described the vision in her Fourth Memoir:
[Our Lady said:] “Sacrifice yourselves for sinners and say many times, especially when you make some sacrifice: Jesus, it is for Your love, for the conversion of sinners and in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”
When the Lady spoke these words She opened Her hands as She had in the two months before. The radiance seemed to penetrate the ground and we saw something like a sea of fire. Plunged in this fire were the demons and the souls, as if they were red-hot coals, transparent and black or bronze-colored, with human forms, which floated about in the conflagration, borne by the flames which issued from it with clouds of smoke falling on all sides as sparks fall in great conflagrations without weight or equilibrium, among shrieks and groans of sorrow and despair that horrify and cause people to shudder with fear….
The devils were distinguished by horrible and loathsome forms of animals, frightful and unknown, but transparent like black coals that have turned red-hot. Frightened and as if we were appealing for help, we raised our eyes to our Lady who said with tenderness and sadness.
“You saw hell, where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them God wishes to establish in the world the devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If they do what I will tell you, many souls will be saved, and there will be peace… (Memórias e Cartas de Irmã Lúcia. Porto: 1973, 340-341).
This terrible sight shocked Lúcia so much that it caused her to cry out during the vision and was overheard by onlookers. The vision that the three children saw deeply affected them for the rest of their lives. Francisco and Jacinta would not live long after the miracle of the sun in October, 1917, but Lúcia went on to live until February 13, 2005—just shy of her 98th birthday.
About a month after the vision of hell, in August, 1917, Our Lady appeared once more to the children. Still, perhaps, feeling deeply the effects of the vision of hell from the previous month, the three children were reminded once more of the gravity of hell. Writing of this particular encounter with Our Lady in August, 1917, Sr. Lúcia writes:
And then in a more sad way, the Lady said, “Pray, pray a great deal, and make sacrifices for sinners, for many souls go to hell because they have no one to sacrifice and pray for them” (Memórias e Cartas de Irmã Lúcia. Porto: 1973, 345).
It is this last statement about how “many souls go to hell” that deserves some discussion.
Many Souls Go to Hell
This statement is perhaps very stark. Does not the Church teach about grace, repentance and final perseverance? Can we not hope that men will be saved? Moreover, how can we know the number of people who are in hell, much less the rate at which they do so?
It is true that people can repent up to the moment that they draw their last breath. It is also true that the Church cannot pronounce in a solemn manner on the number of souls in hell. These truths of our faith, however, are not in question with the statement at hand from Our Lady. To focus upon said truths would be, I humbly submit, a distraction from the reality of the consequences of man’s actions against God and His Church that Our Lady was impressing upon the visionaries, and by extension, to us. I am speaking of the rejection of God and His Church by revolutionaries, liberals (in the classical 19th century definition given in the book Liberalism is a Sin), etc.
Though I believe it to be a distraction, I also recognize that many people today will remain unconvinced of the above observation. Thus I will, for the sake of edification, offer a discussion on the above-mentioned truths of our faith.
We know souls go to hell, Christ Himself affirms this (Matthew 5:22, 29-30; 7:13; 25:41), but just how many go and how many are present there is beyond our knowledge. This fact is limited though as it is only true for this present age. It is not now the time of the eschaton when such knowledge is manifested. In this, the present age, the number of the people of God is not yet complete. It would thus be foolish for the Church to give a figure on the number of souls in hell. This number has the potential to change at any given second![i]
The knowledge of who is damned is remote from the intellect of man, thus a prophetic utterance by supernatural means is necessary if we are to know anything about what happens beyond the veil of this life to the next. This process was expounded upon by St. Thomas Aquinas (ST II:II, q. 171 a. 3). If, in August of 1917, Our Lady revealed to the three seers that “many souls go to hell,” then this is an act of prophecy. As such, the most we can do this side of heaven is to see if such prophetic utterances contradict the Deposit of Faith. From even the most cursory glance at the New Testament, one can see that the utterance in question does not contradict the Deposit.
Help the Faithful Live the Gospel
It is important to make two observations on the use of the adjective “many” by Our Lady. The first is that the word is not qualified with a statement of time. Our Lady does not say “in all epochs of human history, many souls go to hell.” If, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out in his June, 2000 Theological Commentary in the Message of Fatima, the purpose of private revelation is to help the faithful live the Gospel at a particular moment in history, then it is fair to understand Our Lady could be referring at the very least to a period of time before, during and after her apparitions in Fátima.
Moreover, on this last point, given the atrocities of the twentieth century (to say nothing of events from the nineteenth and the present century thus far), if “many souls go to hell,” it is not all that surprising. In the twentieth century alone, there were two World Wars, countless genocides, the Korean & Vietnam Wars, Atheistic Communism trampling upon the rights of God and man, secularism/laicism, etc. Numerous Papal statements from Leo XIII to St. John Paul II easily testify to and deplore these and other atrocities.
The reality of the twentieth century, however, is not very popular due to various trends in contemporary theology built upon atheistic and integral humanism. There is a tendency to take the ignorance provided by the veil between time and eternity and claim the hope that all men might be saved. I do not intend to get into the finer points of this position, but I will point out an underappreciated side-effect. It has cooled devotion and piety within souls resulting in a healthy fear of hell and its horrors not being communicated, which Jesus and the Apostles clearly saw as necessary through their preaching and teaching. Why else would they preach on it? Hell is very real and an equally very real trend exists today to downplay it. I myself have seen terrible things to this effect.
The second observation is that (and without prejudice to the first observation) there is something to be said for the reason why Our Lady stated “many souls go to hell….” She said there is no one to pray and make sacrifices for them. Surely prayer and sacrifice for the conversion of sinners is a timeless Christian practice, applicable in any day and age (the question of whether a few or many souls go to hell notwithstanding)? Here, Our Lady is putting the emphasis upon us by reminding us of our duty and responsibility to pray for sinners. To get caught up in a squabble over the adjective “many” could very well serve as a distraction from the onus of the request to pray and make sacrifices.
One final consideration concerns the nature of private revelation vs. public revelation. It is true that the apparitions of Our Lady at Fátima belong to the theological category of private revelation. As such, they are not part of the Deposit of Faith to which all Catholics must adhere with Divine and Catholic Faith. Private revelation is taken on the level of human faith, according to the teaching of Cardinal Lambertini/Pope Benedict XIV in his famous treatise De Servorum Dei. Based on these principles, one is free to accept or reject an authentic private revelation without fear of apostasy.
Conversely, one is wise to use a “help which is offered” even if he or she is “not obliged” to use it (cf. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s Theological Commentary on The Message of Fatima, June 26, 2000). The place of prophecy within the life of the Church is valid and must always work in tandem with the juridical authority of the Church. There is also the Apostolic mandate not to despise prophecy (1 Thessalonians 5:19-20). If a person decided not to live the message of Fátima this must not be done with scorn, hatred or malice. While it is true that no act of apostasy is performed in rejecting the message, if done in scorn, hatred or malice then such might very well reveal an “apostasy” already present in one’s heart.
The Appeal of Our Lady
In the end, Our Lady’s statement at Fátima in August, 1917 is intended to impress upon the Church the reality and gravity of hell. This impression, however, is not for its own sake. The other half of the statement is a clarion call for all of us to pray and make sacrifices for sinners so that they do not end up in hell. This is the point of reminding us about hell and we should take this seriously. To this effect, we have the Five First Saturdays devotion Our Lady requested at Fátima, recitation of the Holy Rosary, and our other prayers and sacrifices.
Finally, let us remember the words of Pope St. John Paul II. He stated that, “The appeal of the Lady of Fatima is so deeply rooted in the Gospel and the whole of Tradition that the Church feels committed to this message” (Il contenuto dell’appello della Signora di Fatima è così profondamente radicato nel Vangelo e in tutta la Tradizione, che la Chiesa si sente impegnata da questo messaggio). Thus, one cannot state that the question of hell within the message of Fátima is contrary to Divine Revelation.
[i] The number of world-wide deaths for the past several years has consistently been around 55 million people per year (see another article I wrote that contains this statistic). This statistic should impress more deeply the reason why the Church cannot pronounce on the number of people in hell.