By Jonah McKeown
The Catholic Church’s teaching on purgatory—the “purifying fire” that prepares the elect for heaven—can be difficult to understand. But for one saint, the Catholic imperative to pray for the dead had become very real to him – according to the story, one of his dead friends appeared to him asking for prayers.
Although such an explicit apparition probably does not happen for most, Catholics can always draw inspiration from the holy example of this saint, Nicholas of Tolentino, whose feast the Church celebrates on September 10.
Born in 1245 in the central Italian town of Sant’Angelo, Nicholas was drawn to the Augustinian religious order at a young age after hearing a sermon from the local superior on the vanity of the world. The order was in the nearby town of Tolentino, and after studying for seven years Nicholas was ordained a priest.
Nicholas was a charitable and holy man who fasted often, practiced self-mortification, and spent long hours in prayer. He fed the poor he met in a special way – he gave them holy bread soaked in water. The reason he did this is that he once had a vision of the Virgin Mary telling him to dip bread in water and eat it to regain his health.
Thanks in part to these “panini benedetti” (blessed sandwiches), Nicholas was known for bringing healings to many of the sick people who lived in Tolentino – and even raising the dead.
The Catholic Church formally defined the doctrine of purgatory during Nicholas’s lifetime, at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274. The doctrine teaches that when a person dies in the grace of God, they either go straight to heaven or suffer a state of purification before entering heaven called purgatory.
So how did Nicolas become associated with this doctrine?
As the Augustinians of the Midwest say, Nicolas was sleeping in his bed one night when he heard the voice of a deceased brother he had known. The brother told Nicolas he was in purgatory and urged him to celebrate the Eucharist for him and the other souls there, so that they would be set free by the power of Christ. After Nicholas had done so for seven days, the brother spoke to him again, thanking him and assuring him that a large number of souls were now with God.
Nicolas is also the subject of many legends, some of which are rather bizarre. A 16th century painting represents Nicolas, bedridden and sick, refusing to eat but blessing two cooked partridges (he was a vegetarian). The dead partridges then flew away.
Nicholas died of illness in 1305 or 1306, and Pope Eugene IV – also an Augustinian – canonized him in 1446 after recognizing some 300 miracles attributed to him. Besides being the patron saint of souls in purgatory, Nicholas is also considered the patron saint against epidemic diseases and against fires.