Purgatory Explained, Part 2, Chapter 35

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Motives for Aiding the Holy Souls – Excellence of the Work – Controversy between Brother Benedict and Brother Bertrand

When we so highly extol the merits of prayer for the dead, we do not in any way infer that other good works must be omitted; for all other works must be exercised according to time, place, and circumstances. The only intention we had in view was to give a correct idea of Mercy towards the dead, and to inspire others with a desire to practice it.

Moreover, the spiritual works of Mercy, which have for object the salvation of souls, are all of equal excellency, and it is only in certain respects that we may place the assistance of the dead above zeal for the conversion of sinners.

It is related in the Chronicles of the Friars Preachers (Cf. Rossign., Merv. I), that a spirited controversy arose between two Religious of that Order, Brother Benedict and Brother Bertrand, on the subject of suffrages for the departed. It was occasioned by the following: Brother Bertrand often celebrated Holy Mass for sinners, and prayed continually for their conversion, imposing upon himself the most severe penances; but he was rarely seen to say Mass in black for the dead. Brother Benedict, who had great devotion towards the souls in Purgatory, having remarked this conduct, asked him why he thus acted.

“Because,” replied he, “the souls in Purgatory are sure of their salvation, while sinners are continually exposed to the danger of falling into Hell. What more deplorable condition than that of a soul in the state of mortal sin? She is in enmity with God, and bound in the chains of the devil, suspended over the abyss of Hell by the frail thread of life, that may be broken at any moment. The sinner walks in the way of perdition; if he continues to advance, he will fall into the eternal abyss. We must, therefore, come to his assistance, and preserve him from this, the greatest of misfortunes, by laboring for his conversion. Moreover, was it not to save sinners that the Son of God came upon earth and died upon a cross? Saint Denis also assures us that the most divine of all divine things is to work with God for the salvation of souls. As regards the souls in Purgatory, they are safe, their eternal salvation is secure. They suffer, they are a prey to great torments, but they have nothing to fear from Hell, and their sufferings will have an end. The debts they have contracted diminish each day, and they will soon enjoy eternal light; whilst sinners are continually menaced with damnation, the most terrible misfortune that can befall one of God’s creatures.”

“All that you have said is true,” replied Brother Benedict, “but there is another consideration to be made. Sinners are slaves of Satan, of their own free will. Their yoke is of their own choosing, they could break their chains if they pleased; whereas the poor souls in Purgatory can but sigh and implore the assistance of the living. It is impossible for them to break the fetters which hold them captive in those penal flames. Suppose you met two beggars, the one sick, maimed, and helpless, absolutely incapable of earning his livelihood; the other, on the contrary, although in great distress, young and vigorous; which of the two would deserve the greater share of your alms?”

“Assuredly the one who was unable to work,” answered Brother Bertrand.

“Well, my dear Father,” continued Benedict, “this is just the case with regard to sinners and the holy souls. They can no longer help themselves. The time of prayer, Confession, and good works is past for them; we alone are able to relieve them. It is true they have deserved these sufferings in punishment for their sins, but they now bewail and detest those sins. They are in the grace and friendship of God; whereas sinners are His enemies. Certainly we must pray for their conversion, but without prejudice to that which we owe to the suffering souls, so dear to the heart of Jesus. Fet us compassionate sinners, but let us not forget that they have all the means of salvation at their disposal; they must break the bonds of sin and fly the danger of damnation which threatens them. Does it not appear evident that the suffering souls are in greater need and merit a larger share in our charity?”

Notwithstanding the force of these arguments, Brother Bertrand persisted in his first opinion. But the night following he had an apparition of a soul from Purgatory, which made him experience for a short time the pain which she herself endured. This suffering was so atrocious that it seemed impossible to bear it. Then, as Isaias says, torture gave him understanding: Vexatio intellectum dabit (Is. 28:19), and he was convinced that he ought to do more for the suffering souls. The next morning, filled with compassion, he ascended the altar steps vested in black, and offered the Holy Sacrifice for the dead.

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