We don’t hear a lot about Purgatory these days and that’s a shame because most of us will be very lucky to slip in there rather than dropping straight into hell. And lest anyone complain that God is mean or judgmental in sending people to hell, it is well to remember that it’s entirely our own doing, having used the gift of free will to tell God “Nah, I won’t” or more often today “MEH.”
What a (terrifying, creepy but marvelous) gift it would be if, one night, we were awakened by the presence of a deceased family member or friend asking for our prayers and sacrifices, for Masses to be said to gain their release from Purgatory. And especially if that suffering soul left a permanent mark so that – by the light of day and forever after – we would know that the visit hadn’t been a nightmare occasioned by too much wine and scampi for dinner.
In Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31), Dives, from hell, begs Father Abraham to send “someone from the dead” to warn his brothers to repent. Abraham replies: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” The reference, of course, was to Jesus’ own Resurrection, but in his great mercy, the Lord has also sent many emissaries from the dead to the living and they have left proof behind.
By “proof” I’m not referring to the many written testimonies of saints concerning purgatory or hell – Sts. Margaret Mary Alacoque, Gertrude, Bridget of Sweden, John Vianney, Maria Faustina, Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Genoa et al. – and visionaries – such as the children of Fatima or Kibeho, Medjugorje or Garabandal – compelling though they are. But actual concrete proof, housed in a small room off the vestry of a church in Rome, the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Prati (also called Sacro Cuore del Suffragio or the Sacred Heart of Suffrage). The neo-Gothic church, completed in 1917, is situated on the Tiber River, ten minutes from St. Peter’s Square. It is unique in being home to the Little Purgatory Museum (Piccolo Museo del Purgatorio).
The mission of the Order of the Sacred Heart, founded in 1854 in France, was to pray for and offer Masses for the repose of the souls in Purgatory. Their chapel in Rome, dedicated to our Lady of the Rosary, was largely destroyed by fire on September 15, 1897. After the fire, the priest assigned to the chapel, Fr. Victor Jouet, was astonished to see the image of a suffering face of what appeared to be a soul in Purgatory on one of the charred walls. He obtained the permission of Pope Pius X to travel around Europe, collecting relics that bore evidence of visits from souls in Purgatory.
One relic in the museum shows a section of wood from the desk belonging to Ven. Mother Isabella Fornari, Abbess of the Poor Clares Monastery of St. Francis in Todi. Mother Isabella was visited by the deceased former Abbott, a Father Panzini, of the Benedictine Olivetan Order in Mantua on November 1, 1731. To show her that he was suffering in Purgatory, he placed his left “flaming” hand on her writing desk, leaving a scorched hand print, and also etched a cross in the wood with his burning forefinger. For good measure, he also placed his hand on the sleeve of her tunic, which burned through to her chemise and burned her arm to the point it bled. Reporting the event to her confessor, Holy Cross Father Isidoro Gazata, the latter asked her to cut out the sections of tunic and chemise and to give him the small desk for safe-keeping. All were determined to be of supernatural origin.
In 1815, Margherite Demmerlé (who lived in the Diocese of Metz) was visited by a soul who identified herself as her mother-in-law who had died in childbirth 30 years earlier. She asked Margherite to go on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Mariental and to request that two Masses be said there for her. Margherite asked her for a sign and the soul put her hand on the book Margherite had been reading