Those who have died may need our prayers

Small Rome museum reminds us of purgatory

When did you last pray for the souls in purgatory?

The existence of purgatory is a church teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The church gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (nos. 1030-1031).

The Catechism cites several sources that explain the tradition of purgatory as a form of “a cleansing fire.” Now, whether purgatory is an actual fire or not, is left to faith. As retired Pope Benedict XVI noted in an audience on Jan. 12, 2011, quoting extensively from St. Catherine of Genoa, purgatory is “not an exterior fire, but an interior fire,” and part of “the soul’s journey of purification on the way to full communion with God.”

A soul that has passed to eternal life may need to be purified of whatever would keep it from seeing God perfectly. The idea of a transition between this life here to eternal life with God is the reason we pray for the dead. The feast of All Souls (Nov. 2) remembers all the faithful departed — especially those who are undergoing some final preparation for heaven. During this purification, sometimes called “purgation,” they need our help in the form of prayers.

The tradition of praying for the deceased, called “suffrage,” is very old. In fact, one of the oldest teachings on it can be found in Jewish Scriptures, in the Second Book of Maccabees, written around the second century B.C. Judas Maccabeus collected money to send to Jerusalem to offer expiatory sacrifice for his dead soldiers. As the book notes, “it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead” if there were no hope of them being redeemed and gaining “the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest” (2 Mc 12:44-45).

Since praying for the dead had a long history, some, like the sixth-century Benedictines, set aside a day to pray for the dead. They chose Pentecost. Later, St. Odilo of Cluny (in France), around 1030., extended this practice to all Benedictine abbeys under his jurisdiction. But he also changed the day to Nov. 2, since it followed All Saints Day. The Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (All Souls) spread across Europe and was adopted by the entire church in the 13th century. 

This idea of praying for souls in purgatory is why there is, today, a small museum in Rome called Piccolo Museo Del Purgatorio, or the “Museum of the Holy Souls in Purgatory.” It is located not far from Castel Sant’angelo within the Church of the Sacred Heart in Suffrage, Chiesa del Sacro Cuore del Suffragio.

In the church, just off the sanctuary, is a room lined with glass display cases of items bearing scorch marks. These include aprons, night caps, books and even a desktop, bearing a clear handprint. All of these came from the travels of a priest devoted to the souls in purgatory.

Fr. Victor Jouët was inspired by an image he said he had seen on the wall of the chapel when a fire broke out in the church on Nov. 15, 1897. While the altar and its art were not damaged, the scorch marks on the wall seemed to resemble a human face. Fr. Jouët believed it to be the image of a soul in purgatory in need of prayers. The image is still in the museum — but what it resembles is a bit up to the observer.

Fr. Jouët already had a devotion to the Holy Souls, as they are sometimes called, and decided to make it his mission to travel and look for other signs of these souls seeking prayers. He found several in places such as Belgium, Germany and France, as well as other parts of Italy. Fr. Jouët gathered them into his church, hoping they would inspire people to pray for these souls. He maintained the museum for the rest of his life. Some references say he died in that small chapel in 1912.

Some of the collection seems to have been dispersed. However, one of the more interesting pieces remaining in the museum involves the story of a religious abbess, Venerable Mother Isabella Fornati and the handprint on her desk. Mother Isabella, a Poor Clare, said that a deceased Benedictine abbot appeared to her on All Saints Day in 1731, asking for prayers and leaving his handprint burnt upon the desk. (For images from the museum, visit aleteia.org.)

As for whether one needs to believe that the images in this Rome museum are what it claims they are — images from souls in purgatory — is a matter of personal faith. Each of the stories there falls into the realm of what we call “private revelation.” Private revelations are given to individuals for their personal salvation. These private revelations are not something all people must believe in. This is true with any apparition, vision or religious experience. If these private revelations benefit others in the future, that is through God’s grace.

As the Catechism notes, “(Private revelations) do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history” (n. 67).

As we approach November, the month of All Souls, the church places special focus on prayer for those who have left this life.

Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; catholicculture.org; vatican.va; turismoroma.it; purgatorio.altervista.org; atlasobscura.com; aleteia.org; and catholicism.org.