Fatima brings us a message from the Blessed Virgin Mary asking for prayer and conversion. This seems like a simple and straightforward message. But something should jump out at us when we read the account of the second secret. The children claim to have had a vision of Hell. What! Isn’t that impossible? How can you see a spiritual reality? They are saying that they had a vision of a spiritual reality which would seem to surpass our human powers of perception. The sights and smells sickened and horrified them. They were able to withstand the suffering only because they were already hopeful of their own salvation.
What does it mean that they saw a vision of Hell? Here, we are touching a rather curious aspect of spiritual life. How is it that human beings can see spiritual realities with their earthly bodies? Aristotle says that in order to see, one needs eyes, an object and the sun. But in the case of a vision of Hell, it seems that there could be no object seen by one’s physical eyes. This is not because Hell is not real, but because it is not simply a material place that exists alongside the world as we know it.
In mystical theology, there are two possible solutions. On the one hand, perhaps God places the vision of Hell in one’s imagination. So, in a vivid way, the subject can discern the sufferings of Hell, even though this is happening in his own interior. Perhaps the best image to understand this way of seeing would be to think of a dream, but a vivid dream that remains in the consciousness of the subject.
A second solution is that God permits a physical manifestation of Hell, one that the subject can observe with his bodily eyes. As the three children saw the vision at the same time, this second possibility seems more probable. Normally, with spiritual manifestations, the subject’s imagination plays a part. This is seen in that some people who have received the grace of the “stigmata”, or representation of the physical wounds suffered by Jesus on Calvary, receive the wounds as they themselves imagine them to be. Thus, the wounds may be in the center of their hands, even though it seems clear that the nails pierced the Lord’s wrists, as such was done in the case of crucifixion by the Romans.
The children probably saw Hell how they would have imagined it. What is clear is that it was not merely a dream. This was a manifestation of the sufferings of Hell desired by God for the three shepherd-children. What did it mean for them to have seen Hell? It produced a spiritual maturity in them that was very noteworthy and lasting in their souls. God was able to use their imagination to give them a lesson in spiritual life that would be transforming for them.
Fatima is an apparition marked by miracles. The children are assured by their vision of Hell that everything they are experiencing during the visions is real. At the same time, it was somewhat of a terrible experience. They were frightened by what they saw.
How does the vision of Hell change the experience of the apparitions for the children? It helps them see the serious and grave charge that they were given. Many times, religion may be presented as something optional, something secondary. Or perhaps it is even presented as something for the weak, for those unable to face the difficulties of real life. It may even seem that those who give a primary role to religion are always fundamentalists. But the vision of Hell helps the children to see what is at stake: the salvation of souls. This vision shows that it is men and women of faith who are more in touch with reality.
Fatima is not merely a vision of the Blessed Virgin that leads to a pious association of the faithful who prays the rosary. Fatima is a call to arms, in which the rosary is an essential weapon to fight for the salvation of souls against the invasion of diabolical forces that would wrestle the faith away from every aspect of life in the center of modern life.
The reality of Hell shows the children that holiness is also real. After seeing the torments of Hell, they are convinced that they want to go to Heaven. Holiness becomes a primordial priority for them.
Every person truly influenced by the reality proposed by the visions of the children at Fatima uses the rosary as a weapon to overcome the attacks of the Devil. The rosary represents a spiritual weapon that a man or woman possesses to fight valiantly against evil and for holiness in every aspect of his or her life. The rosary is a call to holiness.