The most impressive picture of the three seers of Fatima is the one taken soon after they had the vision of Hell. Saint Jacinta’s aspect, her gaze in particular, seems to churn with grave considerations.
Hell: A Secret of Fatima
The vision of Hell lasted only moments but it is evident from the expressions on their faces how profoundly it marked them. Indeed, what horror movie can compare to the horror of seeing damned souls burning in eternal fire and suffering the torments of hell? What thriller can compare to the vision of devils? What cacophony could compare to the wails of the damned? Sister Lucia herself admitted they would have died of fear had the grace of Our Lady not sustained them.
Sadly because modern man is so saturated with horrific images from movies, television programs and videogames, the very mention of Hell at times does not stir up any sentiment of fear. Although two thirds of Americans actually believe in the existence of Hell—one third either doubt or deny its existence,1—the very perception of Hell has been heavily distorted as reflected in literature, video games and movies. Modern man regards it with a spattering of apathy, skepticism, contrarianism, cynicism or criticism.
Those who are apathetic toward Hell believe God rarely, if ever, condemns anyone to Hell, so there is no need to worry about it. Those who are skeptical flatly deny its existence. Those who are cynical believe Hell is simply a writer’s device in fairytales and myths. Those who are contrarian believe Hell is an eternal party where all the “cool” people go. “The virtuous are boring,” they think, “so they all go to Heaven.” Their rationale continues, “The sinful, on the contrary, are exciting, interesting and full of life and they all go to Hell.” Those who are critical believe “it” should never be mentioned in polite company, much less to children. They call any mention of Hell in the context of spiritual life as “scare tactics.” In their opinion, God is infinite love, justice and mercy. There is no need to talk about Hell because fear should never be used as a motivation to love God, to desire eternal reward, to fear the devil, or to avoid eternal punishment.
Meditating on Hell Is an Act of Piety
Yet, the saints encouraged meditation on hell as a necessary devotion. Meditation on hell used to be considered as the last barrier to prevent souls from careening unhindered into the mire of vice and sin. It is now seen by some as an impediment to love of God. It used to be a tool in the manuals of spiritual life to help us understand the gravity of sin. It is now used by some as a weapon against God’s infinite justice, denying that God could equally be infinitely merciful and infinitely just. It used to be an act of piety to help us desire Heaven even more. It is now simply dismissed as “scare tactic,” and, of little or no use, or, of having a negative effect on one’s spiritual life.
Is there any merit in meditating on hell? Our Lady seems to think so. In fact, Our Lady of Fatima imposed it on the three children during the third apparition on July 13, 1917. The three seers, Lucia dos Santos, and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, were only 10, 9 and 7 years old, respectively, when Our Lady showed them the vision of Hell. According to Lucia’s account,2 the rays emanating from Our Lady’s hand penetrated the ground and they saw a vast sea of fire. They saw souls tossed about and falling like sparks from a great conflagration. They saw horrible demons in the shape of unknown animals. They heard shrieks and moans of despair. Terrified by this vision, they looked up to Our Lady for protection. Our Lady of Fatima told them; “You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish devotion to my Immaculate Heart.”
Jacinta, although only seven years old, was profoundly marked by the seriousness of this revelation especially the part where Our Lady said, “So many sinners go to Hell because few offer sacrifices for their conversion.” It was a request she took to heart. Instead of being scarred by the experience, this vision became pivotal in the growth of her spiritual life.
Is Fear of Hell An Obstacle to Spiritual Life?
Lucia recounts in her third memoir that “the vision of hell frightened [Jacinta] so much that she did all the penances and mortifications she could to prevent some souls from going there.” How did such a young girl reach such holy aspirations that belong uniquely to saints of great stature? Lucia answers that “first, … it was through a special grace God granted her through the Immaculate Heart of Mary; secondly, through the vision of hell and the unfortunate souls falling into it.” Lucia continues to press a very important point: “There are people, even devout ones, who sometimes are afraid to speak about hell to children lest they frighten them, but God did not hesitate to show it to three children, one of whom was only [seven] years old.”
This was key to understanding the admirable sanctity of this innocent girl. Though young, she saw the seriousness of this reality. Lucia recounts in her memoir that Jacinta would frequently meditate then suddenly exclaim, “Hell! Hell! How sorry I am for the souls that are going to hell! And people burn there alive, like wood in fire!” Jacinta would quiver, Lucia explained, then would kneel on the ground and pray, “O my Jesus, pardon us. Save us from the fire of hell. Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need.”
Wondering what causes people to go to Hell, Jacinta asked her cousin. Lucia answered, “Perhaps not going to Mass on Sundays, stealing, saying wicked words, cursing, swearing.” Jacinta responded, “And, only for one word they can go to hell?” She lamented, “I am sorry for sinners! Oh, if I could only let them see hell!” “If Our Lady lets you,” Jacinta told Lucia, “tell everybody what hell is like, so that they can escape it by not committing sins.” Then she exclaimed, “So many falling into hell! So many in hell!”
The young girl was convinced that knowing Hell would be good for the salvation of souls. She asked Lucia, “Why doesn’t Our Lady show Hell to sinners? If they saw it, they would never sin again and wouldn’t have to go there.”
Though Our Lady never did show the vision of Hell to the pilgrims, many saints have described the different aspects of the suffering in Hell.
The Saints on the Suffering In Hell
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Theresa of Avila and Saint Catherine of Sienna, among so many others, emphasize how the suffering in Hell includes an assault to our five senses. The fires and discomforts of Hell are more than the pain of any torture or suffering on Earth. The stench in Hell is more than the most putrid pit of filth. The taste buds of the reprobates in Hell will be saturated by the vilest of tastes. The cacophony in Hell is composed of the wails and shrieks of suffering, blasphemy and despair. The eyes in Hell will not behold lustful figures or attractive faces or bodies, but will see the deformed rotting flesh of the damned and the disfigured embodiment of the devil.
The saints also teach how the physical suffering is the least suffering. The moral, emotional, psychological, cultural, social and spiritual suffering is so much more.
There are no friends in Hell to comfort you. Hell is filled with the vilest of people who could care less about their neighbors. Charity is a virtue that belongs to the just. Instead, each condemned person only thinks of themselves. Imagine being stuck in a very long car ride with a self-centered narcissist. That can serve as a pallid point of reference of how social life is like in Hell.
Yet all of this pales in comparison to what the saints explain is the greatest suffering in Hell—the pain of loss, the eternal loss of the beatific vision and of God’s esteem.
Because of a brief vision of Hell, Saint Jacinta became a holy advocate for the conversion of sinners. She made it her life’s effort to offer as many sacrifices for their conversion.
Meditating on Hell should be seen as an important act of piety, even for children. Jacinta is the perfect role model for that. For people of faith, Hell should not cause despair. It is an occasion to see the gravity of sin and the seriousness and eternal consequences of this life. Above all, it should remind mankind of the need to pray and offer sacrifices for the conversion of sinners.
- Memórias da Irmã Lúcia, http://www.pastorinhos.com/_wp/wp-content/uploads/MemoriasI_en.pdf (Fatima, In Lucia’s Own Words).