“Purgatory (to say nothing of Hell), penance, expiation, God’s holy justice: these just do not fit in with today’s cheerfully cheap religiosity.” – Hungry Souls.
No one can say how many modern Catholics believe in Purgatory, but the percentage is unlikely to be high. A recent study showed that less than a third of Catholics believe in transubstantiation. The proportion must be less for Purgatory since it not as central to regular Catholic practice. Priests at Catholic funerals hardly mention it. Many who should know better say that Hell may be empty, despite centuries of teaching. When asked five years ago, “Did Judas go to Hell?” most respondents at a site called “Catholicsay” agreed that he did not.
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Those who believe that Judas Iscariot made it to Heaven probably have not spent much time thinking about Purgatory. Others appear to think that being there is no more painful than a stint in a doctor’s waiting room.
The Book and its Author
However, abundant evidence proves that Purgatory does indeed exist and is very painful for souls that end up there. Gerard J. M. van den Aardweg, Ph.D. presents that evidence in Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory.
Dr. van den Aardweg is a psychotherapist in private practice. He lives in the Netherlands, where those with no religious affiliation outnumber Catholics by over two-to-one. He is not afraid of taking unpopular stands. His considerable scientific work on the nature of homosexuality led to the publication of the book On the Origins and Treatment of Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Reinterpretation and The Battle for Normality: Self-Therapy for Homosexual.
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His book on Purgatory provides brief explanations of the Church’s teachings about the topic. However, that is not the book’s main focus. This exceptional work presents two sets of evidence for the existence of Purgatory based on the testimony of “hungry souls.”
The Church of the Sacred Heart of Suffering in Rome contains much of the physical evidence. It consists of artifacts from episodes with poor souls in Purgatory collected in its Piccolo Museo del Purgatorio (Little Museum of Purgatory). Fr Victor Jouët assembled the collection during the 1890s.
Many artifacts show burned handprints in books and on pieces of cloth. These objects were severely scorched but did not burn – despite the presence of extreme heat. The damage was caused by the visits of souls asking for prayers.
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A typical exhibit is a prayer book that once belonged to Georg Schlitz from the province of Lorraine in France. On December 21, 1838, Georg’s deceased brother Joseph appeared to him, asking that Georg make satisfaction for Joseph’s lack of piety during his earthly life. Joseph’s burning fingers touched the book, leaving the telltale scorch marks of fingers pointing to prayers from the Requiem Mass.
Another exhibit consists of photographs of a corporale (the cloth placed over the chalice during Holy Mass) from a Polish monastery. The story goes that two priests were discussing eternal life. Each promised the other that the first to die would send a sign to prove that eternity was real. Years after the death of the first, the remaining priest was completing the ablutions following the distribution of the Eucharist. He had a fleeting thought that there was no eternal life. At that point, the pattern of a hand appeared on the folded corporale. It burned through the top layer, leaving more faint prints on each of the subsequent layers. The bottom layer showed no signs of burning.
The Evidence of Visionaries
Over the centuries, many examples of poor souls from Purgatory have appeared to others to request acts of penance on their behalf. Hungry Souls relates many of these stories. Saint Thomas Aquinas, for example, received such a visit from his deceased sister. Sister Josepha Menéndez of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart took meticulous notes on the poor souls who were permitted to request her prayers. Saint Padre Pio and Saint Faustina Kowalska reported similar visitations. Saint Brigid of Sweden heard the anguished prayers of the poor souls.
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Other accounts involve simple faithful who are not saints. One such story concerned a Bohemian peasant woman, Ruth. She told of these visitations to her priest, a Father Wagner, who recorded them in his book Das grosse Wagnis (The Great Venture).
One night, her recently deceased husband visited her. During his last illness, when he was in great pain, he blamed God – thereby committing the sin from which he was being purified. At first, she could only hear his voice requesting her prayers. On his second visit, she could see him, and he made a more specific request – three rosaries a day, which she faithfully prayed.
When he returned a few weeks later, his appearance was significantly altered, looking as he did when he was a young man. His facial expression conveyed a combination of gratitude and love. She asked him, “How are you, Jacob?” He answered, “I’m fine. I may come home soon. I thank you, Ruth! I thank you so much!” Jacob then told Ruth that other poor souls would be asking for her help. “They have permission; God gave it to them. You can help them. Don’t reject them! And don’t be afraid!” As her husband predicted, others did come to her during the remaining years of her life.
Another account concerns the work of Father Stanislaus Papczynski. In 1675, he was a chaplain to the Polish Army, which was fighting the Turks in Ukraine. His intense prayers at the graves of the soldiers resulted in many of the fallen appearing to him. This experience was so overwhelming that Father Papczynski dedicated the rest of his life to praying for the poor souls, often with the phrase, “Increase, O Lord, my suffering, that you may diminish the punishment of the souls in Purgatory.”
One chapter describes two souls who repeatedly appeared to Eugenie von der Layen, a German princess, whose family had friendly ties to Pope Pius XII. In 1923-24, Princess Eugenie received the visits of a murdered shepherd and the man who had killed her grandfather. Hungry Souls contains her diary entries describing each of the encounters and the months-long process through which her prayers allowed each to enter Heaven. Eugenie von der Layen’s memoirs have been published in German under the title Meine Gespräche mit Armen Seelen (My Conversations with Poor Souls) but were not translated into English.
Can We Ignore the Evidence?
The Church has no verification process for such accounts. As with all private revelations, individual believers are free to accept or dismiss them. However, it seems appropriate to conclude with the summation of the complaints of many poor souls related by Ruth; the Bohemian peasant woman referred to earlier:
“You in the world have no inkling of what we have to suffer! Being abandoned and forgotten by those who have been nearest to us in the world: that is most bitter. Sometimes they stand at the tombs of our decayed bodies and don’t pray for us at all. They act as if we don’t exist anymore. God’s justice commands us to be silent. But we stand at the door of their houses, of our former dwellings, and wait. We stand there and wait. Days, years. We wait for them to give us a small sign of their love by prayers and sacrifices. But we stay there in vain. We cry in vain for love. For help! Tell them through the priest: Love should not die at death. We are still alive and we are hungry for love! For your love!” (Emphasis in the original.)
Hungry Souls is an excellent introduction to the subject of Purgatory. It is relatively short, 157 pages, including notes and bibliography. Readers will likely come away with questions, but this is an excellent starting point. The book tries to cover too much ground in too little space, which keeps it from flowing as well as it might. The book also has no index.
However, the virtues of Hungry Souls far outweigh its faults. This book is excellent for the Catholic who is just beginning to take this part of the Church’s teachings seriously. It could also be a useful gift for those considering entering the Church, but who find the idea of Purgatory to be a stumbling block. Dr. van den Aardweg must be commended for writing it.