Fr. François Xavier Schouppe, S.J.
St. Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence, relates in his writings a terrible fact which, about the middle of the fifteenth century, spread fright over the whole North of Italy. A young man of good stock, who, at the age of 16 or 17, had had the misfortune of concealing a mortal sin in confession, and, in that state, of receiving Communion, had put off from week to week, month to month, the painful disclosure of his sacrileges. Tortured by remorse, instead of discovering with simplicity his misfortune, he sought to gain quiet by great penances, but to no purpose. Unable to bear the strain any longer, he entered a monastery; there, at least, he said to himself, I will tell all, and expiate my frightful sins. Unhappily, he was most welcomed as a holy young man by his superiors, who knew him by reputation, and his shame again got the better of him. Accordingly, he deferred his confession of this sin to a later period; and a year, two years, three years, passed in this deplorable state; he never dared to reveal his misfortune. Finally, sickness seemed to him to afford an easy means of doing it. "Now is the time," he said to himself; "I am going to tell all; I will make a general confession before I die." But this time, instead of frankly and fairly declaring his faults, he twisted them so artfully that his confessor was unable to understand him. He hope to come back again the next day: an attack of delirium came on, and the unfortunate man died.
The community, who were ignorant of the frightful reality, were full of veneration for the deceased. His body was borne with a certain degree of solemnity into the church of the monastery, and lay exposed in the choir until the next morning when the funeral was to be celebrated.
A few moments before the time fixed for the ceremony, one of the Brothers, sent to toll the bell, saw before him, all of a sudden, the deceased, encompassed by chains, that seemed aglow with fire, while something blazing appeared all over his person. Frightened, the poor Brother fell on his knees, with his eyes riveted on the terrifying apparition. Then the damned soul said to him: "Do not pray for me, I am in here for all eternity;" and he related the sad story of his false shame and sacrileges. Thereupon, he vanished, leaving in the church a disgusting odor, which spread all over the monastery, as if to prove the truth of all the Brother just saw and heard. Notified at once, the Superiors had the corpse taken away, deeming it unworthy of ecclesiastical burial.
After having cited the preceding example, Monsignor de Segur adds what follows:
In our century, three facts of the same kind, more authentic than some others have come to my knowledge. The first happened almost in my family.
It was in Russia, at Moscow, a short while before the horrible campaign of 1812. My maternal grandfather, Count Rostopchine, the Military Governor of Moscow, was very intimate with General Count Orloff, celebrated for his bravery, but as godless as he was brave.
One day, at the close of a supper, Count Orloff and one of his friends, General V., also a disciple of Voltaire, had set to horribly ridiculing religion, especially hell. 'Yet,' said Orloff; 'yet if, by chance, there should be anything the other side of the curtain?' 'Well,' took up General V., 'whichever of us shall depart first, will come to inform the other of it. Is it agreed?' 'An excellent idea,' replied Count Orloff; and both interchanged very seriously their word of honor not to miss the engagement.
A few weeks later, one of those great wars which Napoleon had the gift of creating at that time, burst forth. The Russian army began the campaign, and General V. received orders to start out forthwith to take an important command.
He had left Moscow about two or three weeks, when one morning, at a very early hour, while my grandfather was dressing, his chamber door is rudely pushed open. It was Count Orloff, in dressing-gown and slippers, his hair on end, his eye wild, and pale like a dead man. 'What, Orloff, you? at this hour? and in such a costume? What ails you? what has happened?' 'My dear,' replies Count Orloff, 'I believe I am beside myself. I have just seen General V.' 'Has General V., then, come back?' 'Well, no,' rejoins Orloff, throwing himself on a sofa, and holding his head between his hands; 'no, he has not come back, and that is what frightens me!'
My grandfather did not understand him. He tried to soothe him. "Relate to me," he says to Orloff, "what has happened you, and what all this means." Then, striving to stifle his emotion, the Count related the following: "My dear Rostopchine, some time ago, V. and I mutually swore that the first of us who died should come and tell the other if there is anything on the other side of the curtain. Now, this morning, scarcely half an hour since, I was calmly lying awake in my bed, not thinking at all of my friend, when, all of a sudden, the curtains of my bed were rudely parted, and at two steps from me I see General V. standing up, pale, with his right hand on his breast, and saying to me: 'There is a hell, and I am there!' and he disappeared. I came at once to you. My head is splitting! What a strange thing! I do not know what to think about it."
My grandfather calmed him as well as he could. It was no easy matter. He spoke of hallucinations, nightmares; perhaps he was asleep... There are many extraordinary unaccountable things... and other common-places, which constitute the comfort of freethinkers. Then he ordered his carriage, and took Count Orloff back to his hotel.
Now, ten or twelve days after this strange incident, an army messenger brought my grandfather among other news, that of the death of General V. The very morning of the day, Count Orloff had seen and heard him, the same hour he appeared at Moscow, the unfortunate General, reconnoitering the enemy's position, had been shot through the breast by a bullet, and had fallen stark dead.
"There is a hell, and I am there!" These are the words of one who came back.
Mgr. de Segur relates a second fact, which he regards as alike free from doubt. He had learned it in 1859, of a most honorable priest, and Superior of an important community. This priest had the particulars of it from a near relation of the lady of whom it had happened. At that time, Christmas Day, 1859, this person was still living, and little over forty years.
She chanced to be in London in the winter of 1847-48. She was a widow, about twenty-nine years old, quite rich and worldly. Among the gallants who frequented her salon, there was noticed a young lord, whose attentions compromised her extremely, and whose conduct, besides, was anything but edifying.
One evening, or rather one night, for it was close upon midnight, she was reading in her bed some novel, coaxing sleep. One o'clock struck by the clock; she blew out her taper. She was about to fall asleep when, to her great astonishment, she noticed that a strange, wan glimmer of light, which seemed to come from the door of the drawing-room, spread by degrees into her chamber, and increased momentarily. Stupefied at first, and not knowing what this meant, she began to get alarmed, when she saw the drawing-room door slowly open and the young lord, the partner of her disorders, entered her room. Before she had time to say a single word, he seized her by the left wrist, and with a hissing voice, syllabled to her in English: "There is a hell!" The pain she felt in her arm was so great that she lost her senses.
When, half an hour after, she came to again, she rang for her chamber-maid. The latter, on entering felt a keen smell of burning. Approaching her mistress, who could hardly speak, she noticed on her wrist so deep a burn, that the bone was laid bare, and the flesh almost consumed; this burn was the size of a man's hand. Moreover, she remarked that, from the door of the saloon to the bed, and from the bed to that same door, the carpet bore the imprint of a man's steps, which had burned through the stuff. By the directions of her mistress, she opened the drawing-room door: there, more traces were seen on the carpet outside.
The following day, the unhappy lady learned with a terror easy to be divined that, on that very night, about one o'clock in the morning, her lord had been found dead drunk under the table, that his servants had carried him to his room, and that there he had died in their arms.
I do not know, added the Superior, whether that terrible lesson converted the unfortunate lady, but what I do know is that she is still alive, and that to conceal from the sight the traces of her ominous burn, she wears on the left wrist, like a bracelet, a wide gold band, which she does not take off day or night. I repeat it, I have all these details from her near relation, a serious Christian, in whose word I repose the fullest belief. They are never spoken of, even in the family; and I only confide them to you, suppressing every proper name.
Notwithstanding the disguise beneath which this apparition has been, and must be enveloped, it seems to me impossible, adds Mgr. de Segur, to call in doubt the dreadful authenticity of the details.
Here is a third fact related by the same writer. In the year 1873, he writes, a few days before the Assumption, occurred again one of these apparitions from beyond the grave, which so efficaciously confirm the reality of hell. It was in Rome. A brothel, opened in that city after the Piedmontese invasion, stood near a police station. One of the bad girls who lived there had been wounded in the hand, and it was found necessary to take her to the Hospital of Consolation. Whether her blood, vitiated by bad living, had brought on mortification of the wound, or from an unexpected complication, she died suddenly during the night. At the same instant, one of her companions, who surely was ignorant of what had just happened at the hospital, began to utter shrieks of despair to point of awaking the inhabitants of the locality, creating a flurry among the wretched creatures of the house, and provoking the intervention of the police. The dead girl of the hospital, surrounded by flames, had appeared to her, and said: "I am damned! and if you do not wish to be like me, leave this place of infamy and return to God."
Nothing could quell the despair of this girl, who, at daybreak, departed, leaving the whole house plunged in a stupor, especially as soon as the death of her companion at the hospital was known.
Just at this period, the mistress of the place, an exalted Garribaldian, and known as such by brethren and friends, fell sick. She soon sent for a priest to receive the sacraments. The ecclesiastical authority deputed for thus task, a worthy prelate, Mgr. Sirolli, the pastor of the parish of Saint-Saviour in Laura. He, fortified by special instructions, presented himself, and exacted of the sick woman, before all, in the presence of many witnesses, the full and entire retractation of her blasphemies against the Sovereign Pontiff, and the discontinuance of the infamous trade she plied. The unhappy creature did so without hesitating, consented to purge her house, then made her confession and received the holy Viaticum with great sentiments of repentance and humility.
Feeling that she was dying, she besought, with tears, the good pastor not to leave her, frightened as she always was by the apparition of that damned girl. Mgr. Sirolli, unable to satisfy her on account of the proprieties which would not permit him to spend the night in such a place, sent to the police for two men, closed up the house, and remained until the dying woman had breathed her last.
Pretty soon, all Rome became acquainted with the details of these tragic occurrences. As ever, the ungodly and lewd ridiculed them, taking good care not to seek for any information about them; the good profited by them, to become still better and more faithful to their duties.
[The following video contains a sermon delivered by a traditional Catholic priest entitled We Can't Imagine the Pain of Hell.]