The prayer reminds us of the reality of hell and the need for humility

Today, 13th October, is the centenary of the final apparition of Our Lady of Fatima to the three little shepherd children, Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta. How appropriate that Stephen Bullivant, with the co-authorship of Luke Arredondo, has written O My Jesus (Paulist Press £9.99), an insightful study of the meaning of the famous Fatima prayer.

Our Lady revealed this short prayer to the children on July 13th 1917, soon after she had given them a terrifying glimpse of hell, directing them to say it after each decade of the Rosary. She had asked for the Rosary to be recited daily, which makes the prayer, as Bullivant observes, the most commonly recited after the Our Father, Hail Mary and the Glory Be. It is a mere 29 words: “O My Jesus/ Forgive us our sins/Save us from the fires of hell/And lead all souls to heaven/Especially those in most need of Thy mercy/Amen.”

Each petition is packed with significance and it is worth meditating on them in detail. Bullivant draws attention to much that we unthinkingly repeat, such as that the opening address “O My Jesus” is highly intimate, one that would have been used by Our Lady herself. Indeed, it was never used by the disciples, which gives a particularly poignant power to the prayer of the Good Thief: “Jesus, Remember me…”

“Forgive us our sins” reminds us that sin is common to us all, and that although we are saved as individuals our own salvation is bound up with charity towards others. As the late Pope John Paul II said, “We are all really responsible for all” or as the poet John Donne wrote, “Any man’s death diminishes me…” The plea speaks to us of our common flawed human nature.

The reference to hell in the next line reminded me of my blog on Monday, drawing attention to the sombre tone of the Old Rite Requiem Mass, in contrast to the New Rite. As Bullivant wryly notes, “Hell” is not popular today, even among Catholics, despite the fact that Jesus mentions it “an awful lot.” As the author points out, the Cure of Ars was known to have spent up to 15 hours a day in the confessional for years on end, solely to help penitents to understand the grave importance of avoiding sin and hell – the logical consequence of a determined, final refusal to kneel in sorrow for sin.

The sentence “Lead all souls to heaven” has led some, following the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, to the speculation of “universalism” – the notion that everyone might be saved. Bullivant tells me that he disagrees with von Balthasar; alluding to St Thomas Aquinas, he writes that “God really does will that all people be saved, even if not all people end up being saved.” How could God not will this? Yet at the same time he respects our free will. We should hope for, but not presume on, salvation, our own as well as others’.

When we pray “Especially those in most need of Thy mercy” we are tempted to believe we are praying for others; but as Bullivant makes clear, it is we who are in “most need”; a reminder of the need for humility.

All in all, the book is well worth pondering, for the implications of this Fatima prayer concern the deepest themes of our faith.