HELL, PRAYER AND CONVERSION — That politically incorrect, but evangelical, message from Fatima


Vittorio Messori

Apparitions seem to resemble one other, always having an appeal to prayer and penance at the center but, at the same time, are different from each other in the emphasis on a particular aspect of faith. The aura that surrounds Lourdes is calm, so much so that it has been noticed that in no other occasion has Mary smiled so much, having even laughed on three occasions. Bernadette said, “She laughed like a little girl.” And that little saint did not know that this would have induced the austere inquisitors of the commission who doubted if she could be trusted to become even more suspicious. “Our Lady laughs! Come on, a little respect for the Queen of Heaven!” In the end, they had to accept the fact: it was just like that. Of course, let’s not forget that the One who in the cave will say that She was the Immaculate Conception will also take on a very serious attitude, repeating appeals to penance and prayer for themselves and for sinners. But there is an air of serenity, the lack of threats of punishment, which is perhaps one of the most attractive aspects that attract to the Pyrenees the crowds we know.

Mercy and Justice

The atmosphere of Fatima, on the other hand, seems particularly eschatological, apocalyptic. Though with a finale that comforts and reassures. It is evident that the main reason for the Portuguese apparition is to call men to the tremendous seriousness of a worldly life that is nothing more than a brief preparation for true life, an eternity that can be of joy but also of tragedy. It is a reminder of the mercy and, at the same time, the justice of God.

Today’s unilateral insistence on mercy merely forgets the et-et that presides over Catholicism and which, here, sees in God the loving Father who awaits us with wide open arms and, at the same time, the judge who will weigh on his infallible balance the good and bad. There is a paradise waiting for us, yes, but we need to earn it, spending in the best way the little or great talents we have been entrusted with. The Catholic God is certainly not the sadistic one of Calvinism who, in his unfathomable whim, divides mankind into two: those who are predestined to heaven and those who are ab aeterno awaited in hell. […] It is thus, says Calvin, that He manifests the glory of His power. No, the Catholic God has nothing to do with such deformities. But he is not even the good natured permissivist, the tolerant uncle whom all accept and everyone likewise welcomes, the God of referred by the laxity of Jesuit theologians who were condemned by the Church, and against whom Blaise Pascal launched his indignant Lettres provinciales.

Even if it sounds unpleasant in the ears of a certain present “do-goodery,” so insidious for the spiritual life, Christ proposes to our freedom a definitive choice for the whole eternity: salvation or damnation. So you can also expect that we may go to that hell that we’ve removed, but at the cost of removing even the clear, repeated warnings of the Gospel. In it there is the moving invitation of Jesus: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily laden, and I will give you rest.” And many others are the words and gestures of his tenderness. Yet, like or not, there is much more to the Gospels. There is a God who is infinitely good and even infinitely righteous, and to whose eyes, therefore, an impenitent scoundrel is not equivalent to a believer in Him who has endeavored, even with the limits and falls of every human being, to take the Gospel seriously. […]


Hell is not an invention

In that fundamental text of the Church’s teaching that is the Catechism, the one wholly renewed, prepared thanks to the will of Saint John Paul II and under the direction of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (a text that has incorporated the spirit of Vatican II) the authors warn: “The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion” (1036). It is precisely these appeals (to responsibility and conversion) which are at the heart of Fatima’s message and make it more urgent and more urgent than ever: certainly more than when Mary appeared at Cova da Iria.

For decades now, in Catholic preaching, the Novissimi (“last things”) as theology calls them, have disappeared: death, judgment, hell, paradise. A clerical reticence that has removed, in fact, neglected, the old, salutary statement that has saved many generations of believers: the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. In the history of the saints, this awareness of a possible eternal failure has constituted a constant steep for the serious practice of the virtues. They knew that the existence of hell is not a sign of divine cruelty, but of radical respect: respect of the Creator for the freedom granted to his creatures, to the point of allowing them to choose the definitive separation.

Both in theology and in today’s pastoral work the proper announcement of mercy is not equally united to the desirable announcement of justice. But if in God all infinite virtues coexist, can there be a lack in that virtue of justice that the Church – inspired by the Holy Spirit, but also following common sense – has placed among the cardinals virtues? There are also theologians, even respected and known, who would want to amputate an essential part of Scripture by removing what annoys those who want to portrait themselves as more generous and good-natured than God. They say therefore, “Hell does not exist. But if it exists, it is empty.”

Too bad that the Virgin Mary is not of this opinion … It is true that the Church has always affirmed the certain salvation of some of her children, proclaiming them blessed and holy. And the Church herself has never wanted to proclaim the damnation of any one, leaving correctly to God the last judgment. But the ones who would say that hell could exist but that would be empty, would deserve this answer: “Empty? But that does not rule out the terrible possibility that you and I will inaugurate it.” Someone else has suggested that damnation is only temporary, not eternal; but this also clashes with the plain words of Christ, which speaks countless times of endless punishment. Therefore, it has not been difficult to reject such a possibility from various Councils, without any support in Scripture. […]


Under her mantle

But let us return to the last lines of the account of the witness Lucia, after seeing the terrible fate of unrepentant sinners: “We looked up to Our Lady, who said with goodness and sorrow: ‘You have seen the hell where the souls of the poor sinners fall. To save them, God wants to establish devotion to my Immaculate Heart in the world. If they do what I will tell you, many souls will be saved.’” Here it is, then, the consoling all Christian touch, even Catholic […]. The truth requires that men remember the seriousness of the risk they run when they forget the Gospel. But the mercy of Heaven is immediately ready to propose a remedy: take refuge in under her mantle, the mantle of Mary, trust in her Immaculate Heart, open to anyone who asks her motherly intercession. […]

The growing burden of sin is severe, but remedies are indicated and, above all, the One who has appeared, has reserved for us a happy end with the words that are rightly famous and source of hope for believers. In fact, after prophesying the many tribulations of the future, Mary announces, in the name of the Son: “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.” Therefore personal salvation is possible – and is supported by Heaven itself – even in the overflow of iniquity. But we can also hope for the conversion of the world in an unspecified future that God only knows, trusting in the heart of the Mother of Christ, a powerful advocate of the cause of mankind.

What do the apparitions serve? […] Fatima is among the greatest answers for a world that has increasingly forgotten, and even more forgets today, the true meaning of life on earth and its continuation in eternity. Fatima is a “hard” message that, in today’s language, we would say “politically incorrect”: that is why it is evangelical in its revelation of the truth and its rejection of hypocrisy, euphemisms, and removals. But, as always in what is truly Catholic, where all the opposites live in a vital synthesis, “hardness” coexists with tenderness, righteousness with mercy, threat with hope. So the warning that comes from Portugal is, at the same time, disturbing and comforting.

(Extracts from the preface to Vincenzo Sansonetti’s book: Inchiesta su Fatima. 2017©AP. Used with permission)

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