What was happening to the three children during the apparitions at Fatima? The people surrounding the children knew that they were apparently seeing a mysterious lady enveloped in light during the visions but were not aware of the secrets that Lucia would reveal later in her memoirs.
There would famously be three secrets, the first of which consisted in the vision of Hell. Now, these are secrets in so much as they are messages from the Blessed Virgin that were not revealed at the time of the apparitions, but much later through the memoirs of Lucia. While the two younger children passed away due to the influenza epidemic of 1918, Lucia lived on and became a religious sister in the Order of Carmelites.
The reality of Hell has been affirmed throughout all of history. Jesus Christ spoke clearly, indicating the reality of Hell. Church Fathers re-affirmed the reality of Hell: great men like Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr and Cyril of Jerusalem. The Council of Trent left no doubt of the reality of Hell. Even after the Reformation, all Christian denominations maintained the reality of Hell.
But much changed with the Enlightenment. What had been merely accepted came to be questioned by some philosophers. They questioned the possibility of there being real reason for anybody being condemned to Hell. Those denying the existence of God and the afterlife concluded, rather logically, that Hell does not exist. Then there were also the psychological explanations, which reduce Hell to a psychological experience with no real-world consequences.
The modern world experienced by the children of Fatima was a world that had experienced the alleged “death of God.” Nietzsche had famously proclaimed this death. The twentieth century was unfolding in such a way as to justify, for many people, the loss of faith from public life and certainly even from private life. Hell was quickly turning into an academic subject.
Yet the first secret of Fatima is a vision that the children received from the Blessed Virgin during the July apparition. The mysterious lady moved her hand and rays of light streamed out, opening what seemed to be a sea of fire in the ground.
The children saw a powerful, yet brief vision of the suffering of souls in Hell, tormented by terrible demons. The children would never doubt the existence of Hell, since they had seen it.
How different might this world be if there was no doubt about the existence of Hell! It seems that most people go through life, doubtful of the existence of Hell. Because if people allow themselves to fall into the disgrace of mortal sin, this seems a brazen rejection of the doctrine of Hell. For how can somebody commit a mortal sin if he knows he is risking Hell? Such an action would be impossible if one were truly aware of the suffering awaiting those who reject God and turn away from Him forever.
In that same vision of July 1917, Mary entrusted to the small children a prayer to be said at the end of each mystery of the Rosary, praying for all souls to avoid the pains of Hell. Surely, they were well-motivated after the scare of seeing the eternal damnation and punishment that awaits all souls who maintain themselves far away from God. Jacinta was especially touched by the experience of the vision of Hell. She would offer sacrifices, often for poor sinners, and often lamented the fact that many people ended up in Hell. Her vision of Hell had converted her into a prayer warrior set on fighting against Hell.
The first secret is a vision of Hell but is especially related to a crusade against Hell. The three children had a special hope that allowed them to sustain the vision of Hell. In the very first apparition, Mary had promised to take them to Heaven. So, they knew — even as they saw the poor souls suffering the torments of Hell — that they were far beyond the reaches of the Evil One and his army of demons. They would be granted the bliss of Heaven but were still troubled by the state of those poor sinners who would be condemned to Hell.
While the July vision at Fatima is clearly frightening with the revelation of Hell, it is also a message of supreme hope, since the children have already the supreme hope that they themselves will make it to Heaven. The Church ratified this for the two younger children when they were canonized on May 13, 1917, precisely 100 years after the first apparition.
The Church canonizes those Christians who have shown heroic virtue and are models for the rest of us to follow. All the canonized saints are in Heaven, so this gives us the chance to see the truth of the apparitions given by God to the three shepherd-children through the Blessed Virgin Mary.