My wife and I begin our Confirmation class for St. Benedict’s Parish in Atchison, Kansas, by giving the students an overview of salvation history using a drawing.
“And here,” I said last fall, pointing to the pit of flames on the white board. “Here you have H. E. double-hockey-sticks.”
In part I was trying to be funny — but in part I was afraid to say the word “hell.”
A student put me in my place. “Mr. Hoopes?” he said, “My mom says hell is a real place, and it’s the devil who doesn’t want us to say its name.”
Ouch. He’s right. And on July 13, 1917 — 100 years ago — we found out who doesn’t avoid talking about it. Our Lady.
That was the day that the shepherd children had a vision of hell that frightened them so much it changed their lives — and, based on their testimony, kept on changing lives (including mine).
We can learn a lot from how Our Lady of Fatima spoke about hell.
First: Our Lady of Fatima talked about heaven a lot before and after she ever talked about hell.
The Blessed Mother didn’t dive right into hell when she started appearing to the children.
The appearances started a year before Our Lady of Fatima appeared, with visions of a heavenly creature — an angel. Then, when Our Lady first appeared in May, she first talked of heaven — and dazzled the children with her own heavenly brilliance. She even promised to take them there.
Then, months later, she left them with heavenly lessons: She told them in the end her Immaculate Heart would triumph, and she arranged a vision of saints for the children and a miracle of the sun for the people.
We should also spend a lot more time with our children on heaven than on hell.
Second: Next, she taught the children pray for sinners’ salvation before she showed them their damnation.
The vision of hell came in July, but first, in June, Our Lady of Fatima taught the children the Decade Prayer of the Rosary: “O my Jesus, forgive us. Save us from the fire of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need.”
Thus, before she ever went into detail about hell, she had helped them develop a habit of prayer to save souls from it.
If we pray for sinners before we go on about the details of their fate, we transform the focus of the conversation from condemnation to conversion. We give the children a true image of the loving God who wants to save us, not a vindictive God eager to punish us.
Third: When she did show hell to the kids, she put it in context.
Only after all that preparation did the Blessed Mother tell Francisco, Jacinta, and Lucia about hell, in her July appearance.
But look how she did it. This was the famous “Three Secrets of Fatima” appearance. She followed her vision of hell with a prediction of World War II and of attacks on the Church.
In other words, she brought hell up with two other subjects — war and persecution — that show the true evil mankind is capable of.
Then, she told the children she would visit several more times, plenty of opportunity to comfort and correct the children on the heavy subject of hell.
If we do what Our Lady of Fatima did, we can expect our children to learn what the Fatima children learned.
St. John Paul said: “Jacinta had been so deeply moved by the vision of hell during the apparition of July 13 that no mortification or penance seemed too great to save sinners.”
St. Lucia would later write: “Hell is a reality. It is a supernatural fire and not physical. … Continue preaching about hell because Our Lord himself spoke about hell, and it is in Sacred Scripture. God does not condemn anyone to hell. God gave men the liberty to choose, and God respects this human liberty.”
The Fatima Family Handbook I wrote for Holy Heroes uses the story of Fatima and the teaching of the Church to put hell and the other teachings of Fatima in context.
Our Lady of Fatima took children seriously. She trusted them with hard lessons and they responded by living generously what the booklet calls “The Three Cs of Fatima”: Console Jesus, Convert Sinners, and Commit to Our Lady.
It teaches us to go beyond euphemisms like “H.E. double-hockey-sticks” and help children learn the gigantic power for good their relationship with Jesus Christ offers them.