Purgatory Explained, Part 1, Chapter 23

Pope Innocent IIIArticle

Duration of Purgatory – The Cistercian Abbot and Pope Innocent III – John de Lierre

In the Life of Saint Lutgarda, written by her contemporary, Thomas de Cantimpre, mention is made of a Religious who was otherwise fervent, but who for an excess of zeal was condemned to forty years of Purgatory. This was an Abbot of the Cistercian Order, named Simon, who held Saint Lutgarda in great veneration. The saint, on her part, willingly followed his advice, and in consequence a sort of spiritual friendship was formed between them. But the Abbot was not as mild towards his subordinates as he was towards the saint. Severe with himself, he was also severe in his administration, and carried his exactions in matters of discipline even to harshness, forgetting the lesson of the Divine Master, who teaches us to be meek and humble of heart. Having died, and whilst Saint Lutgarda was fervently praying and imposing penances upon herself for the repose of his soul, he appeared to her, and declared that he was condemned to forty years of Purgatory. Fortunately he had in Lutgarda a generous and powerful friend. She redoubled her prayers and austerities, and having received from God the assurance that the departed soul should soon be delivered, the charitable saint replied, “I will not cease to weep; I will not cease to importune Your Mercy until I see him freed from his pains.”

Since I am mentioning Saint Lutgarda, ought I to speak of the celebrated apparition of Pope Innocent III? I acknowledge the perusal of this incident shocked me, and I would fain pass it over in silence. I was reluctant to think that a Pope, and such a Pope, had been condemned to so long and terrible a Purgatory. We know that Innocent III, who presided at the celebrated Council of Lateran in 1215, was one of the greatest Pontiffs who ever filled the chair of Saint Peter. His piety and zeal led him to accomplish great things from the Church of God and holy discipline. How, then, admit that such a man was judged with so great severity at the Supreme Tribunal? How reconcile this revelation of Saint Lutgarda with Divine Mercy? I wished, therefore, to treat it as an illusion, and sought for reasons in support of this idea. But I found, on the contrary, that the reality of this apparition is admitted by the gravest authors, and that it is not rejected by any single one. Moreover, the biographer, Thomas de Cantimpre, is very explicit, and at the same time very reserved. “Remark, reader,” he writes at the end of his narrative, “that it was from the mouth of the pious Lutgarda herself that I heard of the faults revealed by the defunct, and which I omit here through respect for so great a Pope.”

Aside from this, considering the event in itself, can we find any good reason for calling it into question? Do we not know that God makes no exception of persons – that the Popes appear before His tribunal like the humblest of the faithful – that all the great and the lowly are equal before Him, and that each one receives according to his works? Do we not know that those who govern others have a great responsibility, and will have to render a severe account? Judicium durissimum his qui praesunt fiet – “A most severe judgment shall be for them that bear rule.” (Ms. 6:6). It is the Holy Ghost that declares it. Now, Innocent III reigned for eighteen years, and during most turbulent times; and, add the Bollandists, is it not written that the judgments of God are inscrutable, and often very different from the judgments of men? Judicia tua abyssus multa. (Psalm 35:7)

The reality of this apparition cannot, then, be reasonably called in question. I see no reason for omitting it, since God does not reveal mysteries of this nature for any other purpose than that they should be made known for the edification of His Church.

Pope Innocent III died 16 July 1216. The same day he appeared to Saint Lutgarda in her monastery at Aywieres, in Brabant. Surprised to see a specter enveloped in flames, she asked who he was and what he wanted. “I am Pope Innocent,” he replied. “Is it possible that you, our common Father, should be in such a state?” “It is but too true. I am expiating three faults which might have caused my eternal perdition. Thanks to the Blessed Virgin Mary, I have obtained pardon for them, but I have to make atonement. Alas! it is terrible; and it will last for centuries if you do not come to my assistance. In the name of Mary, who has obtained for me the favor of appealing to you, help me.” With these words he disappeared. Lutgarda announced the Pope’s death to her sisters, and together they betook themselves to prayer and penitential works in behalf of the august and venerated Pontiff, whose demise was communicated to them some weeks later from another source.

Let us add here a more consoling fact, which we find in the life of the same saint. A celebrated preacher, named John de Lierre, was a man of great piety and well known to our saint. He had made a contract with her, by which they mutually promised that the one who should die first, with the permission of God, should appear to the other. John was the first to depart this life. Having undertaken a journey to Rome for the arrangement of certain affairs in the interest of the Religious, he met his death among the Alps. Faithful to his promise, he appeared to Lutgarda in the celebrated cloister of Aywieres, On seeing him, the saint had not the slightest idea that he was dead, and invited him, according to the Rule, to enter the parlor that she might converse with him. “I am no more of this world,” he replied, “and I come here only in fulfillment of my promise.” At these words Lutgarda fell on her knees and remained for some time quite confounded. Then, raising her eyes to her blessed friend, “Why,” said she, “are you clothed in such splendor? What does this triple robe signify with which I see you adorned?” “The white garment,” he replied, “signifies virginal purity, which I have always preserved; the red tunic implies the labors and sufferings which have prematurely exhausted my strength; and the blue mantle, which covers all, denotes the perfection of the spiritual life.” Having said these words, he suddenly left Lutgarda, who remained divided between regret for having lost so good a Father, and the joy she experienced on account of his happiness.

Saint Vincent Ferrer, the celebrated wonder worker of the Order of Saint Dominic, who preached with so much eloquence the great truth of the Judgment of God, had a sister who remained unmoved either by the words or example of her saintly brother. She was full of the spirit of the world, intoxicated with its pleasures, and walked with rapid strides towards her eternal ruin. Meanwhile, the saint prayed for her conversion, and his prayer was finally answered. The unfortunate sinner fell mortally sick; and, at the moment of death, entering into herself, she made her confession with sincere repentance.

Some days after her death, whilst her brother was celebrating the Holy Sacrifice, she appeared to him in the midst of flames and a prey to the most intolerable torments. “Alas! my dear brother,” said she, “I am condemned to undergo these torments until the day of the Last Judgment. Nevertheless, you can assist me. The efficacy of the Holy Sacrifice is so great: offer for me about thirty Masses, and I may hope the happiest result.” The saint hastened to accede to her request. He celebrated the thirty Masses, and on the thirtieth day his sister again appeared to him surrounded by angels and soaring to Heaven. Thanks to the virtue of the Divine Sacrifice, an expiation of several centuries was reduced to thirty days.

This example shows us at once the duration of the pains which a soul may incur, and the powerful effect of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, when God is pleased to apply it to a soul. But this application, like all other suffrages, does not always take place, at least not always in the same plenitude.

MLA Citation