Concept Of Purgatory, Now Disbelieved, Still Looms With The Fire Of God's Love
By Michael H. Brown
On tonight's webcast we'll be speaking with Howard Storm, a former atheist who "died" and glimpsed hell. His account is a reminder that the afterlife is serious business. We must constantly prepare for it. We recall it especially at Lent because Lent is a time of penance, sacrifice, and purification.
If we cleanse here on earth, we not only avoid hell, but also that middle area of purgatory, where most people go, according to the revelations of places like Medjugorje. A couple weeks ago we spoke to Susan Tassone, a Chicago philanthropic consultant who wrote a booklet based on the Way of the Cross for the holy souls.
It's a concept that has fallen out of favor. For many, it's too gloomy -- or simply old-fashioned. "A growing number of the faithful seem to have only the vaguest ideas about purgatory," notes Michael J. Taylor, S.J., a professor emeritus of religious studies at Seattle University in Washington. "If they show interest in the idea at all it is marginal."
Yet purgatory remains a bulwark of Catholic afterlife belief, notes Professor Taylor, and its concept dates back not only to Scripture (in places like 2 Maccabees 12:39-46, and before that to ancient Jewish traditions of praying for the deceased), but also to the earliest Christian fathers like Tertullian (who 1,900 years ago recommended that Masses be said for the dead). There was also Clement of Alexandria, who seemed to say that God purifies sinners after death in a spiritually-cleansing fire.
Is there really such a place of suffering? And is there fire?
According to the revelations of a 19-century nun in France, as well as the messages from Medjugorje, purgatory has many levels. Some are virtually pleasant. Some are lonely. Some are painful. "In the great purgatory there are several stages," said the French nun (whose revelations were granted the imprimatur of a cardinal). "In the lowest and most painful, like a temporary hell, are the sinners who have committed terrible crimes during life and whose death surprised them in that state. It was almost a miracle that they were saved, and often by the prayers of holy parents or other persons."
Many describe that state as painful beyond what we experience on earth -- with a suffering that could only be compared to the greatest extremes of temperatures. As Christ told St. Faustina of Poland, "All these souls are greatly loved by Me. They are making retribution to My justice. It is in your power to bring them relief. Draw all the indulgences from the treasury of My Church and offer them on their behalf. Oh, if you only knew the torments they suffer..."
Indeed, in Rome is a museum dedicated to the purgatorial souls in which is a hand print said to have been burned into the upper panel of a door by the soul of another nun, Teresa Gesta appearing in apparition at Foligno near Assisi in 1859. The apparition was witnessed by a sister named Anna Felicia who supposedly heard a ghostly voice say, "Oh! Dio, che peno tanto! -- "Oh my God, how I suffer!"
The room then filled with smoke and the deceased sister allegedly appeared. "Having reached the door, she cried aloud, 'Behold a proof of the mercy of God,'" states another book called simply Purgatory Explained. "Saying these words, she struck the upper panel of the door, and there left the print of her right hand, burnt in the wood as with a red-hot iron. She then disappeared."
Are these legends? Are these flights of fancy? Or are they rare proof of the afterlife -- the glorious afterlife, but the afterlife that we must prepare for as to avoid the more unpleasant aspects?
The deceased are sometimes allowed a special grace to remind us of them, says Medjugorje, and we should think of them each day when we pray. There is no doubt about purgatory. It only makes sense. Few are those who upon death are totally pure. For some, purgatory is a matter of minutes. For others, decades. A minute of the worst suffering in purgatory, it is said, is worse than an entire lifetime of earthly torment.
Yet hard and painful as purgatory can be, it is also a place of joy because those there have now glimpsed God and heaven. According to the French nun, no one in purgatory would want to return to earth. They are happy to be purifying (despite the lowest level of "flames," which are a way of comparison and not exactly like the flames we witness in, for example, a forest fire). "Though painful, this 'fire' was seen to be spiritually maturing more than punitive," says Father Taylor. "It prepared the imperfect dead for ultimate salvation."
It is a grace of God. It's salvation.
And the best prayer for the holy souls is Mass -- along with the Way of the Cross.
"The Way of the Cross represents the sorrowful journey that Jesus made with the cross to die on Calvary," notes Susan Tassone (whose booklet we have made available). "The Church teaches that the souls in purgatory undergo a process of purification that must include suffering. By praying and making sacrifices for the Holy Souls, you have the power and privilege to relieve their pain. If your heart is inclined to bleed for them, as does the Sacred Heart of Jesus, please pray this Way of the Cross. In return, their gratitude will bring you countless blessings."
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