A Commentary On Father Schouppe’s Purgatory Explained
Alas! We do not sufficiently remember our dear departed, their memory seems to perish with the sound of the funeral bells. Saint Francis de Sales
Have pity on me, have pity on me, at least you my friends (Job 19:21).
Reading Jesuit Father F.X. Schouppe’s *(d. 1904) book, Purgatory Explained by the Lives and Legends of the Saints (translated from his original French), was a penitential exercise. I had started reading the book years ago, got discouraged, and put it aside. Last week I picked it up again and just finished it. I knew it was not going to be easy reading this book. Penance is not meant to be easy. Reading accounts, the most reliable accounts of worthy religious and saints, about holy souls having to endure the fires of purgatory for fifty years or more, for some, on account of certain venial sins that were never put to flight, is a heavy dose of reality. Such accounts, however, were not recorded to discourage those of us who have committed so many mortal sins, but rather they are meant to spur us on to take our state of soul more seriously and do real penance. We have offended God, who is Infinite Love, who willed from all eternity to create each one of us, in order to share His glory with us forever in heaven. We have deserved hell. It is His mercy that saved us from being taken in our sins; it is His mercy that has given us time to repent and, after confession, make amends and chip away at the temporal punishment that justly awaits us. Assuredly, reading this book will move us, unless we are presumptuous fools, to purge out our stains in this life rather than in the next. Thusly does the priest pray at the altar in his Communion Prayer (and we can pray with him) that the Body of Christ “cleave to my very entrails” and wash away any scelorum macula (stain iof sin) that taints his soul. Now we can merit. Now is the “acceptable time”; tomorrow (after death) will be too late.
Lest we think that this book is merely a collection of sensational stories (yes, literally it is), be consoled, Dear Reader. The latter part of this book treats of the consolations of the holy souls and their inexpressible joy, greater than any joys that can be experienced in this life. The souls in Purgatory want to suffer for their sins; they want to be purified so as to appear spotless before God for “nothing defiled” can enter into His presence. (Apoc. 21:27)
This article is not written as a polemic to convince Protestants of the doctrine of Purgatory. It is meant principally for Catholics. It is enough for Protestants to know that “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from sins” (2 Maccabees 12:46).. Even though, on their own human authority, they do not accept the two books of Maccabees as part of the inspired Old Testament, they must acknowledge that the Maccabees were valiant and holy Jewish zealots, who are esteemed in the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, commemorating the rededication of the temple in the second century B.C. Catholics must know that the doctrine of the existence of Purgatory was defined ex cathedra at the Council of Trent in Session 25. The Council also defined in the same place that our prayers (suffrages of every kind) and especially the sacrifice of the Mass do relieve the sufferings of the souls there detained and hasten their release and entry into heaven. Other than these two dogmas there is nothing else definitive regarding Purgatory.
Father Schouppe draws heavily from the examples recorded in Father Rossignoli’s Merveilles Divine dans les Ames du Purgatoire (Divine Wonders in the Souls of Purgatory), which the latter gleaned from the writings of many saints and holy religious who either were taken on a tour of Purgatory in a vision or were visited by holy souls pleading for prayers and Masses.
A few of the more prominent saints that visited, or were visited by, the souls in Purgatory were Saints Catherine of Genoa, Gertrude, Bridget of Sweden, Frances of Rome, Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, Margaret of Cortona, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Claude de la Colombiere, Philip Neri, and the stigmatist Lidwina of Schiedam. Father Schouppe lived before Padre Pio or, surely, he would have been added to the list, as he was often visited by souls for whom he prayed (they, especially the soldiers, often making a happy ruckus in his cell) as they were about to enter into the vision of God.
I will hardly be able to share with you all the points of consideration which our author provides in this four hundred page work, but I will give in this summary some of the more salient lessons that struck me as most motivational. They will necessarily be concise, even pithy, adding quotations that seemed to me too valuable to put in my own words.
Purgatory is a Place
Saint Thomas bases his following opinion on the fathers and doctors before him who wrote about levels of the states of purgation in the Church Suffering. “Purgatory,” he says, “has a double place for expiation. The first will be destined for the generality of souls, and is situated below, near to Hell; the second will be for particular cases, and it is from thence that so many apparitions occur.” (Suppl., part 3, ques. ult.) The common opinion is that Purgatory is in the depths of the earth.
The Fires of Purgatory are the Same as the Fires of Hell
“Almost all theologians,” Saint Robert Bellarmine writes, “teach that the reprobate and the souls in Purgatory suffer the action of the same fire.” (De Purgat,. I, 2, cap. 6) Regarding the pains, all the doctors who wrote on the subject state that the pain is worse than any pain we could experience in our bodies on earth. How is is possible for a separated spirit to feel pain? We do not know. All we know is what these souls have revealed. They suffer, as in a prison, not “roasting” in the flames (for they are immaterial), but bound by them, that is to say a ligative torture, afflicting the soul directly without the medium of a body. To understand this somewhat let us consider: when we have any painful malady in our body does not our soul also suffer? We are of one substance, body and soul. “I” am the one who suffers, my person, not just my body.
Pain of Loss
They do not, of course, have the same pain of loss as that of the souls of the damned, but they suffer the pain of temporary separation from the vision of God. Some souls in Purgatory testified to more than one saint that this is their worst pain, for in their secure state they know, more than we do on earth, what they are for a time deprived of.
Saint Teresa of Avila, in her work Castle of the Soul, wrote that the pain of loss, even though temporary, was excruciating beyond words to those souls who long to attain to heaven but are held back. (Part 6, ch. 11) This was revealed to her in a vision she had of Purgatory. See the testimony of Saint Faustina, which she received from Our Lady herself, at the conclusion of this article.
Suffice it to say that the saints all agree that unless there be special considerations due to exceptional cases of voluntary, vicarious victimhood (as with Saint Mariana of Jesus, the Lily of Quito, and Saint Catherine of Siena, for example) Purgatory for the generality of souls is of long duration. Saint Robert Bellarmine says that “the pains of Purgatory are not limited to ten or twenty years” but, in some cases, much longer. (De Gemitu, Book 2, c. 9) This, of course, depends on the gravity and number of mortal sins that, forgiven in confession, need satisfaction still. The sister of Saint Vincent of Lerins revealed to him that she was condemned to spend her purification in Purgatory until the end of the world. He then offered thirty Masses for her and her sentence was reduced to thirty days. True, we do not have a saint for a brother but nothing is more efficacious for the souls in Purgatory than to offer Masses for them. Our author provides scores of examples of this throughout the book and especially in his chapter on the Gregorian Thirty Masses privilege. (Part Two, Chapter 14) The “days” and “years” that are related in these accounts are our days and years. The duration in Purgatory itself is not so measured as there is no yesterday and tomorrow there, since these souls are not in living in our earthly time, but there is a before and after. Shall I compare it to the duration imagined in a dream? I suppose so, only Purgatory is real, all too real.
Have a Good Will
“Peace on earth to men of good will,” the angels sang to the shepherds near Bethlehem. In His parable of the sower Jesus waxes jubilant when He speaks of the fruit of the seed that fell upon good soil, unto those who received the word “with a good, and a perfect, heart.” (Luke 8:15) “A contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 50:19). The lesson is to pray that God softens your heart, “bend what is rigid” (verse from Veni, Sancte Spiritus) and remember Magdalene for whom much was forgiven “because she hath loved much.”
Better to Suffer in Purgatory than to Risk Losing One’s Soul in This Life
At least this is what a certain Peter Niles decided after being raised from the dead by Saint Stanislaus of Crakow in the year 1070. This man, before he died, had sold a piece of land to the saint for his church. Later, a certain heir of Peter Niles accused Bishop Stanislaus of usurping the property. To make a long story short, Saint Stanislaus was inspired to take the heir to Niles’ tomb and raise him from the dead to testify that he had sold the land to the Church. And so it happened. Niles was three years dead when his bones were clothed again with his flesh and he was restored to life and gave testimony. Here is a more amazing thing: The saint asked him if he wished to remain in this life a few more years or return to Purgatory. The man chose to die again on the spot and return to Purgatory where he was sure of his salvation. His only request was that the saint pray that his purgation be shortened. And assuredly it was.
Means of Relieving and Shortening the Sufferings of the Souls in Purgatory
The souls in Purgatory have passed their time of merit. Hence they rely on the prayers of the Church Militant and Triumphant to assist them. This is called suffrage. It includes prayers, and, for us wayfarers, penances fasts, almsgiving, good works (provided that we are in the state of grace), and the offering of Holy Mass for their relief. In offering our prayers and those of the Church through the divine Victim offered at Mass, we also gain merit for ourselves, paying some of our own debt owed to God in reparation for our sins. Saint Jerome, echoing the fathers and doctors before him, assures us that “[T]he relief which we procure for the departed obtains for us a like mercy.” (p 378, Schouppe) This is most reasonable as it complements the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. A fortiori, if we can benefit the souls in Purgatory, so can the blessed in heaven who hear our prayers in their regard. Many saints have seen the guardian angels of the souls in Purgatory descend upon occasion to give them succor.
Forget the Floral Wreaths
Father Schouppe is most critical of the useless custom of placing costly flowers on the deceased’s caskets. The dead do not need flowers, he affirms, they need prayers and Masses. Planting flowers at grave sites is a different story. That is a good work if accompanied by prayers, for it honors the remains of the deceased whose body will rise again alive and the flowers are living. Enough said.
Smallest Prayers and Sacrifices Help in a Big Way
Although any example would suffice to illustrate this, keep in mind that small things, as far as the world sees them, if offered with a big and generous heart, are great things in the eyes of God. We need only think of the widow’s mite. Our author gives many examples, but I was most impressed with the value of those little things that religious do in obedience (and over and above that) to their rule. In a certain convent there was a rule that permission from the superior must be granted for a glass of water between meals. A certain sister was so parched one afternoon that she asked her superior for permission to quench her thirst. She was denied. Her superior told her to think of Jesus thirsting on the Cross and of the thirst of the souls afire in Purgatory. She made this offering humbly. So pleased was God with this little sacrifice that He allowed a holy soul to appear to this sister and tell her how relieved she was for this refreshing bath which tempered the fires of her purgation.
The Holy Rosary
After Holy Mass, the Rosary is the most effective prayer to succor the holy souls in Purgatory. Father Schouppe relates the story of the saintly priest, Father Nieremberg, S.J., who practiced the most severe penances and prayed the Rosary daily for the poor souls. Once he lost his rosary, which had indulgenced medals on it, and he was inconsolable. That night in his cell, he saw hands extend from the ceiling holding his rosary and dropping it into his hands. Father Rossignioli relates the story of Venerable Mother Frances of the Blessed Sacrament who from her childhood was devoted to the holy souls. She used to be visited in her cell by the holy souls who would come to her as they were about to enter heaven and kiss her hands as she fingered the beads, they honoring these beads as the instruments of their salvation. Saint Peter Claver relates the story of a Negro penitent who went out to cut wood and heard a voice calling to him from the top of a tree. The man then saw a frightening figure of a ghost before him who proceeded to lash him with a whip studded with hot irons while saying, “Why have you not got your rosary? Carry it about you in the future, and say it for the souls in Purgatory.” The soul who chastised the Negro also asked for Masses indicating that he could collect gold coins for that purpose from his mistress who had owed said money to the deceased. The woman, knowing the debt that was her due, gave the penitent the money, also giving him a rosary. Padre Pio prayed forty Rosaries a day, many of them for the souls in Purgatory.
Father Schouppe relates several accounts of souls that passed but a short time, sometimes only minutes, in Purgatory because someone offered indulgences for them. One account, given by Saint Magdalene de Pazzi, tells of a religious who was very exact in gaining all the indulgences that she could. She was ordinary in every other way. The saint saw her ascend to heaven before her body was even buried. “Oh, how beautiful and glorious you are. Who can describe the glory?” exclaimed the saint as she watched her dear sister make her flight to God. In our own time, in addition to the indulgences offered for observing the nine first Fridays, Our Lady has given us a most generous and maternal promise of assisting at death all those who reverently fulfill the conditions she requested in keeping the five first Saturdays. Father Schouppe died before this devotion was given to Sister Lucia of Fatima, however, he devotes two chapters, 58 and 59 in Part Two of his book, to the devotion of the Brown Scapular. More information regarding the scapular and the Sabbatine (Saturday) Privilege is detailed in Appendix II at the end of the book. How generous our Holy Mother is and how merciful is her Son in granting her such largesse with His grace!
Praying for the Dead Includes All the Works of Mercy, Corporal and Spiritual
“To assist the souls in Purgatory,” says Saint Francis de Sales, “is to perform the most excellent 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 the works of Mercy in one.” (Schouppe, p. 279)
Judgment Without Mercy to Him That Hath Not Done Mercy (James 2:13).
To defraud the dead of our prayers while squandering the inheritance they left behind and neglecting to offer Masses for them (or worse, not doing so when it is in their will) is to merit hell. Not to pray for them will be requited of us at our own judgment when God may allow that no one prays for us when we are justly tormented in Purgatory.
Almsgiving, a Most Excellent Way to Relieve the Pain and Shorten the Duration of the Holy Souls in Purgatory
Saint Thomas Aquinas ranks almsgiving above other more popular means of succoring the souls in Purgatory. “Almsgiving,” he says, “ possesses more completely the virtue of satisfaction than prayer, and prayer more completely than fasting.” (Schouppe, p. 258) In a Benedictine monastery in Fulda, Germany in the ninth century, there was a rule that required the monks to distribute food to the poor for thirty days upon the death of any of their brothers. One procurator for the monastery neglected to do this after many monks died during a pestilence that devastated the monastery. These departed religious, all together, appeared to the negligent procurator severely reprimanding him for not distributing the food (that would have been their own meals for thirty days) to the poor. “Unfortunate creature,” one of them said to him, “ why didst thou not distribute the alms which were destined to give relief to the souls of the departed brethren? Why hast thou deprived us of that assistance amid the torments of Purgatory? . . . After three days thou shalt appear before thy God.” Their holy abbot, Raban-Maur (Archbishop of Mainz and prolific theological writer), after seeing in a vision the procurator in flames, redoubled the monastery’s alms to the poor. After many months the procurator appeared again to the abbot clothed in a white robe of glory. Saint John of God, when he begged alms in Granada, used to cry out: “Alms, for yourselves, alms for the love of yourselves,” (Schouppe, p. 314) rather than “alms for the love of God,” teaching thereby that those who give alms obtain abundant graces for themselves. The following from the Book of Daniel is apropos: “ Redeem thou thy sins with alms, and thy iniquities with works of mercy” (4:24). Truly “charity covereth a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
The Souls in Purgatory, Cannot Pray for Themselves, But They Can Pray for Those Who Pray for Them
Many saints testify to this. Saint Bridget in her Revelations, quoted by Pope Benedict XII (Sermon 4., 12), writes that she heard a voice from Purgatory utter these words: “May those be blessed, may those be rewarded, who relieve us in these pains.” And again, she heard a holy soul pray: “O Lord God, show Thy Almighty power in recompensing a hundredfold those who assist us by their suffrages.” Saint Peter Faber, one of the seven founders of the Jesuits, had a special devotion to the holy souls. This lengthy quote is worth sharing in full:
Those souls have bowels of Charity, which are ever open to those who still walk amidst the dangers of this life; they are filled with gratitude towards those who assist them. They can pray for us, and offer up their torments to God in our behalf. It is a most excellent practice to invoke the souls in Purgatory, that we may obtain from God, through their intercession
*a true knowledge of our sins and a perfect contrition for them
*fervor in the exercise of good works
*care to produce worthy fruits of penance
*and in general, all virtues the absence of which has been the cause of their terrible chastisement. (Memorial of Bl. P. Faber. See Messenger of the Sacred Heart, Nov., 1873)
Saint Robert Bellarmine taught the same, as did the eminent theologian of the Council of Trent, Francisco Suarez, S.J. Suarez writes: “These souls are holy and dear to God. Charity urges them to love us, and they know, at least in a general way, to what dangers we are exposed, and what need we have of the Divine assistance. Why, then, would they not pray for their benefactors?” (Schouppe, p 337)
Finally, Saint John Marie Vianney told a certain ecclesiastic who consulted him on the subject: “Oh, if it were but known how great is the power of the good souls in Purgatory with the Heart of God, and if we knew all the graces we can obtain through their intercession, they would not be so much forgotten. We must, therefore, pray much for them, that they may pray much for us.” (Schouppe, p. 339)
Have Great Devotion to Our Lady and Trust Her to Give Relief to the Souls in Purgatory
In every Hail Mary we petition Our Lady to pray for us sinners NOW and at the hour of our death. This petition is in the plural. The souls in Purgatory are included with us as sinners, are they not? Our Lady is our Mother, the Refuge of Sinners and Consoler of the Afflicted. She wants us to have a salutary and filial fear of God but also a great confidence (supernatural hope) in her. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost culminating in holy wisdom. Fear of the Lord is also “the beginning of His love” (Ecclus. 25:16). “Have confidence my son,” Mary assured her servant Jerome Carvalho in a vision, “I am the Mother of Mercy for my dear children in Purgatory, as well as for those still living upon earth.” (Schouppe, p. 369) To Saint Bridget she said, “I am the Mother of all those who are in the place of expiation; my prayers mitigate the chastisements inflicted upon them for their faults.” (Book 4. Chap. 1) It is in this spirit of confidence and charity that we can benefit from wearing the Brown Scapular and partake of our Mother’s promises provided we faithfully serve her and wear her livery worthily.
Death and Extreme Unction
For those foolish souls who delayed their conversion, fortunate enough to receive His Mercy at the eleventh hour, the sacrament of the sick and dying will give strength to imitate Christ on the Cross. It is their last chance to unite with His Passion by offering Him their last agony and accepting death with holy resignation. The last sacrament and holy Viaticum, received with perfect contrition, will also chase away the demons of despair. Perhaps some holy person who loves such a one merited for him this inexpressible gift. Of this gift we ought not to presume, God forbid. Father Schouppe opines that, for a pious soul, the sufferings patiently endured that accompany death can atone for all of one’s temporal punishment in the next life. However, short of a revelation of such a blessing, only God knows who has merited this favor. We ought never to assume this on our own. Rather, as we do know, we must assume that the deceased friend, no matter how holy we think he was, has gone to Purgatory and, for as long as we live, we should pray for him. This is charity. Such prayers will never be wasted. How could they be? Our Lady will dispense of every grace to whom she wills, so long as men are born and Purgatory exists.
It is our utmost duty in charity to inform the sick man that his illness is mortal. To hide this from him would be a grave sin. “We must,” says Saint Augustine, “prudently impart to the sick person the knowledge of his danger.” (Schouppe, p. 394) Nor must we wait until the last minute to do so. No one knows how fast a mortal sickness may deprive one of his faculties. In such a case (more common than not), even if a priest arrives at the death bed, no one knows but God if the dying person is aware of what is happening at the hands of the priest. It is said that the last of our senses to go is hearing. How unfortunate it is for a sinner, who could have confessed in word, to lose his speech before being administered the last rites! True, if such a one is in mortal sin, he can still, interiorly, with a special grace, make an act of perfect contrition. That is why we should say the Act of Contrition loudly at a person’s deathbed who is comatose and pray that he joins us in his heart. It is never too late to receive the last rites so long as there is breath left and the soul has not departed. Father Scouppe relates several cases in which this grace was responded to. In one case Our Lady had mercy on a man who was a non-practicing Catholic simply for his devotedness in providing his devout wife with fresh flowers every Sunday which she placed before her Queen’s shrine. He made a perfect act of contrition and was saved.
No, while the sick man is able, it is then that we must summon the priest. Are we so ignorant that we have forgotten that Extreme Unction can also restore bodily health, if God wills it? It is His sacrament. And He instituted it for our physical as well as our spiritual recovery when seriously sick. “Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man: and the Lord shall raise him up: and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him” (James 5:14).
Finally, let us never forget that we store up treasure in heaven for ourselves by giving suffrage to the holy souls. In turn, they will pray for us while we live in this vale of tears.
We must have a great and true devotion to Our Lady, especially if we are consecrated to her as Slaves of Her Immaculate Heart, if we hope to save our souls and even bypass Purgatory.
Longing for God
I conclude with the words of Saint Faustina Kowalska, who lived from 1905 to 1938. In her Diary, she writes:
“I saw my guardian angel, who ordered me to follow him. In a moment I was in a misty place full of fire in which there was a great crowd of suffering souls. They were praying fervently, but to no avail, for themselves; only we can come to their aid. The flames, which were burning them, did not touch me at all. My guardian angel did not leave me for an instant. I asked these souls what their greatest suffering was. They answered me in one voice that their greatest torment was longing for God.
“I saw Our Lady visiting the souls in purgatory. The souls call her ‘The Star of the Sea.’ She brings them refreshment. I wanted to talk with them some more, but my guardian angel beckoned me to leave. We went out of that prison of suffering. [I heard an interior voice, which said] ‘My mercy does not want this, but justice demands it. Since that time I am in closer communion with the suffering souls.’” (Sister Faustina Kowalska Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul, p 20)