Throughout this month of November, we can pray for those we have loved and for whom we can still do much.
Throughout the month of November, dedicated to the souls in Purgatory, the Church prays for the suffering souls who await the joy of Paradise. Certain saints have had extraordinary experiences that can help inspire us to pray for them with even greater hope and faith.
St. John Bosco and his best friend
When John Bosco and his best friend, Louis Romollo, were seminarians, they promised each other that the first of the two to die would come back to inform the other of his eternal fate.
This solemn oath was perhaps a bit foolish, because they knew that the Church condemns attempts to communicate with the dead, but it was motivated by their desire to relieve the possible expiatory sufferings of whichever died first.
In the first half of the 19th century, premature death was not unusual, nor was it unusual for 24-year-olds to think about it. Death was omnipresent and, in Catholic circles, the thought of the end of life was constant.
The first to die was Louis, in 1839, just a few months before his ordination. John’s grief was immense, but he hadn’t forgotten the oath he had exchanged with his friend. The night after Romollo’s death, while the seminarians were asleep, a loud voice was heard throughout the dormitory, waking everyone up as it shouted: “Bosco! Bosco! I am saved!” Everyone, including John, recognized the voice of their missing comrade and felt a healthy fear of the disembodied voice. It surely put an end to further desires to ask for news from the beyond.
In fact, Don Bosco soon understood that it wasn’t necessary for him to ask for news in order to receive it – whether in the form of a dream (as on the night when little Dominic Savio showed himself to him in a splendid garden) or through verbal communication.
When he became a priest, one of his fellow priests died suddenly. The two men had promised each other that as soon as either was informed of the other friend’s death, the survivor would celebrate Mass for the repose of his soul. On the day of the friend’s death, Fr. Bosco had already said his own Mass so he postponed the celebration for his departed friend’s soul until the following day. However, during the night, the deceased appeared to him, prostrate, in tears, and in terrible pain. He bitterly reproached him for having forgotten his promise, abandoning him “for so long” in the torments of Purgatory.
When John replied that he was doing his best, but that it had not even been 12 hours since his visitor died, the deceased friend appeared stunned. There’s a small detail that we tend to forget: in eternity, there’s no more time. Needless to say, at dawn, John celebrated the promised Mass, with all his saintly fervor, and delivered his unfortunate friend from Purgatory.
An expiatory mission: to relieve suffering souls
Indeed, this kind of apparition of suffering souls, which God allows in order to remind us of the reality of the invisible world, of happy or unhappy eternity, also helps us to relieve the suffering of those who “languish in Purgatory,” as a Latin hymn of the deceased sings. It’s very unlikely that our dead will come back to us and ask for our help, even though it’s our duty to pray for them and to offer Masses to hasten their entry into Heaven – help that they will return to us a hundredfold and which, moreover, will make it possible to soften and shorten our own purgatory.
But it’s no less true that in the history of the Church, suffering souls have manifested themselves to saints and mystics capable of freely assuming, out of love for Christ and for their brothers and sisters, an extremely painful expiatory mission.
We can look to St. Perpetua for an example. In 204, she had a vision of her deceased little brother – a pagan who died at the age of 7 from cancer of the face – suffering from terrible thirst, sadness, and anguish in the darkness. In order to open the gates of Heaven to him, she offered up the many abuses she suffered in the stinking and suffocating dungeons of the prison of Carthage, the sorrow she felt at being separated from her baby, and the expectation of her own martyrdom. On the eve of facing the beasts, she had the consolation of seeing her radiant younger brother drinking “in great gulps from the source of Life.”
Carmelite nun Mary Magdalene of Pazzi’s brother also appeared to her, asking her to pray to save him from the torments resulting from his dissolute life as a Florentine aristocrat. While the saint accepted, she didn’t miss the opportunity to advise him to give thanks for having escaped from hell instead of complaining about an atonement that he had well deserved.
St. Margaret Mary
St. Margaret Mary Alacoque had a more terrifying experience when a religious devoured by flames appeared to her and begged her, in order to rescue him from one of the lowest levels of Purgatory, to take upon herself all or part of his torments. After having asked permission from her superior, the nun accepted. The next three months, she would say, were the worst of her life – and that’s no small thing when she was already accustomed to physical, moral, and spiritual penances and suffering. During that time, Margaret Mary prayed, offered her suffering, and atoned for that Benedictine who had not been faithful to his vows and the demands of his priesthood.
After a frightening three months, during which he followed her step by step, she had the relief of seeing him, freed from his prison of fire, dashing off resplendent towards the Paradise that the messenger of the Sacred Heart had finally opened to him.
We all can do something
It’s not necessary to go to these extremes, which are beyond our understanding, to help the dead. But throughout this month of November, and for the rest of the year as well, we can pray for those we have loved and for whom we can still do much, and for those millions of strangers whom we will meet one day, grateful for our prayers, for whom no one else ever implores divine mercy.