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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Purgatory Explained, Part 2, Chapter 39

detail of a painting of San Pedro Damiani, 18th century by Andrea Barbiani; currently in the Classense Library, Ravenna, Italy; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Motives and Incentives to Devotion towards the Holy Souls – Examples of Generosity – Saint Peter Damian and his Father – A Young Annamite – The Doorkeeper at the Seminary and the Propagation of the Faith

Examples of generous Charity towards the departed are by no means rare, and it is always useful to recall them to mind. We may not omit the beautiful and touching example of Saint Peter Damian, Bishop of Ostia, Cardinal and Doctor of the Church, an example which never wearies by repetition. Whilst still young, Peter had the misfortune to lose his mother, and soon afterwards his father marrying again, he was left to the care of a stepmother. Although he showed all possible affection for her, this woman was incapable of returning the love of this dear child; she treated him with barbarous severity, and, in order to rid herself of him, sent him away to her eldest brother, who employed him to take care of the swine. His father, whose duty it was to have prevented this, left him to his unhappy fate. But the child lifted up his eyes to Heaven, where he saw another Father, in whom he placed all his confidence. He accepted all that happened as corning from His divine hands, and resigned himself to the hardships of his situation. “God,” he said, “has His designs in all that He does, and they are designs of mercy; we have but to abandon ourselves into His hands, He will direct all things for our good.” Peter was not deceived; it was in this painful trial that the future Cardinal of the Church, he who was to astonish his age by the extent of his learning, and to edify the world by the luster of his virtues, laid the foundation of his future sanctity.

Barely covered with rags, his biographer tells us that he had not always sufficient to appease his hunger, but he prayed to God and was satisfied.

Meanwhile his father died. The young saint forgot the harshness with which he had been treated, and, like a good son, prayed continually for the repose of his father’s soul. One day he found upon the road a gold piece, which Providence seemed to have placed there for him. It was quite a fortune for the poor child. But, instead of making use of it to relieve his own misery, his first thought was to carry it to a priest, and beg him to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the soul of his deceased father. Holy Church considers this trait of filial devotion so touching that she has inserted it at length in the Office of the feast.

“May I be allowed,” says the missionary, Father Louvet, “to add one more incident of my own personal experience? When I was preaching the faith in Cochin-China, a poor little Annamite girl, who had just been baptized, lost her mother. At the age of fourteen she saw herself obliged to provide for her own support and that of her two younger brothers from her scanty earnings, which amounted to about eight sous, or about seven cents a day. What was my surprise when, at the end of the week, I saw her bring me the earnings of two days, that I might say Mass for the repose of their dear mother’s soul. Those poor little ones had fasted during a part of the week to procure this humble suffrage for their departed mother. Oh, holy alms of the poor and the orphan! If my own heart was so deeply touched by it, how much more so the heart of our Heavenly Father, and what blessings it will have called down upon that mother and upon her children.

“Behold the generosity of the poor! What an example and reproach to so many of the rich, extravagant in luxury and pleasure, but miserly when there is question of giving an alms to have Masses celebrated for their deceased relatives.

“Although before all other intentions they should devote part of their alms to have Masses offered for their own souls, or those of their friends, it is proper to use a portion for the relief of the poor, or for other good works, such as for the benefit of Catholic schools, the Propagation of the Faith, and other purposes, according to circumstances. This is a holy liberality, conformable to the spirit of the Church, and very profitable to the souls in Purgatory.”

The Abbe Louvet, from whom we have taken the above, relates another incident which de serves a place here. It concerns a man in humble circumstances who made a generous sacrifice in favor of the Propagation of the Faith, but under circumstances which rendered this act particularly valuable for the future needs of his soul in Purgatory.

A poor porter at a seminary during his long life had, penny by penny, amassed the sum of eight hundred francs, Having no family, he destined this sum for the celebration of Masses after his death. But what can charity not effect when once it has inflamed the heart with its sacred fire? A young priest was on the point of quitting the seminary for the foreign missions. The old man felt himself inspired to give him his little treasure for the beautiful work of the Propagation of the Faith. He therefore gave it and said, “Dear sir, I beg you to accept this small alms to aid you in the work of spreading the Gospel. I kept it to have Masses said after my death, but I would rather remain a little longer in Purgatory that the name of the good God be glorified.” The seminarian was moved even to tears. He would not accept the too generous offer of the poor man, but the latter insisted so earnestly that he had not the heart to refuse him.

A few months later the good old man died. No apparition has revealed his fate in the other world. But is he in need? Do we not know that the Heart of Jesus cannot allow itself to be surpassed in generosity? Do we not understand that a man who was generous enough to consign himself to the flames of Purgatory in order that Jesus Christ might be made known to infidel nations will surely have found abundant mercy before the Sovereign Judge?

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Purgatory Explained, Part 2, Chapter 38

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Motives for Assisting the Holy Souls – Examples of Holy Persons – Father James Laynez – Father Fabricius – Father Nieremberg, a Victim of his Charity

He who forgets his friend, after death has taken him away from his sight, never had a true friendship.” These words Father Laynez, second General of the Society of Jesus, continually repeated to the sons of Saint Ignatius. He desired that the interests of souls should be as dear to them after death as they were during life. Joining example to precept, Laynez applied to the souls in Purgatory a large part of his prayers, sacrifices, and the satisfaction which he merited before God by his labors for the conversion of sinners. The Fathers of the Society, faithful to his lessons of charity, ever manifested particular zeal for this devotion, as may be seen in the book entitled Heroes and Victims of Charity in the Society of Jesus, from which I will here transcribe but one page.

“At Munster, in Westphalia, towards the middle of the seventeenth century, an epidemic broke out which each day swept away innumerable victims. Fear paralyzed the charity of the greater part of the inhabitants, and few were found to devote themselves to the relief of the unfortunate plague-stricken creatures. Then Father John Fabricius, animated with the spirit of Laynez and Ignatius, rushed into the arena of self-sacrifice. Putting aside all personal precaution, he employed his time in visiting the sick, in procuring remedies for them, and in disposing them to die a Christian death. He heard their Confessions, administered the other Sacraments, buried them with his own hands, and finally celebrated the Holy Sacrifice for the repose of their souls.

“In fact, during his whole lifetime this servant of God had the greatest devotion towards the holy souls.

“Among all his exercises of piety, the one most dear to him, and which he always earnestly recommended, was that of offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the departed whenever the Rubrics permitted. As a result of this counsel, all the Fathers in Munster resolved to consecrate one day in each month to the faithful departed; they draped their church in black, and prayed with all solemnity for the dead.

“God deigned, as He often does, to recompense Father Fabricius, and encouraged his zeal by several apparitions of the suffering souls. Some besought him to hasten their deliverance, others thanked him for the relief he had procured for them; others, again, announced to him the happy moment of their deliverance.

“His greatest act of Charity was that which he accomplished at the moment of his death. With a generosity truly admirable, he made a sacrifice of all the suffrages, prayers, Masses, indulgences, and mortifications which the Society applies to her deceased members. He asked God to deprive him of them for the relief of the suffering souls most pleasing to His Divine Majesty.”

We have already spoken of Father Nieremberg, renowned as well for the works of piety which he published as for the eminent virtue which he practiced. His devotion for the holy souls, not content with sacrifices and frequent prayers, urged him to suffer for them with a generosity which often amounted to heroism.

There was among his penitents at the court of Madrid a lady of rank, who, under his wise direction, had attained a high degree of virtue in the midst of the world, but she was tormented with an excessive fear of death in view of Purgatory which follows it. She fell dangerously ill, and her fears increased to such a degree that she almost lost her Christian sentiments. Her holy confessor employed every means that his zeal could suggest, but to no purpose; he could not succeed in restoring her to tranquillity, nor could he prevail upon her even to receive the last Sacraments.

To crown this misfortune, she suddenly lost consciousness, and was reduced to the last extremity. The Father, justly alarmed at the peril of this soul, retired into a chapel near the chamber of the dying woman. There he offered the Holy Sacrifice with the greatest fervor to obtain for the sick person time sufficient to receive the Sacraments of the Church. At the same time, prompted by truly heroic charity, he offered himself as a victim to Divine Justice, to undergo during this life all the sufferings reserved for that poor soul in the next.

His prayer was heard. The Mass was no sooner ended than the sick lady regained consciousness, and found that she was entirely changed. She was so well disposed that she asked for the last Sacraments, which she received with the most edifying fervor. Then her confessor, having told her that she had nothing to fear from Purgatory, she expired perfectly calm, and with a smile upon her lips.

From that hour, Father Nieremberg was afflicted with all manner of suffering, both of body and soul. The remaining sixteen years of his life was one long martyrdom and a most rigorous Purgatory. No human remedy could give him relief; his only consolation was in the remembrance of the holy cause for which he endured them. Finally, death came to terminate his terrible sufferings, and at the same time, we may reasonably believe, to open to him the gates of Paradise, since it is written, Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

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Purgatory Explained, Part 2, Chapter 37

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Motives for Assisting the Holy Souls – Facility in Relieving them – The Example of the Saints and of all Fervent Christians – The Servant of God, Mary Villani – The Burned Forehead

We have already seen how Saint Catherine de Ricci and several others carried their heroism so far as to suffer instead of the souls in Purgatory. Let us add a few more examples of this admirable Charity. The servant of God Mary Villani, of the Order of Saint Dominic, whose life was written by Father Marchi (Cf. Rossignoli, Merv., 41) applied herself day and night to the practice of satisfactory works in favor of the departed.

One day – it was the Vigil of the Epiphany – she remained a long time in prayer, beseeching God to alleviate their sufferings in consideration of those of Jesus Christ, offering to Him the cruel scourging of our Saviour, His crown of thorns, His cords, the nails and cross – in a word, all His bitter pains and all the instruments of His Passion. The following night God was pleased to manifest how agreeable to Him was this holy practice.

During her prayer she was rapt in ecstasy, and saw a long procession of persons robed in white garments and radiant with light. They were carrying the emblems of the Passion and entering into the glory of Paradise. The servant of God knew that they were the souls delivered by her fervent prayers and by the merits of the Passion of Jesus Christ.

On another occasion, the Feast of All Souls, she was ordered to work at a manuscript, and to pass the day in writing. This task, imposed by obedience, was a trial to her piety: she experienced some repugnance to obey, because she wished to devote that whole day to prayer, penance, and pious exercises for the relief of the suffering souls. She forgot for a moment that obedience should take precedence over all else, as it is written, Mel i or est obedientia quam victimce – ”Obedience is better than sacrifice.” (1 Kings 15:22). Seeing her great charity towards the poor souls, God vouchsafed to appear to her, in order to instruct and console her. “Obey, My daughter,” He said to her; “do the work imposed upon you by Obedience, and offer it for the souls: each line which you shall write today in the spirit of Obedience and Charity, will procure the deliverance of a soul.” It will be easily understood that she labored with the greatest diligence, and wrote as many as possible of those lines, so acceptable to God.

Her charity towards the holy souls did not confine itself to prayer and fasting; she desired to endure a part of their sufferings. One day, whilst praying for that intention, she was rapt in spirit and led into Purgatory. There, amongst the multitude of suffering souls, she saw one more grievously tormented than the others, and which excited her most tender compassion. “Why,” she asked, “have you to suffer such excruciating torture? Do you receive no alleviation?” “I have been,” replied the soul, “a great length of time in this place, enduring the most frightful torments, in punishment for my former vanity and scandalous extravagance. Thus far I have not received the least relief, because God has permitted that I should be forgotten by my parents, my children, my relatives, and friends: they offer not a single prayer for me. When I was upon earth, being exclusively occupied with my extravagant toilet and worldly vanities, with feasting and pleasure, I cast but a passing thought upon God and my duties. My only serious desire was to further the worldly interests of my family. I am well punished; for you see I am entirely forgotten by all.”

These words made a painful impression upon Mary Villani. She begged this soul to allow her to feel something of what she suffered; and at the same instant it seemed as though a finger of fire touched her forehead, and the pain which she felt was so acute as to cause her ecstasy to cease. The mark remained so deeply impressed upon her forehead, that two months afterwards it was still visible, and caused her intolerable suffering. The servant of God offered this, together with prayers and other good works, for the soul to which we have just referred. This soul appeared to Mary at the end of two months, and said that having been delivered by her intercession, she was about to enter Heaven. At the same moment the scar on the forehead disappeared.

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Purgatory Explained, Part 2, Chapter 36

detail from a painting of Saint John of God saving sick people from a fire at the royal hospital, by Manuel Gomez-Moreno Gonzalez, 1880; Museo de Bellas Artres, Granada, Spain; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Motives for Assisting the Holy Souls – Intimate Ties which Unite us to them – Filial Piety – Cimon of Athens and his Father in Prison – Saint John of God saving the Sick from the Conflagration

If we are obliged to assist the holy souls because of the extreme necessity in which they are, how much greater does this motive become when we remember that these souls are united to us by the most sacred ties, the ties of blood, by the Blood of Jesus Christ, and by the ties of human flesh and blood, whence we have been brought forth according to the flesh?

Yes, there are in Purgatory souls united to us by the closest family ties. It may be a father or a mother, who, languishing in those horrible torments, extend their arms in supplication towards me. What would we not do for our father or for our mother, if we knew they were pining away in some loathsome dungeon? An ancient Athenian, the celebrated Cimon, had the grief to see his father imprisoned by heartless creditors whom he was unable to satisfy. What was worse, he could not raise a sum sufficient to effect his father’s ransom, and the old man died in prison. Cimon hastened to the prison and requested that they would at least grant him the body of his father that he might give it burial. This was refused him, under pretext that, not having had wherewith to pay his debts, he could not be set at liberty. “Allow me first to bury my father,” cried Cimon, “I will then return and take his place in prison.”

We admire this act of filial piety, but are we not also bound to imitate it? Have we not also, perhaps, a father or a mother in Purgatory? Are we not obliged to deliver them at the cost of the greatest sacrifices? More fortunate than Cimon, we have wherewith to pay their debts; we need not take their place; on the contrary, to deliver them is to purchase our own ransom.

We admire, also, the charity of Saint John of God, who braved the fury of the flames to save the poor sick during a conflagration. This great servant of God died at Granada in the year 1550, kneeling before an image of Jesus crucified, which he embraced and continued to hold clasped tightly within his arms, even after he had breathed forth his soul to God. Born of very poor parents, and obliged to support himself by tending flocks, he was rich in faith and confidence in God. He took great delight in prayer and hearing the Word of God; this was the foundation of the great sanctity which he afterwards attained. A sermon by the Venerable Father John d’Avila, the Apostle of Andalusia, made such an impression upon him, that he resolved to consecrate his entire life to the service of the sick poor. Without other resource than his charity and confidence in God, he succeeded in purchasing a house, in which he assembled all poor abandoned sick, that he might give them nourishment for soul and body. This asylum soon developed into the Royal Hospital of Granada, an immense establishment, filled with a multitude of the aged and infirm. One day a fire having broken out in the hospital, many of the sick were in danger of perishing by a most horrible death. They were surrounded on all sides by flames, so that it was impossible for anyone to attempt their rescue. They uttered the most heartrending cries, calling Heaven and earth to their assistance. John sees them, his charity is inflamed, he rushes into the fire, battles through flame and smoke until he reaches the beds of the sick; then raising them upon his shoulders, he carries these unfortunate creatures one after another to a place of safety. Obliged to traverse this vast furnace, working in the heat of the fire for a whole half-hour, the saint had not sustained the least injury; the flames respected his person, his clothing, and even the least hair of his head, God wishing to show by a miracle how pleasing to Him was the charity of His servant. And those who save, not the body, but souls from the flames of Purgatory, is their work less agreeable to God? Are the necessities, the cries and moans of those souls less touching to a heart of faith? Is it more difficult to aid them? Is it necessary to cast ourselves into the flames in order to rescue them?

Assuredly, we have every facility in our power for affording them relief, and God does not demand great efforts on our part. Yet the charity of fervent souls inspires them to make the most heroic sacrifices, and even to share the torments of their brethren in Purgatory.

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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.

MLA Citation

Purgatory Explained, Part 2, Chapter 34

photograph of a Saint Thomas Aquinas roundel, Convento de Las Duenas, Salamanca, Spain; swiped with permission from the flickr account of Father Lawrence Lew, OPArticle

Motives for Assisting the Holy Souls – Excellence of this Work – Saint Francis de Sales – Saint Thomas of Aquin – Saint Bridget

We have just passed in review the means and resources which Divine Mercy has placed in our hands for the relief of our brethren in Purgatory. These means are powerful, the resources rich; but do we make an abundant use thereof? Having it in our power to assist the poor souls, have we zeal enough to do so? Are we as rich in Charity as God is rich in mercy? Alas! how many Christians do little or nothing for the departed! And those who forget them not, those who have sufficient Charity to aid them by their suffrages, how often are they not lacking in zeal and fervor! Compare the care we bestow upon the sick with the assistance which we give to the suffering souls. When a father or mother is afflicted with some malady, when a child or any person dear to us is a prey to suffering, what care, what solicitude, what devotion on our part! But the holy souls, who are no less dear to us, languish under the weight, not of a painful malady, but of expiatory torments a thousand times more cruel. Are we equally fervent, solicitous, eager to procure them relief? “No,” says Saint Francis de Sales, “we do not sufficiently remember our dear departed friends. Their memory seems to perish with the sound of the funeral bells, and we forget that the friendship which finds an end, even in death, was never genuine friendship.”

From whence this sad and culpable forgetfulness? Its principal cause is want of reflection. Quia nullus est qui recogitat corde – “Because there is none that considers in the heart.” (Jeremiah 12:2). We lose sight of the great motives which urge us to the exercise of this Charity towards the dead. It is, therefore, to stimulate our zeal that we are about to recall to mind these motives, and to place them in the strongest possible light.

We may say that all these motives are summed up in these words of the Holy Ghost: It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins, that is, from the temporal punishment due to their sins. (2 Maccabees 12:46). In the first place, it is a work, holy and excellent in itself, as also agreeable and meritorious in the sight of God. Accordingly, it is a salutary work, supremely profitable for our own salvation, for our welfare in this world and the next.

“One of the holiest works, one of the best exercises of piety that we can practice in this world,” says Saint Augustine, “is to offer sacrifices, alms, and prayers for the dead.” (Homil . 16). “The relief which we procure for the departed,” says Saint Jerome, “obtains for us a like mercy.”

Considered in itself, prayer for the dead is a work of Faith, Charity, and frequently even of Justice.

First, who are, indeed, the persons whom there is question of assisting? Who are those holy, predestined souls, so dear to God and Our Ford Jesus Christ, so dear to their Mother, the Church, who unceasingly recommends them to our charity; souls who are dear also to ourselves, that were, perhaps, intimately united to us upon earth, and who supplicate us in these touching words: Have pity on me, have pity on me, at least you my friends. (Job 19:21). Second, in what necessities do they find themselves? Alas! their necessities being very great, the souls who thus suffer have a right to our assistance proportionate to their utter helplessness to do anything for themselves. Third, what good do we procure for the souls? The greatest good, since we put them in possession of eternal beatitude.

“To assist the souls in Purgatory,” says Saint Francis de Sales, “is to perform the most excellent of the works of Mercy, or rather it is to practice in a most sublime manner all the works of Mercy together: it is to visit the sick; it is to give drink to those who thirst for the vision of God; it is to feed the hungry, to ransom prisoners, to clothe the naked, to procure for poor exiles the hospitality of the Heavenly Jerusalem; it is to comfort the afflicted, to instruct the ignorant – in fine, to practice all works of Mercy in one.” This doctrine agrees very well with that of Saint Thomas, who says in his Summa, “Suffrages for the dead are more agreeable to God than suffrages for the living; because the former stand in more urgent need thereof, not being able to assist themselves, as are the living.” (Supplem, Q. 71, art. 5).

Our Lord regards every work of Mercy exercised towards our neighbor as done to Himself. “It is to Me,” says He, “that you have done it,” – Mi hi fecistis. This is most especially true of Mercy practiced towards the poor souls.

It was revealed to Saint Bridget that he who delivers a soul from Purgatory has the same merit as if he delivered Jesus Christ Himself from captivity.

MLA Citation

Purgatory Explained, Part 2, Chapter 33

statue of Saint Jean Marie Vianney, by Emilien Cabuchet, 1867; photographed in March 2009 by Andreas König; swiped off WikipediaArticle

Relief of the Holy Souls – For whom are we to Pray? – Great Sinners – Father Ravignan and General Exelmans – The Widow in Mourning and the Venerable Cure d’Ars – Sister Catherine of Saint Augustine and the Sinner Dead in a Grotto

Father Ravignan, an illustrious and holy preacher of the Society of Jesus, also cherished great hope for the welfare of sinners carried away by a sudden death, when otherwise they had borne no hatred in the heart for the things of God. He lived to speak of the supreme moment, and it seems to have been his opinion that many sinners are converted in their last moments, and are reconciled to God without being able to give any exterior sign thereof. In certain deaths there are mysteries of Mercy where the eye of man sees nothing but strokes of Justice. As a last glimmer of light, God sometimes reveals Himself to those souls whose greatest misfortune has been to ignore Him; and the last sigh, understood by Him who penetrates hearts, may be a groan that calls for pardon; that is to say, an act of perfect contrition. General Exelmans, a relative of this good father, was suddenly carried to the tomb by an accident, and unfortunately he had not been faithful in the practice of his religion. He had promised that he would one day make his Confession, but had not had the opportunity to do so. Father Ravignan, who, for a long time had prayed and procured prayers for him, was filled with consternation when he heard of such a death. The same day, a person accustomed to receive supernatural communications thought he heard an interior voice, which said to him, “Who then knows the extent of God’s mercy? Who knows the depth of the ocean, or how much water is contained therein? Much will be forgiven to those who have sinned through ignorance.”

The biographer from whom we borrow this incident, Father de Ponlevoy, goes on to say, “Christians, placed under the law of Hope no less than under the law of Faith and Charity, we must continually lift ourselves up from the depths of our sufferings to the thought of the infinite goodness of God. No limit to the grace of God is placed here below; while there remains a spark of life there is nothing which it cannot effect in the soul. Therefore we must ever hope and petition God with humble persistency. We know not to what a degree we may be heard. Great saints and doctors have gone to great lengths in extolling the powerful efficacy of prayer for the dear departed, how unhappy soever their end may have been. We shall one day know the unspeakable marvels of Divine Mercy. We should never cease to implore it with the greatest confidence.”

The following is an incident which our readers may have seen in the Petit Messager du Coeur de Marie, November 1880. A Religious, preaching a mission to the ladies at Nancy, had reminded them in a conference that we must never despair of the salvation of a soul, and that sometimes actions of the least importance in the eyes of man are rewarded by God at the hour of death. When he was about to leave the church, a lady dressed in mourning approached him and said, “Father, you just recommended to us confidence and hope; what has just happened to me fully justifies your words. I had a husband who was most kind and affectionate, and who, although otherwise leading an irreproachable life, entirely neglected the practice of his religion. My prayers and exhortations remained without effect. During the month of May which preceded his death, I had erected in my room, as I was accustomed to do, a little altar of the Blessed Virgin, and decorated it with flowers, which I renewed from time to time. My husband passed the Sunday in the country, and each time he returned he brought me some flowers, which he himself had plucked, and with these I used to adorn my oratory. Did he notice this? Did he do this to give me pleasure, or was it through a sentiment of piety towards the Blessed Virgin? I know not, but he never failed to bring me the flowers.

“In the beginning of the following month he died suddenly, without having had time to receive the consolations of religion. I was inconsolable, especially as I saw all my hopes of his return to God vanish. In consequence of my grief, my health became completely shattered, and my family urged me to make a tour in the south. As I had to pass through Lyons, I desired to see the Cure d’Ars. I therefore wrote to him asking an audience, and recommending to his prayers my husband, who had died suddenly. I gave him no further details.

“Arrived at Ars, scarcely had I entered the venerable Cure’s room than, to my great astonishment, he addressed me in these words: ‘Madame, you are disconsolate; but have you forgotten those bouquets of flowers which were brought to you each Sunday of the month of May?’ It is impossible to express my astonishment on hearing M. Vianney remind me of a circumstance that I had not mentioned to anyone, and which he could know only by revelation. He continued, ‘God has had mercy on him who honored His Holy Mother. At the moment of his death your husband repented; his soul is in Purgatory; our prayers and good works will obtain his deliverance.'”

We read in the Life of a holy Religious, Sister Catherine of Saint Augustine (Saint Alphonsus, Paraph, of the Salve Regina), that in the place where she lived there was a woman named Mary, who in her youth had given herself up to a very disorderly life, and as age brought no amendment, but, on the contrary, she grew more obstinate in vice, the inhabitants, no longer willing to tolerate the scandal she gave, drove her from the city. She found no other asylum than a grotto in the forest, where, after a few months, she died without the assistance of the Sacraments. Her body was interred in a field, as though it were something contagious.

Sister Catherine, who was accustomed to recommend to God the souls of all those of whose death she heard, thought not of praying for this one, judging, as did everyone else, that she was surely damned.

Four months later the servant of God heard a voice saying, “Sister Catherine, how unfortunate I am! You recommend to God the souls of all; I am the only one upon whom you take no pity!” “Who then are you?” replied the sister. “I am poor Mary, who died in the grotto.” “What! Mary, are you saved?” “Yes, by the Divine Mercy I am At the point of death, terrified by the remembrance of my crimes, and seeing myself abandoned by all, I called upon the Blessed Virgin. In her tender goodness she heard me, and obtained for me the grace of perfect contrition, with a desire of confessing, had it been in my power to do so. I thus recovered the grace of God and escaped Hell. But I was obliged to go to Purgatory, where I suffer terribly.

My time will be shortened, and I shall soon be liberated, if a few Masses are offered for me. Oh! have them celebrated for me, dear sister, and I shall ever remember you before Jesus and Mary.”

Sister Catherine hastened to fulfill this request, and after a few days the soul again appeared, brilliant as a star, and returning thanks for her charity.

MLA Citation

Purgatory Explained, Part 2, Chapter 32

statue of Saint Andrew Avellino by Pedro Alonso de los Ríos, 17th century, façade of Saint Emilian and Saint Cajetan's Church, Madrid, Spain); photographed by Luis García (Zaqarbal), 4 July 2009; swiped off Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Relief of the Holy Souls – Which of them should be the Objects of our Charity – All the Faithful Departed – Saint Andrew Avellino – Sinners dying without the Sacraments – Saint Francis de Sales

We have seen the resources and the numerous means which Divine Mercy has placed in our hands for relieving the souls in Purgatory; but what souls are in those expiatory flames, and to what souls should we give our assistance? For what souls should we pray and offer our suffrages to God? To these questions we must answer that we should pray for the souls of all the faithful departed, omnium fidelium defunctorum, according to the expression of the Church. Although filial piety imposes special duties upon us with regard to parents and relations, Christian charity commands us to pray for all the faithful departed in general, because they are all our brethren in Jesus Christ, all are our neighbors, whom we must love as ourselves.

By these words , faithful departed, the Church means all those actually in Purgatory, that is to say, those who are neither in Hell, nor as yet worthy to be admitted into the glory of Paradise. But who are these souls? Can we know them? God has reserved this knowledge to Himself, and, except so far as He is pleased to show us, we should remain in total ignorance of the state of souls in the other life. Now, He rarely makes known that a soul is in Purgatory or in the glory of Heaven; still more rarely does He reveal the reprobation of a soul. In this uncertainty we must pray in general, as does the Church, for all the departed, without prejudice to those souls whom we wish to aid in particular.

We may evidently restrict our intention to those among the dead who are still in need of our assistance, if God grants us the privilege which He accorded to Saint Andrew Avellino, of knowing the condition of souls in the other life. When this holy Religious of the Order of Theatines was, according to his pious custom, praying with angelic fervor for the departed, it sometimes happened that he experienced within himself a sort of resistance, a feeling of invincible repulsion; at other times it was, on the contrary, a great consolation and a particular attraction. He soon understood the meaning of these different impressions; the first signified that his prayer was useless, that the soul which he desired to assist was unworthy of mercy, and condemned to eternal fire; the other indicated that his prayer was efficacious for the relief of the soul in Purgatory. It was the same when he wished to offer the Holy Sacrifice for someone deceased. He felt, on leaving the sacristy, as though withheld by an irresistible hand, and understood that that soul was in Hell; but when he was inundated with joy, light, and devotion, he was sure of contributing to the deliverance of a soul.

This charitable saint prayed, therefore, with the greatest fervor for the dead whom he knew to be suffering, and ceased not to apply his suffrages until the souls came to thank him, giving him the assurance of their deliverance. (Life of the Saint).

As for us, who have not these supernatural lights, we must pray for all the departed, even for the greatest sinners and the most virtuous Christian. Saint Augustine knew the great virtue of his mother, Saint Monica; nevertheless, not content with offering his own suffrages for her to God, he asked his readers not to cease recommending her soul to Divine Mercy.

As regards great sinners, who die without being outwardly reconciled with God, we may not exclude them from our suffrages, because we have not the certainty of their interior impenitence. Faith teaches us that all men dying in the state of mortal sin incur eternal damnation; but who are those that in reality die in that state? God alone, who reserves to Himself the judgment of the living and the dead, knows this. As to ourselves, we can but draw a conjectural conclusion from exterior circumstances, and from [even] this we must refrain. It must, however, be confessed that there is everything to be feared for those who die unprepared for death, and all hope seems to vanish for those who refuse to receive the Sacraments . The latter quit this life with exterior signs of reprobation. Nevertheless, we must leave the judgment to God, according to the words, Dei judicium est – “To God belongs judgment.” (Deuteronomy 1:17). There is more to be hoped for those who are not positively hostile to religion, who are benevolent towards the poor, who retain some practice of Christian piety, or who at least approve and favor piety; there is more, I say, to hope for such persons when it happens that they die suddenly, without having had the time to receive the last Sacraments of the Church.

Saint Francis de Sales will not have us despair of the conversion of sinners until their last breath, and even after their death he forbids us to judge evil of those who have led a bad life. With the exception of those sinners whose reprobation is made manifest by Holy Scripture, we may not, he says, conclude that a person is damned, but must respect the secret of God. His principal reason was, that as the first grace is gratuitous, so also is the last, which is final perseverance or a good death. This is why we must hope for the departed, how sad soever his death may have been, because our conjectures can be based on the exterior only, whereby the most clever may be deceived.

MLA Citation

Purgatory Explained, Part 2, Chapter 31

detail of a painting of Saint Gertrude the Great, by Miguel Cabrera, 1763; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas, USA; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Relief of the Holy Souls – The Heroic Act of Charity towards the Holy Souls – Father Mumford – Denis the Carthusian and Saint Gertrude

Thus far we have spoken of the different kinds of good works which we may offer to God as suffrages for the dead. It remains for us to make known an act which comprises all works and means, whereby we can most effectually assist the poor souls; it is the heroic vow, or, as others call it, the Heroic act of Charity towards the souls in Purgatory.

This act consists in ceding to them all our works of satisfaction, that is to say, the satisfactory value of all the works of our life and of all the suffrages which shall be given to us after our death, without reserving anything wherewith to discharge our own debts. We deposit them in the hands of the Blessed Virgin, that she may distribute them, according to her good pleasure, to those souls which she desires to deliver from Purgatory.

It is an absolute donation in favor of the souls of all that we can give them; we offer to God in their behalf all the good we do, of what kind soever, either in thought, words or works, all that we suffer meritoriously during this life, without excepting anything that we may reasonably give them, and adding even those suffrages which we may receive for ourselves after death.

It must be well understood that the matter of this holy donation is the satisfactory value of our works (See Chap. 9), and in no way the merit which has a corresponding degree of glory in Heaven; for merit is strictly personal, and cannot be transferred to another.

Formula of the Heroic Act: “O Holy and Adorable Trinity, desiring to co-operate in the deliverance of the souls in Purgatory, and to testify my devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, I cede and renounce in behalf of those holy souls all the satisfactory part of my works, and all the suffrages which may be given to me after my death, consigning them entirely into the hands of the most Blessed Virgin, that she may apply them according to her good pleasure to those souls of the faithful departed whom she desires to deliver from their sufferings. Deign, O my God, to accept and bless this offering which I make to Thee at this moment. Amen.”

The Sovereign Pontiffs, Benedict XIII, Pius VI, and Pius IX have approved this heroic act, and have enriched it with indulgences and privileges, of which the principal are the following:

1) To priests who have made this act the indult of a privileged altar every day in the year.

2) The simple faithful can gain a plenary indulgence, applicable to the souls in Purgatory only, each time they communicate, provided they visit a church or public oratory, and there pray for the intention of His Holiness.

3) They may apply to the holy souls all those indulgences which are not otherwise applicable by virtue of concession, and which have been granted up to the present time, or which shall be granted in the future. (Pius IX, Deer. 30 September 1852).

“I advise all true Christians,” says Father Mumford (Charity to the Departed), “to cede with holy disinterestedness to the faithful departed all the fruit of their good works which are at our disposal. I do not believe that they can make a better use of them, since they render them more meritorious and more efficacious, as well for obtaining grace from God as for expiating their own sins and shortening the term of their Purgatory, or even of acquiring an entire exemption therefrom.”

These words express the precious advantages of the Heroic Act; and in order to dissipate all subsequent fear which might arise in the mind, we add three remarks:

1) This act leaves us perfect liberty to pray for those souls in whom we are most interested; the application of these prayers is subject to the disposition of the adorable will of God, which is always infinitely perfect and infinitely loving.

2) It does not oblige under pain of mortal sin, and can at any time be revoked. It may be made without using any particular formula; it suffices to have the intention, and to make it from the heart. Nevertheless it is useful to recite the formula of offering from time to time, in order to stimulate our zeal for the relief of the holy souls by prayer, penance, and good works.

3) The Heroic Act does not subject us to the direful consequences of having to undergo a long Purgatory ourselves; on the contrary, it allows us to rely with more assured confidence on the mercy of God in our regard, as is shown by the example of Saint Gertrude.

Venerable Denis, the Carthusian, relates that the Virgin, Saint Gertrude, had made a complete donation of all her works of satisfaction in favor of the faithful departed, without reserving anything wherewith to discharge the debts which she herself might have contracted in the sight of God. Being at the point of death, and, like all the saints, considering with much sorrow the great number of her sins on the one hand, and, on the other, remembering that she had employed all her works of satisfaction for the expiation of the sins of others, she was afflicted, lest, having given all to others and reserved nothing for herself, her soul, on its departure from this world, should be condemned to horrible suffering. In the midst of her fears Our Lord appeared to her and consoled her, saying: “Be reassured, My daughter, your charity towards the departed will be no detriment to you. Know that the generous donation you have made of all your works to the holy souls has been singularly pleasing to Me; and to give you a proof thereof, I declare to you that all the pains you would have had to endure in the other life are now remitted; moreover, in recompense for your generous charity, I will so enhance the value of the merits of your works as to give you a great increase of glory in Heaven.”

MLA Citation