Purgatory Explained, Author’s Preface

detail of an illustration of Purgatory from the Book of Hours of Queen Bona; c.1527 by Stanisław Samostrzelnik; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Object of the Work – To what Class of Readers it is Addressed – What we are Obliged to Believe, what we may Piously Believe, and what we are at Liberty not to Admit – Visions and Apparitions – Blind Credulity and Exaggerated Incredulity

The Dogma of Purgatory is too much forgotten by the majority of the faithful; the Church Suffering, where they have so many brethren to succor, whither they foresee that they themselves must one day go, seems a strange land to them.

This truly deplorable forgetfulness was a great sorrow to Saint Francis de Sales. “Alas!” said this pious doctor of the Church, “we do not sufficiently remember our dear departed; their memory seems to perish with the sound of the funeral bells.”

The principal causes of this are ignorance and lack of faith; our notions on the subject of Purgatory are too vague, our faith is too feeble.

In order, then, that our ideas may become more distinct and our faith enlivened, we must take a closer view of this life beyond the tomb, this intermediate state of the just souls, not yet worthy to enter the Heavenly Jerusalem.

This is the object of the present work: we propose not to prove the existence of Purgatory to skeptical minds, but to make it better known to the pious faithful who believe with a divine faith this dogma revealed of God. It is to them, properly speaking, that this book is addressed, to give them a less confused idea of Purgatory. I say purposely a clearer idea than people generally have, by placing this great truth in the strongest possible light.

To produce this effect we possess three very distinct sources of light: first, the dogmatic doctrine of the Church; then the doctrine as explained by the doctors of the Church; in the third place, the revelations and apparitions of the saints, which serve to confirm the teachings of the doctors.

1. The dogmatic doctrine of the Church on the subject of Purgatory comprises two articles, of which we shall speak later on. These two articles are of faith, and must be believed by every Catholic.

2. The teaching of the doctors and theologians, or rather their opinions on several questions relative to Purgatory, and their explanations of them, are not imposed as articles of faith; we are free to reject them without ceasing to be Catholic. Nevertheless, it would be imprudent, and even rash, to reject them, and it is the spirit of the Church to follow the opinions commonly held by the doctors.

3. The revelations of the saints, called also particular revelations, do not belong to the deposit of faith confided by Jesus Christ to His Church; they are historical facts, based upon human testimony. It is permitted to believe them, and piety finds wholesome food in them. We may, however, disbelieve them without sinning against faith; but they are authenticated, and we cannot reject them without offending against reason; because sound reason demands that all men should give assent to truth when it is sufficiently demonstrated.

To illustrate this subject more clearly, let us, in the first place, explain the nature of the revelations of which we speak.

Particular revelations are of two kinds: the one consists in visions, the other in apparitions. They are called particular, because they differ from those found in Holy Scripture, not forming part of the doctrine revealed for mankind, and not being proposed by the Church to our belief as dogmas of faith.

Visions, properly so called, are subjective lights, infused by God into the understanding of His creatures, in order to discover to them His mysteries. Such are the visions of the prophets, those of Saint Paul, of Saint Bridget, and many other saints. These visions usually take place when the subject is in a state of ecstasy; they consist in certain mysterious representations, which appear to the eyes of the soul, and which must not always be taken literally. Frequently they are figures, symbolic images, which represent in a manner proportionate to the capacity of our understanding, things purely spiritual, of which ordinary language is incapable of conveying an idea.

Apparitions, at least frequently, are objective phenomena which have a real exterior object. Such was the apparition of Moses and Elias on Mount Thabor; that of Samuel evoked by the Witch of Endor; that of the Angel Raphael to Tobias; those of many other angels; in fine, such are the apparitions of the souls in Purgatory.

That the spirits of the dead sometimes appear to the living is a fact that cannot be denied. Does not the Gospel clearly suppose it? When the risen Jesus appeared for the first time to His assembled apostles, they supposed they saw a spirit. Our Saviour, far from saying that spirits appear not, spoke to them thus: Why are you troubled, and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; handle and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones, as you see Me to have. {Luke 24:37, etc.).

Apparitions of the souls that are in Purgatory are of frequent occurrence. We find them in great numbers in the “Lives of the Saints”; they happen sometimes to the ordinary faithful. We have collected those which appear best qualified to in struct or to edify, and we now present them to the reader. But, it may be asked, are all these facts historically certain? We have selected the best authenticated. If, among the number, the reader finds any which he thinks could not stand the rigor of criticism, he need not admit them In order to avoid an excessive severity, one which is akin to incredulity, it is good to remark that, generally speaking, apparitions of souls occur, and that they frequently occur cannot be doubted. “Apparitions of this kind,” says the Abbe Ribet, “are not uncommon. God permits them for the relief of souls in order to excite our compassion, and also to make us sensible of how terrible are the rigors of His Justice against those faults which we consider trivial.” (La Mystique Divine, distinguee des Contrefaqons Diaboliques et des Analogies Humaines. Paris, Poussielgue). Saint Gregory in his Dialogues cites several examples, of which, it is true, we may dispute the full authenticity; but which, in the mouth of this holy doctor, prove at least that he believed in the possibility of the existence of these phenomena. A great number of other authors, not less reliable than Saint Gregory, both on account of sanctity and learning, relate similar instances. Moreover, incidents of this sort abound in the lives of the saints. To be convinced of this, it suffices to peruse the Acta Sanctorum.

The Church Suffering has ever implored the suffrages of the Church Militant; and this intercourse, bearing the inpress of sadness, yet also full of instruction, is for the one a source of inexhaustible relief, and for the other a powerful incitement to sanctity.

The vision of Purgatory has been granted to many holy souls. Saint Catherine de Ricci descended in spirit into Purgatory every Sunday night; Saint Lidwina, during her raptures, penetrated into this place of expiation, and, conducted by her angel guardian, visited the souls in their torments. In like manner, an angel led Blessed Osanne of Mantua through this dismal abyss.

Blessed Veronica of Binasco, Saint Frances of Rome, and many others had visions exactly similar, with impressions of terror.

More frequently it is the souls themselves that appear to the living and implore their intercession. Many appeared in this manner to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque, and to a great number of other holy persons. The souls departed frequently besought the intercession of Denis the Carthusian. This great servant of God was one day asked how many times the holy souls appeared to him “Oh! hundreds of times,” he replied.

Saint Catherine of Siena, in order to spare her father the pains of Purgatory, offered herself to the Divine Justice to suffer in his stead during her whole life. God accepted her offer, inflicted the most excruciating torments upon her, which lasted until her death, and admitted the soul of her father into eternal glory. In return this blessed soul frequently appeared to his daughter to thank her, and to make to her many useful revelations.

When the souls in Purgatory appear to the living, they always present themselves in an attitude which excites compassion; now with the features which they had during life or at their death, with a sad countenance and imploring looks, in garments of mourning, with an expression of extreme suffering; then like a mist, a light, a shadow, or some kind of fantastic figure, accompanied by a sign or word by which they may be recognized. At other times they betray their presence by moans, sobs, sighs, or hurried respiration and plaintive accents. They often appear enveloped in flames. When they speak, it is to manifest their sufferings, to deplore their past faults, to ask suffrages, or even to address reproaches to those who ought to succor them Another kind of revelation, adds the same author, is made by invisible blows which the living receive, by the violent shutting of doors, the rattling of chains, and the sounds of voices.

These facts are too multiplied to admit of doubt; the only difficulty is to establish their connection with the world of expiation. But when these manifestations coincide with the death of persons dear to us, when they cease after prayers and reparations have been made to God in their behalf, is it not reasonable to see therein signs by which the souls make known their distress?

In the various phenomena to which we have just drawn attention we recognize the souls in Purgatory. But there is a case when the apparition should be held in suspicion; it is when a notorious sinner, unexpectedly carried away by a sudden death, comes to implore the prayers of the living that he may be delivered from Purgatory. The devil is interested in making us believe that we can live in the greatest disorders until the moment of our death and yet escape Hell. However, even in such instances, it is not forbidden to think that the soul which appears has repented, and that it is in the temporary flames of expiation; nor, consequently, is it forbidden to pray for it, but it is proper to observe the greatest caution in regard to visions of this kind, and the credit which we give to them.

The details into which we have entered suffice to justify in the eyes of the reader the quotation of facts which he will find in the course of this work.

Let us add that the Christian must guard against too great incredulity in supernatural facts connected with dogmas of faith. Saint Paul tells us that Charity believes all things (1 Corinthians 13:7), that is to say, as interpreters explain it, all that which we may prudently believe, and of which the belief will not be prejudicial. If it is true that prudence rejects a blind and superstitious credulity, it is also true that we must avoid another extreme, that with which our Saviour reproached the Apostle Saint Thomas. You believe, He said to him, because you have seen and touched; it were better to have believed the testimony of your brethren. In exacting more, you have been guilty of incredulity; this is a fault that all My disciples should avoid. Blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed. Be not faithless, but believing. (John 20:27,29).

The theologian who expounds dogmas of faith must be severe in the choice of his proofs; the historian must proceed with rigorous circumspection in the narration of facts, but the ascetic writer, who cites examples to illustrate truths and edify the faithful, is not held to this strict rigor. The best authorized persons in the Church, such as Saint Gregory, Saint Bernard, Saint Francis de Sales, Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Bellarmine, and many others, as much distinguished for their learning as for their piety, when writing their excellent works knew nothing of the fastidious requirements of the present day – requirements which in nowise constitute progress.

In fact, if the spirit of our fathers in the faith was more simple, what is the cause of the disappearance of that ancient simplicity in the present time? Is it not the Protestant Rationalism with which, in our day, so many of our Catholics are infected? Is it not the spirit of reasoning and criticism that emanated from the Lutheran Reformation, propagated by French Philosophism, which, leading them to consider the things of God from a purely human point of view, makes them cold, and alienates them from the Spirit of God? The Venerable Louis of Blois, speaking of the Revelations of Saint Gertrude, says: “This book contains treasures. Proud and carnal men,” he adds, “who understand nothing of the Spirit of God, treat as reveries the writings of the holy virgin Gertrude, of Saint Mechtilde, Saint Hildegarde, and others; it is because they are ignorant of the familiarity with which God communicates Himself to humble, simple, and loving souls, and how in these intimate communications He is pleased to illumine these souls with the pure light of truth, without any shadow of error.” (Louis of Blois, Epist. ad Florentium).

These words of Louis of Blois are serious. We did not wish to incur the reproach of this great master in the spiritual life, and, whilst avoiding a blameworthy credulity, we have collected with a certain kind of liberty those which seem to us at once the best authenticated and the most instructive. May they increase in those who read them devotion towards the faithful departed. May they profoundly inspire all who read them with a holy and salutary fear of Purgatory.

Note: It is from the lives of the saints, honored as such by the Church, and other illustrious servants of God, that we have taken the greater part of the examples herein cited. The reader who wishes to investigate these facts, in order to give them their just value, may without difficulty have recourse to the originals by the aid of our references. If the incident is drawn from the life of a saint, we indicate the day on which his name is entered in the martyrology, which is sufficient for consulting the Acta Sanctorum. If we mention any venerable personage, such as Father Joseph Anchieta, Apostle and Thaumaturgus of Brazil, whose life is not inserted in the volumes of the Bollandists, they must then have recourse to biographies and particular histories. For the examples borrowed from Father Rossignoli, Merveilles Divine dans les Ames du Purgatoire (trans. Postel; Toumai, Castennan), we content ourselves by marking the number of the Merveille. because the author has there indicated one or more sources whence he himself has drawn.