According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, purgatory is “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified.” The Catechism takes pains to note that “this final purification of the elect . . . is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.” According to Catholic belief, you can’t go to hell from purgatory but you can be trapped there for quite some time, depending on how many venial sins you have to expunge. Purification in the purgatorial sense equals punishment, often depicted as involving agonized screams and demonic flames. So you can imagine that the stranded souls are in a pretty big hurry to get out of there.
Fortunately, the process can be speeded up by the prayers of loved ones still on earth. This was the origin of All Soul’s Day, when it was believed that extra hard praying by the living could help the souls of the dead – including those who died without absolution or babies who died before being baptized – to get into heaven. Saint Odilo of Cluny invented All Soul’s Day in the 11th Century after he heard a weird story from a monk. Returning from the Holy Land, the monk was shipwrecked on a not-quite deserted island. There, he met a hermit who told him that the island featured a chasm that led to purgatory and from which burst the aforementioned flames and screams. The hermit also said that he often heard the devils complaining about the effectiveness of prayers – especially the prayers of the monks of Cluny – in getting the souls released. So the then-Abbot Odilo, no doubt flattered by the super praying powers of his monks, set aside 2 November as a special day of intercession for the souls in purgatory.
Yesterday, I paid a visit to the Piccolo Museo del Purgatorio (Little Museum of Purgatory), which is located in the Church of the Sacro Cuore del Suffragio – the Sacred Heart of Suffrage (in addition to its more common meaning of ‘right to vote,’ suffrage also means ‘prayer of intercession.’ I had no idea). The church is on the banks of the Tiber, just next to the Ministry of Justice in Prati. It was built by French priest Victor Jouet in 1893, entirely in the Gothic style, which is very unusual for Rome. It looks like a mini Milan cathedral.
In 1897 there was a fire in one of the chapels and when it had been put out, Father Jouet discovered an image of a suffering face on one of the charred walls. He concluded – as you would – that the image portrayed a soul in purgatory. After that, he travelled all around Europe collecting other evidence of souls in purgatory. He didn’t have much luck (or maybe there are fewer frustrated souls caught in purgatory than one might imagine?) because the entire museum consists of only about a dozen relics. They can be found in a glass case in a tiny room next to the sacristy. A piccolo museo to be sure! If I hadn’t known where to go, I never would have found it. There wasn’t a soul about (see what I just did?) and I had to fumble around to turn on the lights.
The relics are very odd. They date from the 17th-early 20th Centuries and mostly consist of scorched fingerprints – and in a couple of cases, a handprint – left on material and in prayer books and bibles. There’s a little handout available in multiple languages with stories of ghosts that appeared to loved ones, begged them to pray harder for their release from purgatory and left behind a fiery fingerprint as proof.
One lady appeared to her daughter-in-law 30 years after her death to beg her to say some masses for her (that’s her handprint above). I should say so. Thirty years is a very long time to be on fire and screaming.
Here’s my favourite relic description (from the English version of the handout):
A photo of the mark made by the deceased Mrs. Leleux, on the sleeve of her son Joseph’s shirt, when she appeared to him on the night of 21 June 1789 at Wodecq (Belgium). The son related that for a period of eleven consecutive nights, he had heard noises that almost made him sick with fear, at the end of which his mother appeared to him on 21 June 1789. Reminding him of his duty for having Masses said in compliance with the terms of a legacy left him by his father, she reproached him for his way of life and begged him to change his behaviour and to work for the Church. Then she put her hand on the sleeve of his shirt, leaving on it a very clear impression. Joseph Leleux was converted and founded a congregation of pious laity. He died in the odour of sanctity on 19 April 1825.
Which of course begs the question: what does sanctity smell like?
Il Piccolo Museo del Purgatorio, 12 Lungotevere Prati, Rome. Open: 7:30-11:00 am, 4:00-7:00 pm.