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Do Souls Return from Purgatory?

The surprising evidence

Judging from the response to a recent post on holy souls who return from Purgatory, there seems to be a lot of interest in the subject. But, as Rome’s Little Museum of Purgatory contains only a tiny collection of the known “hard evidence” left behind by these holy souls, it makes sense to follow up with a sampling of burn marks left on cloth, books, doors and people, which can (or could, in the case of people) be seen in many places across Europe. And then there is, of course, the written testimonies of saints to which one can turn as further evidence of holy souls returning from Purgatory.

Unlike Marley’s ghost in Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” holy souls rarely (if ever) return to warn hardened sinners of the hellish fate that could await them in the afterlife. Instead, God allows a relatively small number to appear to living people who are future saints — declared and undeclared — on whom these holy souls can count for “suffrages,” i.e., prayers, Masses, works of charity or penance offered for their release from Purgatory.

An engrossing book on these phenomena, Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages and Warnings from Purgatory by the renowned Belgian psychologist Gerard J.M. van den Aardweg, was published in 2010. Here’s a taste of some of the fascinating people and events you can find in this book.

Just a few of the many saints whose experiences with holy souls in Purgatory are described in Hungry Souls are Saints Teresa of Avila, Gertrude of Helfta, Catherine of Genoa, Francis de Sales, Margaret Mary Alacoque, and in the past century, Maria Faustina Kowalska and Padre Pio. Many “blesseds,” as well, are known to have been visited by holy souls in Purgatory, among them Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, Anna Maria Taigi and Stanislaus Papczyński, founder of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception.

A striking example of a hand mark left by a holy soul is kept in the Paulinian monastery in Częstochowa, Poland, the pilgrimage site of the “Black Madonna” icon (Our Lady of Częstochowa). In 1890, Father Reichel, a parish priest of Hundsfeld (near Wrocław in western Poland), was visiting Częstochowa on a pilgrimage with two “confreres” and gave the earliest extant account of the corporale he was shown. The Paulians explained the story behind it this way:

Two clerics of the monastery (of the Paulinian Order) had promised one another many years ago that the one who would die first would give the other one a sign from the beyond. Now one of them was dead already for a long time and never had given a sign. This was what the other one was thinking about, when one day he just had finished holy Mass and, as usual, was folding together the corporal before him, in nine folds. Then the evil doubt went through his head that perhaps there would be no survival after death at all. At that moment, a hand appears, lays itself on the corporal, and immediately disappears again. How much it was ablaze through and through, however, is shown clearly enough by the combustion of the nine-times folded up linen, exactly in the form of the hand.

Here is Father Reichel’s description of the corporale, which appeared to have been touched on the top layer by a hand that was burning red-hot:

The upper layers of the linen were totally burned through, the lower were browned, increasingly more lightly; in the deeper parts between the individual joints the folds of the linen were conserved [visible], there where the muscles are more articulate [thicker], the combustion was quite visibly stronger, decreasing gradually to the sides.

At the monastery of the Franciscan nuns of St. Ann at Foligno, Italy, one can still see the hand imprint of a deceased religious, Sister Teresa Margarita Gesta, on the door of the linen room

– “better and more clear than if made with a glowing iron hand.” Sister Teresa Margarita left the imprint there on November 3, 1859. Less than three weeks later, an official examination was conducted. Sister’s body was exhumed and it was discovered that the nun’s hand exactly fit the burn mark on the door.

The deceased Johann Klements appeared numerous times between 1641 and 1642 in what is now Bratislava, Slovakia. Affidavits of 32 people attested to their having witnessed at least some of the apparitions. In 1643, the local bishop examined and published the “case” describing the events. Klements left a total of five burn marks of a hand that matched his own in life, missing the upper phalanx of his right forefinger.

In 1669, deceased Vicar Christoph Wallbach left a burned-in thumb imprint in a prayer book in Hall in Tirol (Austria). Wallbach appeared to the housekeeper of one of the priests who succeeded him in the parish, explaining that, having already been in Purgatory for 65 years, he was fated to spend another 50 in Purgatory “if he were not released by suffrages during the half-year granted him to ask for help.” Wallbach left an “impressive sign to make it clear how terrible a fire it was he was in, because on earth he had read holy Masses out of avarice, for the money he could get; also, he wanted to prove that his appearance was no illusion.” A number of people, including the parish priest, had witnessed strange manifestations in the church and heard Wallbach’s moaning.

The thumb burn in the prayer book of Hall went right through a heavy cover of wood and pigskin and then through 40 pages and, decreasing in intensity, through 30 more pages. It must have been produced during one short, intense moment, for there are no traces of burning beside the burned-in hole. A blacksmith experimented with a glowing iron thumb but could not reproduce the phenomenon himself; instead, the whole paper burned. 

Van den Aardweg explains that as an apparition begins — the seer and bystanders often observe physical phenomena such as atmospheric changes, a gust of cold wind, crackling sounds, a strange and sudden silence; the spirit develops its figure and form out of a hazy cloud or mist, or starts as a passing shadow. It is not unusual for animals to perceive something physical, too: dogs may become scared, and cattle or chickens become restless. The perception of a spirit cannot be reduced to a merely mental event, something internal in the seer; it is a manifestation outside of him.

Holy souls may appear as the persons they were in life, wearing clothing typical of their time and state, and sometimes amid flames. But they also may appear “as deformed humans with remarkable symbolic features that represent their sins and/or punishments — sometimes even as humanized animals or animalized humans.”

Van den Aardweg quotes an observation of the 20th-century seer, Eugenie von der Leyen, who wrote: “You never see such eyes in men … they demonstrate, or give to understand, misery. The mouth … this bitterness is found in no [living] human.”

Some holy souls appear in early visitations to be ghastly, moaning half-human beasts, incapable of speech. Thanks to the prayers and sacrifices of an intercessor, they gradually begin to look less terrifyingly ugly and more beautifully human. As more of the “rust of sin” wears off them, as God’s love and grace is able to transform them, they become luminously beautiful, before announcing that they are about to enter heaven.

One example described by van den Aardweg is that of the father of Sister Mary Seraphine, a monastic in Malines (Belgium). He appeared to her in 1870, within three months of his death, engulfed in flames. He informed her that he was to spend six more months in Purgatory (after the Blessed Virgin Mary had obtained a reduction of his sentence of several years due to his devotion to the Blessed Mother and his many acts of charity). He showed his daughter the fiery cistern that he occupied with “several hundreds.” He begged for the prayers of her community to reduce his sentence by half. In his early visitations, he complained ceaselessly about his suffering and asked his daughter to endure greater sacrifices and have the community intensify their prayers for him. Gradually, his complaints gave over to greater joy and a desire to love God better. In the last visitations to Sister Marie Seraphine, “he was so resplendent that her eyes could scarcely bear the dazzling light.”

Some final thoughts: St. Teresa of Avila noted that of the many holy souls she had known, only three had been able to totally escape Purgatory by the holiness of their lives. I don’t know about you, but I suspect the total escape from Purgatory is not in my future. 

And don’t count on being able to return to beg your family and friends for many Masses and sacrifices. The memoirs of a German parish priest, Fr. Hermann Wagner, who survived the N*** occupation and World War II, record the confidences of a holy widow he called “Ruth” to preserve her anonymity. She reported to him the many visitations she had received from holy souls in Purgatory and what she’d learned from them. “Most poor souls are never allowed to make themselves known by appearing to someone,” she noted. “In particular not the poorest poor souls.” Ruth added that “a certain category of poor souls do penance in such a terrible darkness and desolation that they believe they are lost forever” and “if a human being were to see their real condition, he would die.”

The holy souls in Purgatory are powerless to help themselves to attain heaven. It is only through the Blessed Mother’s intercession and our suffrages that their time in Purgatory can be shortened. And, of course, no one is more grateful for the gift of living in the presence of God, his angels and his saints than are the holy souls who had suffered much to get there and who were aided by our prayers. They, in turn, become our ardent intercessors.

This November and always, we’d do well to follow the advice and attitude of St. Josemaría Escrivá:
  The holy souls in purgatory. Out of charity, out of justice, and out of excusable selfishness
— they have such power with God! — remember them often in your sacrifices and in your prayers. 

May you be able to say when you speak of them, “My good friends the souls in purgatory.”

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