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Purgatory? There’s Actually a Museum for That!

Father Lawrence Lew OP-CC
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Fr. Domenico Santangini curates the Little Purgatory Museum

ROME — Just before All Soul’s Day Aleteia sat down with Fr. Domenico Santangini, curator of the Little Purgatory Museum in Rome. A parish priest of the Church of the Sacred Heart of Suffrage in Prati, Fr. Domenico discusses the extraordinary occurrence that inspired the museum, the meaning of the scorched pages and cloths it contains and the vital importance of believing in the existence of purgatory.

Fr. Domenico, how long have you been here at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Suffrage?

Twenty-six years, 11 years as parish priest.

Can you tell us about the extraordinary event that led to the building of this church?

It was around 1894 or 1895. There wasn’t anything here, only a little chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. One of our fathers would come here from Piazza Navona to celebrate the Mass. His name was Fr. Jouët; he was French, from Marseilles. I don’t remember the precise date, but one day there was a fire in the little chapel, and once the fire had been put out … and here it’s important to say that Fr. Jouët was very devoted the souls in purgatory, this is very important, he would pray for them very much … when the fire was put out, the image of the suffering face of what appeared to be a soul in purgatory was left behind. And so he was inspired to build a church dedicated to the souls in purgatory.

And so what did he do? There was a large piece of land here, very narrow but long, and so with the help of some wealthy family and friends, and with the offerings of the people, he bought the land. However,  since it was narrow, he decided to build it in a Gothic style … he was an architect before he became a priest. And so he designed the church in a Gothic style precisely because the space was so narrow.

He then commissioned the engineer, Giuseppe Gualandi, to build the church. But once the money had run out, little by little as the church was being built, he would travel through Europe both to look for money and to look for testimonies that bore evidence of visits from souls in purgatory, and he brought them all here to Rome. Those that we have in the museum now are authentic.

Father, how do we know that the items in the purgatory museum are authentic?

The priest obtained them himself and testified to their authenticity. He wouldn’t lie. They came here directly from the owner, through Fr. Jouët. Little by little he would travel through Europe raising money, and would bring back relics. He was very devoted to the souls in purgatory, and so he wanted to bring back these testimonies to their visits, and that’s how the museum began.

Returning to what I was saying before … after the fire, the people of Rome began coming here on pilgrimage, we’re talking about 5,000 or 6,000 people who came here after the event. For the fire hadn’t let behind just any image … the image that was left behind was a suffering face. And so he put his devotion to the souls in purgatory into practice by seeking out true and authentic testimonies.

To what do these relics bear witness?

They bear witness to the many souls … I think there are very many … that have to be purified before reaching God. It’s part of our faith. The Council of Trent defined that hell and heaven are absolute truths of the faith, and it taught that purgatory is a truth of the faith proxima fidei.  Since one has to be completely pure to be with God, a man—even if he is good—always has some stain on his soul, and that is why purgatory is needed. Purgatory is a state of absence from God, and we by our prayers, especially through the prayer of the Mass, since it is the prayer par excellencecan truly help bring many of these souls to heaven who then become saints. Then they “return the favor” by praying for us.

Why does a soul in purgatory manifest itself through a scorched handmark on the page of a book or an apron, as the items in your collection show?

The charred images we have in the museum represent the fire that burns but purifies. Little by little it burns and purifies the souls who are in purgatory. We see a physical manifestation of this fire, but for the souls in purgatory it is interior. In the other life, the pain that the soul suffers is the absence of God. What hurts is that I can’t be with God.

St. Catherine of Genoa said something very similar in her Treatise on Purgatory. There she describes purgatory as an inner, purifying fire. She also says many things that might seem surprising. For example, that the souls in purgatory, although they suffer, also experience peace and joy as they are purified and opened to receive God. 

Yes, purgatory is a place of desire and hope, of great hope. Hell, instead, is despair; that’s it.

Tell us more about the relics contained in the museum.

The relics in the museum are signs that tell us that we need to believe in purgatory, that this place of suffering exists, that so many souls pass through it, and also that there are so many souls that are there and forgotten. We need to pray for them. If you die and I pray for you, but you are already in heaven, my prayer isn’t lost. The Lord uses them for those who have been abandoned and forgotten, because there is a Communion of Saints. There are so many people who were good during their lives, but no one prays for them. But the Lord, forgive me for saying it, isn’t a fool. He says: “this poor soul,” and he uses our prayers for the one who is forgotten.

Is there a particularly powerful prayer for the souls in purgatory?

The Mass is the greatest prayer, and then there are so many other prayers. What’s most important is the purity of heart with which we pray.

The Council of Trent’s decree on purgatory instructs bishops to strive diligently in order that the Church’s doctrine of purgatory may be believed by the faithful …

Yes, in fact, beginning November 1 and throughout the month of November one can obtain a plenary indulgence for the departed by visiting a Church and saying an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Creed while praying for the intentions of the pope, and by going to confession and Holy Communion. We can apply this plenary indulgence to one of the faithful departed, and if by chance this soul is already in heaven the Lord applies it to another soul.

What message do you think the purgatory museum communicates to people?

Naturally there are people who come and superficially look around out of curiosity and leave. But there are people who get on their knees and pray. For those who believe in this reality, here they are encouraged and spurred on to pray. The museum tells us that souls in purgatory have come to their family and loved ones to ask for prayers.

Is there one relic that you find particularly moving?

The original charred image on the wall is the one I find most moving, because in it we see the suffering of a man who is almost without form, but who has a human face. It reveals the pain of someone who is suffering the absence of a person he loves, in this case, God. It is the sad face of someone who is in purgatory. It makes me think. … Why do so many of the foolish things we do? Let’s try to be as good as possible, so that we can go to the Lord as directly and as quickly as possible.

Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition. This article was first published on Aleteia.org on October 31, 2014.

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