Purgatory Explained, Part 2, Chapter 41

detail from 'Saint Bernardino' by El Greco, 1603, oil on canvas, Museo del Greco, Toledo, SpainArticle

Motives of Justice – Saint Bernardine of Siena and the Unfaithful Widow – Disguised Restitutions – Neglect to Execute the Last Will

Saint Bernardine relates that a married couple having no children made a contract that in case one should die before the other, the one who survived was to distribute the property left by the other, for the repose of the soul of the deceased. The husband died first and his widow neglected to fulfill her promise. The mother of the widow was still living, and the deceased appeared to her, begging her to go to her daughter and urge her in the name of God to fulfill her engagement. “If she delays,” he said, “to distribute in alms the sum which I have destined for the poor, tell her on the part of God that in thirty days she will be struck by a sudden death.” When the impious widow heard this solemn warning, she had the audacity to treat it as a dream, and persisted in her sacrilegious infidelity to her promise. Thirty days passed and the unfortunate woman having gone to an upper room in the house, fell through the window and was killed on the spot.

Injustice towards the dead, of which we have just spoken, and fraudulent maneuvers to escape the obligation of executing their pious legacies, are grievous sins, crimes which merit the eternal punishment of Hell. Unless a sincere Confession and at the same time due restitution be made, this sin will meet its chastisement not in Purgatory but in Hell.

Alas! yes, it is especially in the other life that Divine Justice will punish the guilty usurpers of the property of the dead. Judgment without mercy to him that hath not done mercy, says the Holy Ghost. (James 2:13). If these words be true, how rigorous a judgment awaits those whose detestable avarice has left the soul of a parent, a benefactor, for months, years, perhaps even for centuries, in the frightful torments of Purgatory. This crime, as we have said above, is the more grievous, because in many cases these suffrages which the deceased asks for his soul are but disguised restitutions. This fact is in some families but too often overlooked. People find it very convenient to speak of intrigue and clerical avarice. The finest pretexts are made use of to invalidate a last will and testament, which often, perhaps in the majority of cases, involves a necessary restitution. The priest is but a medium in this indispensable act, bound to absolute secrecy by virtue of his sacramental ministry.

Let us explain this more clearly. A dying man has been guilty of some injustice during his life. This is of a more frequent occurrence than we imagine, even in regard to men who are most upright in the eyes of the world. At the moment when he is about to appear before God, this sinner makes his Confession; he wishes to make a full reparation, as he is bound to do, of all the injury which he has caused his neighbor, but he has not the time left to do so himself, and is not willing to reveal the sad secret to his children. What does he do? He covers his restitution under the veil of a pious legacy.

Now, if this legacy is not paid, and consequently the injustice not repaired, what will become of the soul of the deceased? Will it be detained for an indefinite length of time in Purgatory? We know not all the laws of Divine Justice, but numerous apparitions serve to give us some idea of them, since they “all declare that they cannot be admitted into eternal beatitude so long as any part of the debt of Justice remains to be cancelled.” Moreover, are not these souls culpable for having deferred until their death the payment of a debt of Justice which they had owed for so long a time? And if now their heirs neglect to discharge it for them, is it not a deplorable consequence of their own sin, of their own guilty delay? It is through their fault that these ill-gotten goods remain in the family, and they will not cease to cry out against them as long as restitution be not made. Res clamat domino, property cries out for its lawful owner; it cries out against its unjust possessor.

If, through the malice of the heirs, restitution is never made, it is evident that that soul cannot remain in Purgatory forever; but in this case a long delay to his entrance into Heaven seems to be a fitting chastisement for an act of injustice, which the soul has retracted, it is true, but which still abides in its efficacious cause. Let us therefore think of these grave consequences when we allow days, weeks, months, and perhaps even years to elapse before discharging so sacred a debt.

Alas! how feeble is our faith! If a domestic animal, a little dog, falls into the fire, do you delay to draw it out? And see, your parents, benefactors, persons most dear to you, writhe in the flames of Purgatory, and you do not consider it your urgent duty to relieve them; you delay, you allow long days of suffering to pass for those poor souls, without making an effort to perform those good works which will release them from their pains.

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