Apparitions of Poor Souls from Purgatory

The Casuist: A Collection Of Cases In Moral And Pastoral Theology
Author: Rev. John A. McHugh, O.P.
Source: The Casuist: A Collection Of Cases In Moral And Pastoral Theology, Volume 5



Claudia, a very sensible and staid woman, tells her confessor the following experience:

“A few weeks ago my mother, a very conscientious and devout person, died suddenly. Night before last she appeared to me — I was wide awake — her expression was sad and troubled ; after a short while she spoke to me, saying that she had to endure great suffering in purgatory, and she asked me to have a Mass said for her on a privileged altar, to offer up Communion five times, to make the Stations of the Cross once, and to say the rosary on three consecutive Saturdays. Then she vanished. This apparition was quite unforeseen and made a profound and painful impression upon me, so that I feel impelled to comply with her request. Today I wish to begin with offering up Holy Communion. But first I would ask you to tell me whether I am allowed to heed the apparition and the request.”

The chief points which the confessor must here consider are the following :

  1. The confessor is not at liberty to doubt the possibility of such apparitions ( Deo sic volente), or abruptly to declare them a case of superstition. There are many, of course, who deny the possibility of such apparitions, and who speak of them in terms of derision and mockery; but if we inquire from what kind of people such denunciation emanates we find they are those who deny the existence of God, and the immortality of the soul, or purgatory, or at least doubt these fundamental truths ; or those infected by the canker of rationalism, who therefore thrust from them everything belonging to the realm of the supernatural. The opinion of such persons is of no value in the present case.
    That an intercourse may take place between the world of spirits and the world of men is plainly evident from the first to the last page of the Bible. It begins with the appearance of the devil in Paradise, and concludes with the apparition of the Angel to the seer of Patmos. Also there is evidence of apparitions of departed human souls. Judas Machabeus had in a dream a vision of two saints long departed, the high priest Onias and the prophet Jeremias, the latter handing him a golden sword for the holy combat, and the author of the book calls this dream worthy of belief (cf. II. Mach. 15, 11). At the transfiguration of Christ on Tabor there appeared Moses and Elias; the three disciples, Peter, James, and his brother John, beheld them and heard them converse with the Lord (cf . Matt. 17, 1). At the resurrection of the Redeemer many saints left their tombs and appeared to many persons in Jerusalem (cf. Matt. 17, 53). Why, then, might not the souls in purgatory by Divine permission or disposition, appear to the living, be it to invoke their assistance, or to bring them a Divine warning concerning their salvation ?
    But it is not Holy Writ alone that gives evidence of the possibility of a communication between the spirit world and that of men ; we have from all centuries of the Church most credible witnesses to this fact, among them persons of high standing in the Church. Regarding the abundant and unimpeachable testimony of these credible persons, who either relate such appearances from irrefutable sources, as, for instance, Saint Peter Damian ( Opusc : xxxiv.), or to whom such visions appeared, as Saint Theresa, the theologians say: “It is certain that the souls suffering in purgatory have appeared at times to the eyes of their friends and relations, with sad and troubled mien, in order to implore of them their prayers and their intercession.” (Scaramelli.) St. Thomas of Aquin thus declares himself on this subject:
    “We must distinguish regarding the departed souls as to what happens to them according to the laws of nature and according to the dispositions of Divine providence, because, as St. Augustine says, different are the limitations of things human, different the manifestations of Divine power, different what happens in the natural order, and different the miraculous. According to the natural order, the departed souls, after they have been placed by God in their abode, are barred from association with the living. Divine Providence, however, permits them at times to leave their abode to appear to the eyes of men, as is related by St. Augustine of the martyr Felix, who appeared visibly to the citizens of Nola, when they were beset by their enemies.
    We may further believe that the souls undergoing punishment are sometimes allowed to appear to the living, either for the instruction and warning of men, or, in the case of those in purgatory, to implore aid, as is proved by many incidents related by St. Gregory the Great (Suppl, qu, 69. a. 3). St. Augustine terms it a “great impertinence” to declare such apparitions impossible, since so many proofs and so many men inspired by the spirit of God can be quoted for their actual occurrence. (“Magnae impudentiae est, negare animas identidem e suis sedibus ad nos emitti cum tot viri sapientes et Deo pleni idipsum ratione et experimento comprobent suo,” De cura pro mortuis)
    Similarly writes Benedict XIV, in his work on the canonization and beatification of the servants of God. Hence Dr. Ernest Muller teaches : “Certum est, mortuorum apparitiones esse possibiles quia et angeli licet spiritus sint, apparent — et quia plurimas mortuorum apparitiones genuina historia refert.”
  2. In the case of an apparition of a suffering soul from purgatory inquiry must be made whether there are circumstances that point to superstition, or otherwise render the matter suspicious.
    Suspicious would be the desire for such an apparition; it would point to presumption, or to idle curiosity, even to conceit. Such coveting excites the imagination, so that one readily sees and hears the desired things, moreover God may permit in punishment of such sins a mockery by evil spirits. While evil spirits, as St. Augustine, St. Chrysostom, St. Thomas and other theologians teach, cannot cite the souls of the departed either from purgatory or from hell, they may assume their shapes, and thus deceive the curious.
    A second, even more important point, is, that the persons who claim that a soul from purgatory has appeared to them, have done nothing to bring it about, have not employed superstitious means, that the purpose of the vision is a good one, that the speech of the apparition contains nothing contrary to faith or good morals, nor is otherwise suspicious. The temperament of the persons who have had visions must also be taken into account ; it makes a great difference whether they are inclined to superstition, or credulous and easily deceived, whether they deserve belief, or whether they have a welldeserved reputation for fibbing. It would be well for the confessor to ask this woman what impression the vision made upon her. If she feels confirmed in the faith, and induced to acts of piety and charity, this will speak in its favor. Finally, it is to be ascertained whether the woman was convinced from the beginning of the truth of the apparition. If God permits or wills a suffering soul in purgatory to appear to friend or relative, it may be assumed that God also grants to the person certainty about the truth of the apparition.
    If all these points are ascertained to be favorable, the confessor may regard the apparition as probable and so inform his penitent, all the more as she obediently submits the matter for his decision.
  3. To render a positive decision as to whether one of the poor souls had really appeared to a penitent will be very difficult for the confessor, even if the facts favor such a decision. Such decision, moreover, is not necessary ; a well-grounded probability is sufficient warrant to tell the penitent that she will not be guilty of superstition if she accepts the truth of the apparition, and to admonish her to fulfill the request of the poor soul, all the more so when the things requested are most worthy, and certainly very beneficial to the souls in purgatory. After the penitent has performed the good works asked for, she should not fail to continue her prayers for this soul, even if the soul appears a second time and declares that she is released from purgatory. No matter how we might wish to believe the truth of such a message, there is not such certainty as to exclude all possibility of delusion. Hence in order to prevent a detriment to the departed, the penitent should offer her prayers and good works with the intention that if this particular soul no longer needs them, God may accept them for other souls. Caution should be exercised not to talk freely about the vision, as such things are not rightly comprehended by everybody.
  4. If the confessor perceives that the apparition as related by the woman is connected with suspicious circumstances, he must give his penitent the necessary admonition ; he must reprove the undue curiosity of which she probably has been guilty, also point out how dangerous such undue desire is, and forbid everything that savors of superstition or fortune-telling, etc., move her to contrition and good resolutions, and exhort her to confine herself to the prayers and good works practised and prescribed by the Church.
From the above follows the answer to the question asked about this case. There seems to be nothing here to arouse suspicion and circumstances seem to favor the conclusion that there was an apparition. The request made of Claudia corresponds perfectly to the practise of the Church.

A confessor will do well to be slow in giving belief to reports of apparitions, because while they may happen, they happen very rarely. On the other hand, deception and illusion are easily possible. It would be an error to deny the possibility of such apparitions, but it would also be a grave error to believe too readily the reports of such apparitions, as for one thing it would certainly promote superstition.


A very interesting article, thank you, especially point number 3. What a holy thing it is to pray for the dear souls in Purgatory. Think of all those who have no one to pray for them because some think it superstition, or worse yet, have no belief in Purgatory.