Reigning from 1198 to 1216, Pope Innocent III was one of the most influential and important popes of his era.
He granted Francis of Assisi and his small band of followers permission to found the Order of Friars Minor; he convened the Fourth Lateran Council which, among other things, dogmatically defined the doctrine of transubstantiation; and he organized great efforts to combat heresy in Europe and repel invading Muslim forces.
Then, after more than 18 years as pope, he died suddenly. But that wasn’t the last he was heard from.
When a Christian dies, Catholics believe, they may go straight to heaven if they lack any outstanding temporal punishment due to sins they’ve committed. But many Christians will go to purgatory first, where, by the grace of Jesus Christ, they are purified and prepared to enter into the presence of the all-holy God.
The story goes that on the day Pope Innocent III died, or soon thereafter, he appeared to St. Lutgardis of Aywières in Belgium. St. Lutgardis is considered to have been one of the great mystics of the 13th century, known for her miracles, visions, levitation, and particularly adept teaching.
When Pope Innocent appeared to her, he thanked her for her prayers during his lifetime, but explained that he was in trouble: he had not gone straight to heaven but was in purgatory, suffering its purifying fire for three specific faults he had committed during his life.
And he made a desperate plea for help:
“Alas! It is terrible; and will last for centuries if you do not come to my assistance. In the name of Mary, who has obtained for me the favor of appealing to you, help me!”
Then he vanished.
With a sense of urgency, St. Lutgardis quickly told her fellow religious sisters what she had seen and prayed for his soul.