On the Road with the Sisters: Purgatory

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Aim for Heaven, so if you miss, hopefully you will land in Purgatory. What is Purgatory? Temporal punishment due to sin. Does it exist? Can we help the poor souls there? Today, Sisters Teresa Benedicta and Martin Therese share insights into Purgatory, the Church’s teachings on it, and miracles, apparitions, and authenticated relics associated with Purgatory and the poor souls there.

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

Welcome to On the Road with the Sisters. I’m Sister Teresa Benedicta.

Sister Martin Therese: 

I’m Sister Martin Therese. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

We’d like to have you join us as we travel to Purgatory.

Sister Martin Therese: 

We’re going to Purgatory. Is that what you mean? 

Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

That is the wrong answer. We want to go to heaven. Aim for heaven. Never aim for Purgatory. Why would we want to know about Purgatory?

Sister Martin Therese: 

Purgatory is about temporal punishment due to sin. We all sin. Most of us will probably end up in Purgatory, but if we shoot for Purgatory, that’s going to be a problem. We shoot for Heaven and probably most of us will end up in Purgatory to be purified. Someone had explained Purgatory to me one time this way and I love it. When we die and we’re face-to-face with God, we’re going to be so aware of our unworthiness that we are going to desire to be purified for our sins, and all the suffering that comes through that we’re actually going to want to experience so that we can be in the presence of God fully alive, cleansed of all of our sins.

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Sister Teresa Benedicta: 

When I was younger, the image that always came to mind is when we would have guests, mom would go in to “clean the house” mode. All of a sudden, everything stopped and everything had to be immaculate. As kids that was purgatorial, having to clean up your room, and we thought our grandparents don’t care, and they probably didn’t, but this is someone important coming over. These are people we want to honor, so we clean things up, and it would have embarrassed my mom to have guests come into the house if it wasn’t clean. It’s kind of like that with our own souls where we would be uncomfortable in God’s Presence if we hadn’t cleaned up a little bit of what’s there. Obviously, we’re not actually going to Purgatory today, but one of the prominent things in Catholic culture and in Catholic art is the reality of death. You look at the paintings of the Saints, particularly from the Middle Ages, and there are often skulls in paintings. There is a famous Church in Rome affectionately known as the bone church. The monks took the remains the bones of their brothers and built them into the wall of their church. They even have signs as if the bones are saying, “As you are, we once were.” When you go to the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica, there’s a beautiful tomb done by Bernini. It is the tomb of Pope Alexander the VII. He has at the base of the tomb carved out of marble this red curtain falling over the tomb, and there is a whimsical looking skeleton under this curtain with an hourglass, and the symbol is death comes to all of us and we don’t know the hour. We don’t know the time, but all of us need to be prepared for it because at the moment of death, our life choices that we’ve made determine our eternity. It was so present, particularly in a world where death was common with plagues and diseases in a way that is not so much for us now because we expect to live longer, but none of us know and all of us should be aware and present to the reality that this life is very short. When you think about eternity, this is a moment in all our future and how we live. This moment is so essential.

Sister Martin Therese:  

So many of the churches as we’re walking through Rome are similar. It’s always stuck out to me, all of the skulls and arm bones. It’s odd if you’re an outsider looking in, but it’s so enriching when you’re looking at it through the eyes of the Church and it does keep death at the forefront. Why are we here? We’re not here for this world. We’re here for the next, and death is inevitable for each and every one of us.

Sister Teresa Benedicta:  

One of the churches that touched me is Chiesa Santa Maria Scala Coeli, the Church of Holy Mary Ladder to Heaven. This is this teeny tiny insignificant church, but it came about thus: Emperor Diocletian was building his Baths in Rome, and he built it on slave labor. Legend has it that a good number of those slaves were Christians. We think Zeno and his companions were some of those Christians who were part of this slave labor. In any case when he finished his bath, he slaughtered all of his slaves, and there were about 10,000 of them who were all killed point blank, and he threw their bodies into one location of Rome. Several centuries later in the 12th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux knew where that spot was, and he wanted to pray for the souls of those who’d been killed by Emperor Diocletian.

Sister Martin Therese:  

Incidentally that spot is right near the church where Paul was imprisoned and decapitated, and his head is said to have bounced three times. The church is just a stone’s throw from it.

Sister Teresa Benedicta:  

Some people actually even said that it wasn’t that uncommon a prisoner would die while in prison, and they would throw the body out in that area too. St. Bernard of Clairvaux comes. He knows how important life after death is, and he wants to pray for those who have died and particularly those who died without a lot of warning or preparation. He and the pope of that time offer Missa Requiem, Mass for the Dead, on that spot. During the mass St. Bernard of Clairvaux has a vision in which he sees a ladder ascending from the altar up into heaven and the souls of those who died are accompanied by the Angels ascending into heaven, and for him it was a reminder of after people die, we can’t touch them. We can’t see them, but We’re still connected in faith and our prayers matter. They make a difference. When we pray for people, especially when we offer masses for the dead, it helps them. You talk about Purgatory purifying us so we can see the face of God. Our prayers help purify those who have died and help them get to the point where they can see the face of God. St. Bernard of Clairvaux has this beautiful vision of that happening as he’s saying the mass, and now in the church they have that picture. It was amazing the way they built that church in that spot. It was built with taller steps than usual to look like the steps are a ladder, and the church itself is built in an octagon shape. Think about Catholic history. Where else do you have Catholic religious items in that shape? The octagon-shaped baptismal font. The idea behind it is the Eighth Day, Sunday, and the eighth day is the day of resurrection. This little tiny church is built in an octagon as if to say this entire church is reminding us to pray for the dead. When we pray, it’s as if our prayers bring about the resurrection, so visually the whole church is saying how important it is to pray for the dead and to remember that they need our prayers. 

Sister Martin Therese:  

They can’t pray for themselves. They can pray for us. They’re powerful intercessors, but they can’t pray for themselves, so it’s up to us to help get them to Heaven quicker. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta:  

You showed me in Rome the Purgatory Museum, and I’m kind of skeptical. Can you explain some of the things that we saw in the Purgatory Museum?

Sister Martin Therese:  

First, it is one of the only Gothic churches in Rome. When you’re standing at the front of the church if you look up there is a base relief of the souls in Purgatory. To symbolize their hope of getting to Heaven, they’re reaching upwards. Then you walk in the church, and this church is called The Sacred Heart of Suffrages in English. I’m not going to attempt the Italian. This church was founded by an order of priests whose sole reason for existence was to pray for the poor souls and offer masses for them. Fr. Victor Jouët came, and he was at this church. The church had a fire and was almost destroyed. After the fire had dissipated and they were able to go back in, there was an image left on one of the walls, which unfortunately they’ve covered up with a triptych, but there is an image of a face that Father Jouët believed was a poor soul in Purgatory begging for prayers that was really suffering, so he began to offer prayers. It was that experience that [encouraged him] to fundraise so he could rebuild the church. He went all throughout Europe with the permission of Pope Pius the X, he actually asked if he could also look for relics of the poor souls, if you will, or stories to substantiate the fact that the poor souls actually do come to us. The museum that I showed you has all of these artifacts left by the poor souls in Purgatory, and I know you’re very skeptical about it, but you have to remember what the purpose is. The purpose is to increase the devotion for us to pray for the poor souls. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta:  

I’m from New Mexico, and we have alien museums. People talk about the aliens landing. They have articles of the burn marks from the UFO, the pictures that they took, and some of them are clearly fake. Why aren’t relics of the poor souls? First, describe the relics, and then explain why it isn’t similar to the aliens.

Sister Martin Therese:  

It’s not similar to the alien museum although we don’t know if there’s aliens, but that’s another story. With the poor souls, there’s probably about 15 or 20 artifacts that have been authenticated. They have Bishops seals and approvals that these stories are true. Some of the stories have been recorded in annals of monasteries for those who have died who have appeared to sisters, and so they’ve been authenticated that way. It’s just like any kind of private revelation. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta:  

I’m free to be a skeptic. 

Sister Martin Therese:  

You are totally free, but I encourage you to have an open mind. In the Museum, there’s burn marks, primarily hands that have left burn marks whether it be on pages of books, but probably the most striking one was the deep handprint of a priest on a piece of wood and a cross that he had traced.

Sister Teresa Benedicta:  

What’s the story behind that? 

Sister Martin Therese:  

I’m not I’m not clear with all the details, but basically it was a priest who appeared to a nun. He needed prayers, and he appeared to her and asked her to pray for his soul because he was suffering in Purgatory. When he appeared to her, it is said that he had rested his hand on her desk because her desk is where she does all of her work and to remind her, he traced the cross on the desk. I think that’s how the story goes. There might be some of the details that are a little mixed up. One of my favorites in there is the handprint on a shirtsleeve. The story is that Mrs. Leleux appeared to her son. She had died. Her husband had died previously. She appeared to her son in 1794 on the night of June 21st. For 11 consecutive nights leading up to the night of June 21st, he was hearing these noises as he was trying to sleep and it freaked him out and he was wrought with fear. On that night of June 21st, his mother appeared to him, and she had been dead for however long and so he was taken aback, and she actually chastised him for the way he was living his life because he wasn’t living a Christian life. She said, “Your father left you a good sum of money, and he asked you one thing to do with that money and that was to offer masses for us when we died for our souls if we ended up in Purgatory, and you have not done that.” He was like, “I know.” While she was doing that, she touched his arm, and you can see the print of her hand on his shirt sleeve now. I see that and think “Yeah, why can’t the poor souls leave marks?” It’s a good reminder for us that they are there and can have contact with us. They can’t pray for themselves, but we can certainly pray for them. As you said earlier, the masses are the most powerful prayers for the poor souls to get them to heaven, and it’s our responsibility. I told my students all the time, “Please if you ever hear that I died, which I will someday, please pray for my soul.” They kind of laugh, but I’m like, “No, seriously because you don’t want me to have to appear to you and leave a burn mark on your desk or something. That’d be terrible.”

Sister Teresa Benedicta:  

That thought makes me uncomfortable, that people I love would appear or would leave burn marks. Why would you not be freaked out by that idea?

Sister Martin Therese:  

The idea of it is scary if you think about it, but I think there’s something to the fact that first God’s not going to give us anything we can’t handle. He’s not going to allow anything that we can’t handle. You think you think that you can’t handle it, but if it’s someone that you love, like your mother or your father, and they appear to you, I think very much like when we experience death of a loved one and then we have a dream about them, we’re actually comforted to be able to see them again. I don’t know because I’ve never experienced it obviously, but I would think it’s the same thing if my mom, when she dies, if she were to appear to me, I think there’d be a sense of comfort because there’s a familiarity. It’s my mom. She’s the one who raised me, the one who cared for me, so I don’t think there would be fear. Now if it was someone who I didn’t know, there might be a little. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta:  

I think it’s important to remember too that there were [just a few] of these relics of the souls in Purgatory authenticated, so it’s not as if this is a common occurrence, but at times the souls do remind us to pray that way. 

Sister Martin Therese:  

I think there are a lot of forgotten souls. I think a lot of times there’s a danger of canonizing our loved ones when they die, and when we do that, we have to be careful because are they getting prayed for if they’re in Purgatory? We need to remember we need to pray for them. We might think they are holy and lived a beautiful life and are going straight to Heaven as comforting for us, but the reality is that they might be suffering in Purgatory. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta:  

Something has struck me as a lot of the modern Saints speak about Purgatory and praying for the souls of Purgatory. I remember St. Bernadette where our Lady appeared to her at Lourdes. So many people have gone to Lourdes. When Bernadette was a sister, she said, “People are already saying I’m a saint. When I die, I’ll be in Purgatory, and no one’s going to pray for me.” She was pleading with her sisters, “Don’t canonize me. Pray for me.” She knew there was the reality of we’re all aiming for heaven, but we also want others to pray for us and to remember us in part. It’s not a morbid thing. It’s not a lack of honor that I’m a sinner. It’s a reality. You were telling me earlier a Padre Pio story.

Sister Martin Therese:  

There’s one story I absolutely love. He was visited they say a lot by the poor souls. When I was in San Giovanni Rotondo, I saw the place where he used to spend many hours in prayer. It’s up in a loft looking down into the main church. One night, he had gone to pray in the dark, and he was deep in prayer, and he heard a lot of glass moving and candles and vases like he was imagining someone is there, so he looked up and it was dark in the church, but he looked up and he didn’t really see anything. He went back to prayer and again he heard and then it sounded like a glass actually fell, so he looked up again and saw someone in the sanctuary, and he yelled out, “Who are you?” and this voice, this young man looked at him and said, “I’m a Capuchin novice and my Purgatory is here. I need prayers. I want to get to Heaven. Will you please pray for me?” The novice disappeared, and immediately Padre Pio began praying for this young novice and within a few weeks, the novice reappeared to him and let him know that he had gone to heaven and to thank him for his prayers. Another one is St. Gemma Galgani. She knew this Passionist nun who is suffering with tuberculosis and asthma. She was coughing a ton, and she was suffering a lot and wanted to die, and Gemma knew that she was suffering a lot and begged that God would take her straight to heaven and was praying this. After a few days, the nun died and came to appear to Gemma within a few days after her death and stated to her that she was in Purgatory for her lack of patience in her sufferings, and Gemma was moved by this and began praying even more fervently and had masses said for her. After 16 days our Lady appeared to Gemma and told Gemma, “I want to tell you that your prayers have been efficacious,” and she saw this Passionist nun walking towards her with her guardian angel on one side and our Lord Jesus Christ on her other side, and the nun came to tell her, “I want to thank you for my prayers. I am with my Lord Jesus Christ in Heaven for all eternity.” These are the Saints who are telling this, so I look back at this Museum and I’m like, “Okay, so the Church hasn’t given her official stamp of approval, but we know through the lives of the Saints that the poor souls do appear to people to beg for prayers because there’s such a need.”

Sister Teresa Benedicta:  

I’m moved by the lives of the Saints, but I’m still skeptical. 

Sister Martin Therese:  

The beautiful thing is you don’t need to believe it. The important thing is that we’re praying for them, and I think that’s the purpose of those things. It’s not for everyone, and it doesn’t need to be, but I think Father Jouët in doing this and making this little Museum, it moves people and reminds them that people are in Purgatory and need prayers. I think that’s the whole point of this. Not that I want to be visited by any poor souls in Purgatory, but it does keep me praying for them. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta:  

It’s interesting sister I wasn’t as moved in the Purgatory Museum, but I was really moved at Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. It’s the end of the world when Purgatory is going to cease to exist. You’ll have Heaven or Hell, but he portrays it where when the last judgment occurs, there are souls in Purgatory and in the lower left hand corner, which actually until modern times you wouldn’t have been able to see until they cleaned up the image, but in the lower left corner, you have the souls in Purgatory. It’s interesting because he has the Saints both in Heaven and on Earth, praying for them and through their intercession, you see the souls in Purgatory, both from people on Earth and in Heaven moving from Purgatory into Heaven. In The Last Judgement this central figure is Jesus, his hand raised in judgment, but the hand we often don’t notice is the hand that’s not raised but at his side beckoning and that hand beckoning is on the same side where the Blessed Mother is nestled by His side as if to say she is the quickest route. She is that ladder to Heaven that helps us to reach Christ, and what moved me is in Michelangelo’s painting, he has a saint leaning down with his rosary, and he’s got two souls, two different races grabbing onto the rosary, and he’s pulling them up. The only time you have multiple souls being pulled out, and it’s this image that when we ask our Lady’s intercession, there’s a power and also movement to think of the role of the Saints and praying for us the rule of the Rosary and how important those prayers are and how in turn those souls in Heaven will continue to reach down and pray for us throughout our life.

Sister Martin Therese:  

We think about the rosary. The Fatima prayer in between each decade is a constant prayer for the souls and for our own obviously. I love the Sistine Chapel. I wish it had been a quiet time when we were there, but there’s so many people, and all you hear is silencio, silencio. Was there anything else that you want to add about the poor souls in Purgatory or any other stories that really struck you? 

Sister Teresa Benedicta:  

One of the things that struck me as a sister is our sisters have a devotion to the poor souls to pray for them because when someone’s in Purgatory, what are they doing? They’re preparing themselves to see God. The only thing they can offer the rest of the world is their prayers, and so there’s a power in asking the prayers of those in Purgatory, and I find that very beautiful to realize not only can I pray for those in Purgatory, but I continue to ask them to pray for me.

Sister Martin Therese:  

Their prayers are powerful. I think that’s another way that they remind us that they’re here. Don’t forget to pray for me. Now that special relationship with them and what happens to the poor souls? We pray for them, and the kids always ask this in the classroom. What if we pray for our grandmother who died and she’s in heaven? What happens to those prayers? What does God do with those? 

Sister Teresa Benedicta:  

God’s merciful, so prayer is never wasted. If it doesn’t go to Grandma, it’ll go to someone else who needs it. It’s up to God where He gives it. If Grandma has moved from Purgatory to Heaven, she’s still involved in our life and still gets to pray for us.

Sister Martin Therese:  

I absolutely love our faith, all the devotions particularly praying for the poor souls in Purgatory, to the rosary through offering masses for them. It’s so rich. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta:  

One of the things I love about living a monastic life is how present it is in our life to pray for those who have died, and it strikes me when you go throughout Europe and visit older monasteries, in the church or in the cloister, you’ll see in the ground the tombs of the brothers or the sisters who have died. The idea behind it is that as you walk through the church or the cloister, you’re looking down upon those who have died and you pray for them. The Dominicans have a tradition that every evening, we line the cloister hallway that’s set aside for praying for the Dead. Every evening after Vespers, we line this hallway and pray, “Out of the depths, I cry to You, O Lord,” remembering those who have died. It’s moving to me to see those tombs laid out in the church and the monasteries, reminding us repeatedly that life continues on and keep praying for them. Keep remembering them.

Sister Martin Therese:  

One of my favorite prayers that we pray for the dead as well is the Libra, and we have a procession, and the sister goes down blessing, and it’s almost to the poor souls in Purgatory to remind us to continue to pray for them, and we’re praying very deeply together one with the others in united voice asking God to release these souls from their suffering.

Sister Teresa Benedicta:  

Thank you so much for all that you shared and your opinion on the Purgatory Museum. It helps me to see it in a less skeptical way. Thank you for that and thank you for inspiring me to pray for the poor souls.

Sister Martin Therese:  

Thank you, sister, for all of your history and your research. I love it. 

Sister Teresa Benedicta:  

And thank the poor souls in Purgatory.

Sister Martin Therese:  Pray for us in the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit. Amen.


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