Purgatory Explained, Part 2, Chapter 40

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Motives for Assisting the Holy Souls – Obligation not only of Charity, but also of Justice – Pious Legacies – Father Rossignoli and the Devastated Property – Thomas of Cantimpre and the Soldier of Charlemagne

We have just considered devotion to the souls in Purgatory as a work of Charity. Prayer for the dead, we have said, is a holy work, because it is a very salutary exercise of that most excellent of virtues, Charity. This Charity towards the departed is not only optional and of counsel, but it is also of precept, no less than to give alms to the poor. As there exists a general obligation of Charity for almsgiving, with how much greater reason are we not bound by the general law of Charity to assist our suffering brethren in Purgatory?

This obligation of Charity is often joined to an obligation of strict Justice. When a dying person, either by word of mouth or by written testament, expresses his last wishes in regard to works of piety; when he charges his heirs to have a certain number of Masses celebrated, to distribute a certain sum in alms, for any good work what so ever, the heirs are obliged in strict justice, from the moment they come into possession of the property, to fulfill without delay the last wishes of the deceased.

This duty of Justice is the more sacred as these pious legacies are frequently but disguised restitutions. Now, what does daily experience teach us? Do people hasten with religious exactitude to acquit themselves of these pious obligations which concern the soul of the departed? Alas! quite the contrary. A family which comes into possession of a considerable fortune doles out to its poor departed relative the few suffrages that he has reserved for his own spiritual benefit; and if the subtilities of the civil law favor them, the members of this family are not ashamed, under the pretext of some informality, to fraudulently set aside the will in order to rid themselves of the obligation of making those pious legacies. It is not in vain that the author of the Imitation counsels us to make satisfaction for our sins during our life and not to depend too much upon our heirs, who often neglect to execute the pious endowments made by us for the relief of our poor souls.

Let such families beware! This is sacrilegious injustice combined with atrocious cruelty. To steal from a poor person, says the Fourth Council of Carthage, is to become his murderer. (Egentium necatores). What, then, shall we say of those who rob the dead, who unjustly deprive them of their suffrages, and leave them without assistance in the terrible torments of Purgatory?

Moreover, those who render themselves guilty of this infamous theft are frequently most severely punished by God even in this life. We are sometimes astonished to see a considerable for tune melt away, as it were, in the hands of certain heirs; a sort of malediction seems to hover over certain inheritances. In the Day of Judgment, when that which is now hidden shall be made manifest, we shall see that the cause of this ruin has frequently been the avarice and injustice of the heirs, who neglected the obligations imposed upon them in regard to pious bequests when they succeeded to the property.

It happened in Milan, says Father Rossignoli, that a magnificent estate, situated a short distance from the city, was completely devastated by hail, whilst the neighboring fields remained uninjured. This phenomenon attracted attention and astonishment; it reminded one of the plagues of Egypt. The hail ravaged the fields of the Egyptians and respected the land of Gessen, inhabited by the children of Israel. This was looked upon as a similar scourge. The mysterious hail could not have confined itself exclusively within the limits of one property without obeying an intelligent cause. People knew not how to explain this phenomenon, when an apparition of a soul from Purgatory revealed that it was a chastisement inflicted upon ungrateful and culpable children, who had neglected to execute the last will of their departed father relative to certain works of piety.

We know that in all countries and in all places there are spoken of haunted houses, rendered uninhabitable, to the great loss of their proprietors. Now, if we try to fathom the cause of this, we shall generally find that a soul forgotten by its relatives returns to claim the suffrages justly due to it. Whether it be attributed to credulity, to the excitement of imagination, to hallucination, or even to deception, it will ever remain a well-proved fact to teach unfeeling heirs how God punishes such unjust and sacrilegious conduct even in this life.

The following incident, which we borrow from Thomas of Cantimpre (Rossign., Merv., 15), proves clearly how culpable in the sight of God are those heirs who defraud the dead. During the wars of Charlemagne, a valiant soldier had served in the most important and honorable positions. His life was that of a true Christian. Content with his pay, he refrained from every act of violence, and the tumult of the camp never prevented him from the fulfillment of his essential duties, although in matters of minor importance he had been guilty of many little faults common to men of his profession. Having reached a very advanced age, he fell ill; and seeing that his last hour had come, he called to his bedside an orphan nephew, to whom he had been a father, and expressed to him his dying wishes. “My son,” he said, “you know that I have no riches to bequeath to you: I have nothing but my weapons and my horse. My weapons are for you. As to my horse, sell it when I shall have rendered my soul to God, and distribute the money among the priests and the poor, that the former may offer the Holy Sacrifice for me, and the others may assist me by their prayers.” The nephew wept, and promised to execute without delay the last wishes of his dying uncle and benefactor. The old man dying soon after, the nephew took possession of the weapons and led away the horse. It was a very beautiful and valuable animal. Instead of selling it immediately, as he had promised his deceased uncle, he began by using it for short journeys, and as he was well pleased with it, he did not wish to part with it so soon. He deferred under the double pretext that there was nothing that urged the prompt fulfillment of his promise, and that he would await a favorable opportunity to obtain a high price for him. Thus delaying from day to day, from week to week, and from month to month, he ended by stifling the voice of conscience, and forgot the sacred obligation which he had towards the soul of his benefactor.

Six months had elapsed, when one morning the deceased appeared to him addressing him in terms of severe reproach. “Unhappy man,” he said, “thou hast forgotten the soul of thy uncle; thou hast violated the sacred promise which thou didst make at my deathbed. Where are the Masses which thou oughtest to have had offered? Where the alms that thou shouldst have distributed to the poor for the repose of my soul? Because of thy guilty negligence I have suffered unheard-of torments in Purgatory. Finally, God has taken pity on me; today I am to enjoy the company of the blessed in Heaven. But thou, by a just judgment of God, shalt die in a few days, and be subjected to the same tortures which would have remained for me to endure had God not shown mercy to me. Thou shalt suffer for the same length of time that I should have suffered, after which thou shalt commence the expiation of thine own faults.”

A few days later the nephew fell dangerously ill. He immediately called a priest, related to him the vision, and confessed his sins, weeping bitterly. “I shall soon die,” said he, “and I accept death from the hands of God as a chastisement which I have but too well merited.” He expired in sentiments of humble repentance. This was but the least part of the sufferings which had been announced to him in punishment of his injustice; we tremble with horror at the thought of the remaining portion which he was about to undergo in the other life.

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