Anyone who prays the Rosary and anyone who is familiar with the story of Our Lady of Fatima, will recognise this short prayer –

‘O Jesus, forgive us our sins, saves us from the fires of hell, 
and lead all souls to Heaven – especially those in most need.’

This short invocation has become part of the Rosary now, having been given by the Blessed Virgin Mary to the three children at Fatima on 13th July 1917. These words came towards the conclusion of the Appearance that day. This particular Appearance had been very much about the fate of souls in eternity, and the Blessed Virgin had just shown the children a vision of Hell.

This is an interesting point, considering the present-day increasingly common denial of this reality. Hell is something we don’t wish to think about; we prefer, instead, to focus on the present moment. In some ways, this is easy to understand since we live in time – it is far harder to contemplate eternity, as we have no direct experience of it. Some will deny that a loving God can consign souls to Hell for all eternity; the reality, of course, is a little different. God consigns no-one to Hell; it is something freely chosen by the soul as the result of the way we live. Remember, God forces no-one to believe in Him, nor to love Him – He gives each soul free choice and He respects our choices made in life. But every decision has a consequence.

The Catholic Church speaks and teaches of the reality of Hell. The Catechism also reminds us that the Lord Himself speaks on various occasions in the Gospels of the reality of Hell.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we read this –

“The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire’.. The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.. 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: ‘Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few’.. God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want ‘any to perish, but all to come to repentance’.”

– ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’, n.1035-1037

But if there is no Hell, why would the Blessed Virgin show a vision of it to the children? Why speak of the reality of it? And why offer a means of avoiding something that does not exist? That means was devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary; and part of that devotion is to pray – for ourselves and for others, particularly sinners. In other words, the Mother of God was focussing our attention on a particular spiritual work of mercy – “to pray for the living and the dead”.

In giving this little invocation to the children – and, by extension, all of us, since the message of Fatima is for all, not simply for the seers – the Mother of God has given us a short and very simple means of offering a prayer both of petition for ourselves and of intercession for souls in need. In the Appearance which took place one month later, on 13th August 1917, the Lady would tell the children that ‘many souls go to Hell because there are none to pray and make sacrifices for them’. She constantly reminded them of the need for prayer offered on behalf of souls, the Rosary being the means par excellence of doing so. Giving them this little prayer to be prayed at the end of every decade was a practical and very effective way of doing this.

Clearly, this simple motherly touch has been effective, as She intended. Now, it would be unusual not to hear this little prayer offered after the decades of the Rosary.

This little prayer, brim-full of mercy, turns our minds and our hearts back to the reality of Hell; but it also reminds us that God is Mercy, that He will offer us every means to choose eternal life in His company, rather than the fires of Hell. It reminds us, too, of the Gospel call to charity – in this instance, to pray for the living and the dead, those close to us and those we will never know in this life, that they, too, may respond to the grace of God and choose Heaven over Hell.