The famous vision of hell underscores the heights of the freedom for which we have been created

At Fatima, Our Lady scared the hell out of the children to whom she appeared. Or more precisely, she frightened the children out of hell and took them instead to heaven. Pope Francis will confirm that on Saturday when he canonises Francisco and Jacinta in Fatima on the centenary of the first apparition on May 13, 1917.

Until the “third secret” of Fatima was revealed during the Great Jubilee of 2000, there was great speculation about what it might mean in terms of predicting the future. When it was released, the Holy See confirmed that the third secret related to events in the past, namely the martyrs of the 20th century and the assassination attempt on St John Paul II in 1981.

It should be remembered, though, that the “secret of Fatima” was really a vision granted to the children and recorded in three parts. The first part of the vision, recorded in the “first secret”, was a revelation of hell, filled with souls in great torment. It made a profound impression on the three of them, such that they greatly intensified their prayers and penances. They were so determined that they were able to resist even the threats of torture and death made by the local authorities.

“Our Lady showed us a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth,” wrote Sister Lucia about the first part of the secret. “Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium, and amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear … How can we ever be grateful enough to our kind heavenly Mother, who had already prepared us by promising, in the first apparition, to take us to heaven. Otherwise, I think we would have died of fear and terror.”

It is the vision of hell that provides the context for the message of Our Lady of Fatima. Her appearance there dealt with great events of history – the world wars, the rise of communism, the triumph of her Immaculate Heart over totalitarian atheism – but more generally Fatima addresses the great mystery of iniquity and providence in history. Fatima thus is fundamentally about freedom, human and divine.

God creates free creatures – angelic and human persons – so that His love might be returned in love. Love is only possible where there is freedom; it cannot be coerced. God creates out of love for the purpose of love, which is why He creates free persons.Evil enters the world when freedom is used not for good, not for God, but for lesser goods, contrary to God’s providential plan. In order for freedom to be real, there must be consequences; freedom takes its value from the consequences.

The greater the consequences at stake, the more important the freedom. That is why hell – the more real and more horrific it is – underscores the heights of the freedom for which we have been created. A cosmos without hell becomes a cosmos of inconsequential freedom.

“The Evil One has power in this world, as we see and experience continually; he has power because our freedom continually lets itself be led away from God,” wrote Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his theological commentary on the third secret. “But since God himself took a human heart and has thus steered human freedom towards what is good, the freedom to choose evil no longer has the last word. From that time forth, the word that prevails is this: In the world you will have tribulation, but take heart; I have overcome the world (John 16:33). The message of Fatima invites us to trust in this promise.”

The fallen world is a world of freedom corrupted. Into this world God Himself enters by the perfect freedom of the Virgin Mary – hence it is through her Immaculate Heart that salvation comes, that heart capable of returning love for love in uncorrupted freedom. The providence of God works through human freedom, above all the freedom of Christ who sets us free for freedom (Galatians 5:1), the freedom of the Blessed Mother, and the freedom of the saints, whether they be little shepherd children like Blessed Francisco and Blessed Jacinta, or the mightiest figures of history, like St John Paul II.

That is why the third secret, with the assassination of the Holy Father, was not a fixed image of future, like a photograph transported back in time. The Lady of Fatima intervened to make God’s providence all the more manifest. God’s freedom remains always in history, His love that moves the sun and the other stars, and can move our freedom too.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium.ca

This article first appeared in the May 12 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here