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Purgatorial Societies

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Pious associations or confraternities in the Catholic Church, which have as their purpose to assist in every possible way the poor souls in purgatory. The Catholic doctrine concerning purgatory, the condition of the poor souls after death, the communion of saints, and the satisfactory value of our good works form the basis of these associations, although they were called into life by pure Christian charity for one's neighbour which reaches beyond the grave. This brotherly love was the distinguishing mark of Christ's Church from the very beginning; the first Christian communities and the whole Church of the early centuries down to the time of the catacombs was one grand purgatorial society. The clearest evidence for this is supplied by the prayers for the dead in the oldest liturgies and breviary prayers, and by the earliest Christian inscriptions.

In the centuries that followed, wherever the Church and ecclesiastical spirit manifested itself in the form of associations, zeal and love for the poor souls were revealed in the same degree (cf., Kraus, "Christl. Alterümer", s.v. Fraternitas). The old religious orders, e.g. the Benedictine Order with all its branches, especially the Order of Cluny which inaugurated All Soul's Day, furnish the most convincing proof of this. Religious confraternities are likewise distinguished in their early beginnings by a special devotion to the sick and deceased, e.g. the brotherhood of Constantinople which flourished in 336 [Barionius, "Annales", ad an. 336, IV (Lucca, 1739), 295; cf. VII (Lucas, 1741), 869 "Parabolani"], and in the West the Confratriæ or Confraternitates of the Middle Ages. Even the medieval geldoniæ or guilds, established primarily for secular purposes, never forgot in their constitutions or practical corporate life special works of charity for deceased members [Michael, "Gesch. des deutschen Volkes", I (1897), 146, 150, sq.; Janssen, Gesch. d. deutsch. Volkes", I (1st ed.), 319 sqq.].

Although affording one of the best proofs of the existence of lively faith, especially among the Anglo-Saxons, Franks, and the Germanic peoples in general, the medieval associations of brotherhoods of prayer called "fraternitates", "societates", "consortium", "societates fraternæ", and "consortium fraternitatis" (cf. Adalbert Ebner, "Die klösterl. Gebets-Verbrüderungen", Ratisbon, 1890; Georg Zappert, "Ueber Verbrüderungsbücher u. Nekrologian im Mittelalter", Vienna, 1853) are little known. They were founded chiefly, though not solely, to assist deceased members with prayers, Mass, and all works of Christian charity. Critical investigators, therefore, simply designate these institutions "Totenbünde" (associations for the dead). Ducange-Favre defines a Confraternitas "as . . . a society formed between various churches and monasteries, abbeys, bishops and noblemen; later kings, princes, bishops, priests, and the laity, especially ecclesiastical benefactors, were admitted. In the certificate of admission or the document instituting the brotherhood it was usually stated in detail how many Masses, what prayers, and good works would be offered on their death for the repose of the souls of deceased members, in the monasteries and churches or by individuals. The names of all members were enrolled in a registry of the brotherhood (Liber vitæ), a development of the ancient diptychs. A messenger was immediately dispatched with a circular (rotulus) to announce the death of a member to all the affiliated monasteries, where the name was inserted in the dead list (see NECROLOGIES) for constant commemoration; these lists were, like the earlier diptychs, read aloud so that special prayers might be said for the deceased mentioned, and a special commemoration made by the priest during the Holy Sacrifice (Kraus, "Christl. Altertümer", II, 486 sq.).

The revival of the regular life in the West, emanating from England in the sixth century, marks the rise of these confraternities, which attained their greatest prosperity during the period of the Carlovingians, maintained their position throughout the Middle Ages, and declined with its close. From England also issued the first public opposition to these associations, proclaimed by Wycliff about 1400 in his "Triologus" (IV, xxx sq.), and followed by all religious innovators of these times. These brotherhoods may be divided into those formed of several monasteries, churches, or individual bishops, priests, abbots, and monks. However, kings, princes, and other laymen, especially benefactors, were admitted into to these three classes, and even the frequently very numerous subordinates of a monastery. Especially during their most flourishing period, confraternities were formed among monasteries. In the ninth century Richenau was affiliated with more than a hundred other monasteries and chapters in Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy; this was chiefly due to the reform of the monastery by St. Benedict of Aniane (d. 821), and is the largest brotherhood known to us. Alcuin worked in the west of the Frankish empire, and before him St. Boniface had sought with eager zeal to establish and foster in Germany such unions and brotherhoods with England and Italy (cf. Monumenta Germaniæ historica, "Libri confraternitatum"; "Necrologia"). In this connexion it is interesting to note the "Act of Spiritual Association" between the Abbeys of St. Denis of France and St. Remy of Reims (Bibl. Nat., manuscript lat. 13000, fol. 70), in which it is arranged that, within thirty days after the death of a member, the entire office be recited by each of the surviving members, that the priests say Masses corresponding to the various offices, and that vigils be held in common on the first, seven, and thirteenth days.

At the provincial and national synods of the Middle Ages the bishops and abbots present frequently formed themselves into such brotherhoods, often extending to the cathedral chapters and monasteries whose superiors were members, and to the kings and princes who were present at the councils. In the eight and ninth centuries, there was a whole series of such synods, e.g.: Attigny (762); Dingolfing (769); Frankfort (794); Salzburg (799); Freising (805); Clechty (815: Synodus Calchuthensis anno X, i, 816); Savionières near Toul (850); brotherhoods were also formed at other English and Italian synods [cf. Mansi, XII sqq. ad annos cit.; Wilkins, "Concilia Brittaniæ", I (London, 1737, 171)]. At diocesan synods all the clergy of a diocese with their bishop formed themselves into brotherhoods, and frequently priests of still smaller districts (rural chapters) formed lesser associations of prayer to which the laity were also admitted [cf. P.L., CVI, 866, 878; Baluze, "Miscell.", I (Lucca, 1761), 112, lviii; Harduin, "Conc.", VI, 420, xx]. Individuals of every station, rank, and sex eagerly joined these associations, while numerous rich persons founded monasteries, or made large benefactions to insure a special share in their suffrage after death. English kings, bishops, abbots, and especially Carlovingian kings gave them an excellent example, as did Sts. Boniface and Alcuin. Even the laity of the lower classes joined the brotherhoods of St. Gall and Richenau ["Mon. Germ. Hist", "Libri Confraternitatum" and "Necrologia"; Mansi, "Concil.", XIX, 283 sq., "Council. Tremoniense" (i.e., of Dortmund), 1005]. The communion of spiritual goods and indulgences, granted by monasteries in the last centuries to another monastery, to benefactors and friends outside the cloister, or to other confraternities, is more than a memorial of the old brotherhoods, since in these grants, or communicationes, the promise of spiritual help for the deceased is one of the chief features.

With these brotherhoods of prayer there appeared at an early period Confraternitates more closely resembling the associations which are today known under that name. Their chief object was care for the poor souls. Among these might be included the above-mentioned associations from the earliest times, which devoted themselves especially to the spiritual welfare of the dying and the burial of the dead. Of the confraternities of the dead, of which we have information, only examples can be cited from the earlier centuries, but these show sufficiently clearly how widespread these must then have been. According to an inscription in the Church of Sts. Cosmos and Damian in Rome [Baronius, "Annal.", XVI (Lucca, 1774), 272] a number of priests and bishops in Rome formed themselves into an association of sodales (c. 985), each promising that on the death of a member he would immediately sing forty Masses for the repose of his soul. At the beginning of the eleventh century Orc, the friend of Knut the Great, erected in honour of God and St. Peter a confraternity at Abbotesbury, according to the statutes of which each member should on the death of another contribute one penny for the repose of his soul [Dugdale, "Monasticon Anglicanum", III (London, 1821), 55]. In 1220 Bishop Peter of Sens ratified a confraternity formed by thirteen clergy who bound themselves to celebrate annually four anniversaries for the benefactors and members of the confraternity ["Gallia Christiana", XII (Paris, 1770), Appendix 363]. In 1262 twenty-four secular priests united to practice works of mercy for the dead, read Masses for the repose of their souls, etc. (Quix, "Beschreibung der Münsterkirche zu Aachen", 58, 157, 161 sq.). In 1355 there existed at Glocknitz a lay confraternity for the dead, which accepted memberships from other parishes (Monum Boica, IV, 168, sqq.) and cared especially for the burial of the poor. Ducange-Favre (s.v. Purgatorium) speaks of a pious association, founded in 1413, expressly under the name of purgatory, in the old church of Maria Deaurata (Daurade) at Toulouse.

These confraternities concerned themselves almost exclusively with the souls of deceased members and benefactors, while the distinguishing work of the later associations is their foundation for all poor souls. Provision for burial was first made by "La Compagnia della Pietà", founded in Rome, 1448 (cf. A. Berignani in "Archivio storico R. di Stor. Patr.", XXXIII, 5, sqq.) and nearly related to confraternities here described. In the newly-erected church of the German cemetery (Campo Santo), a confraternity "in honour of the bitter Passion of Christ and of the Sorrowful Mother, to comfort and assist all the faithful souls", was erected (1448) by the penitentiary, Johannes Goldener of Nüremberg, later titular Bishop of Accon and auxiliary bishop of Bamberg (cf. de Waal, "Der Campo Santo der Deutschen zu Rom", Freiberg, 1896, pp. 46 sqq.), and in 1579 raised by Gregory XIII to an archconfraternity, enriched with new indulgences, and empowered to aggregate other confraternities throughout the world (loc cit, 107, sqq.). Although it has undergone many changes, this confraternity still exists, combined towards the end of the nineteenth century with a special Requiem Mass Association for assisting souls of deceased members (loc cit, 307; cf. Beringer, "Die Ablässe", 13th German edition, 1906, pp. 685 sqq.), and it is the first purgatorial society according to the present meaning of the name. The "Black Penitents", who marched in procession through Rome under the banner of mercy, were founded in 1488 to assist before execution those condemned to death, and afterwards to provide for their burial, exequies, and Requiem Mass [cf. Raynald, "Annales", XI (Lucca, 1754), 178 sq. ad an 1490]. The Confraternity of Our Lady of Suffrage (S. Maria del Suffragio) existed in Rome from 1592, expressly for the relief of the poor souls. It has numerous members, and since 1615 has aggregated other confraternities with the same object (Decr. auth. S. C. Indulg., n. 83, p. 67; Moroni. II, 309; LI, 328).

The Archconfraternity of Death and Prayer (mortis et orationis), founded in Rome, 1538, to provide for the burial of the poor and abandoned, still exists (cf. Berignani, loc. cit); at the beginning of the seventeenth century it was granted new indulgences by Paul V (Rescr. auth. S. C. Indulg., n. 26, pp. 448 sqq.; Moroni, II, 303). About 1687 the rules for a special confraternity "for the relief of the Most Needy Souls in Purgatory" under the sacred names of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were approved in Rome (Moroni, XV, 130). The confraternity for the relief of the departed under the title of "Jesus Christ on Mount Calvary and the Sorrowful Mother" enjoyed special popularity and inaugurated, 8 Sept., 1760, the processions of the Way of the Cross in the Roman Coliseum; among its illustrious members was St. Leonard of Port Maurice (Recr. auth. Summ. pp. 497 sqq.; Moroni. loc. cit.). The Ingolstadt Mass Association, formed by the Franciscans of Ingolstadt in 1726 to procure for all members the grace of a happy death and for those already deceased speedy assistance and liberation form the pains of purgatory was erected into a formal and legal confraternity under the title of the Immaculate Conception in 1874. An ancient, highly venerated picture of the Mother of God was adopted as the titular picture of the association, which has received all the indulgences of the confraternity of the same name in the Ara Coeli at Rome, i.e., the indulgences of the Blue Scapular (Recr. auth. n. 393; Summ. 58 pp. 580 sqq.). It numbers its members by tens and hundreds of thousands; almost 2000 Masses are daily celebrated for the intentions of the Marian Mass Association, which includes the intention of particularly assisting the most recently deceased members.

At the close of the Middle Ages, the old confraternities, generally confined to a town or small district, gradually disappeared, as also did many of the later ones in the confusion at the end of the eighteenth century, while others preserved only a semblance of life. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century they have been replaced by vigorous new associations, which, richly endowed with indulgences by ecclesiastical authorities, have rapidly extended to the entire Church. By brief of 5 October, 1818, Pius VII endowed the Archconfraternity of Our Mother of Sorrows and the Poor Souls in Purgatory (Archiconfraternitas B. V. M. Dolorosæ sub invocatione Animarum purgatorii), which was erected in the basilica of S. Maria in Trastevere, with rich indulgences (Rescr. auth. Summ. 28, pp. 445 sqq.). First among the later confraternities which have extended throughout Christendom is the "Archconfraternity for the Relief of the Poor Souls in Purgatory under the title of the Assumption of Mary in the Redemptorist church of S. Maria in Monterone at Rome", founded in 1841. It rapidly developed, especially in England and North America, and was endowed with indulgences in 1841-63. Priests empowered to receive the faithful into the confraternity enjoy various other faculties. This confraternity is especially adapted for rapid expansion, because in 1860 it was expressly authorized to aggregate every confraternity of whatever name and object and to communicate to them its graces and privileges, provide they added to their original titles "and for the relief of the Poor Souls in Purgatory"; they must not, however, be already aggregated to another archconfraternity, nor have been endowed with indulgences on their own account (Rescr. auth. Summ., n. 48, pp. 543 sqq.). The Redemptorist Fathers conduct this archconfraternity (cf. Seeberger, "Key to the Spiritual Treasures", 2nd ed., pp. 296 sqq.).

At Nîmes in France a confraternity similar to that of Our Lady of Suffrage was established in 1857, received the faculty of aggregating other confraternities in the Diocese of Nîmes in 1858, and in 1873 received the same right for the whole world. In addition to the indulgences of the Roman confraternity, that of Nîmes has received others: the recital of the Rosary of the Dead was approved especially for its members by Pius IX in 1873 (Beringer, "Die Ablässe", II, 3rd ed., pp. 470 sqq.). In accordance with its ancient traditions, the Benedictine order formed a twofold Confraternity of the Poor Souls at Lambach, Diocese of Linz, Austria. In 1877 the Archconfraternity of the Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament under the protection of St. Benedict for the Poor Souls in Purgatory was erected with the right to aggregate other confraternities of the same name and object in Austria-Hungary. In 1893, with the same name and objects, this confraternity was erected in the abbey church of St. John the Baptist in Collegeville, Minnesota; it shares in all the indulgences of the Lambach confraternity, and possesses, as the archconfraternity of North America, the faculty of aggregating all confraternities of the same name and communicating to them its indulgences. Finally, by brief of 2 March, 1910, Pius X granted to Lambach Confraternity the right to aggregation for the whole world (Acta Ap. Sed., III, 93 sqq.). There was also founded, in 1878, in the same abbey church of Lambach a Priest's Association under the Protection of St. Benedict for the Relief of the Poor Souls in Purgatory. This was approved and recommended by the diocesan bishop, Franz Joseph Rudigier. Many other bishops, especially in North America, recommended it to their clergy. The direction of the association is in the hands of the general director of the Archconfraternity of Lambach, who enters the members in a special register. The official organ for both is the "Benediktusstimmen" published by the Abbey of Emaus in Prague (cf. Seelberger, op. cit., 301, sqq.).

A work of atonement to obtain liberation for the most needy and abandoned souls in purgatory by the celebration of many Masses was founded in 1884 in the parish of La Chapelle-Montligeon, Diocese of Séez, France. Until 1893 this association was aggregated to the archconfraternity of S. Maria in Monterone, but it was declared by Brief of 2 October, 1893, an honorary archconfraternity and prima-primaria. Only associations united with that of Montligeon may adopt the same title and statutes. This association of many million members is blessed by the pope, and recommended by numerous bishops. To become a member, one must have one's name enrolled, and contribute five centimes annually for the objects of the association; persons who make a single contribution of five francs have a permanent share in all the Masses celebrated for the deceased. Seven Masses are said weekly for the souls in purgatory, three monthly for deceased priests, and in addition many thousand Masses are offered annually. A monthly organ of the association is issued in various languages (cf. Seeberger, lo. cit., 304 sqq.; Beringer, op. cit., II, 478 sqq.). The Order of Cluny have always been conspicuous for their devotion to the poor souls. Since 998, St. Odilio, Abbott of Cluny, had All Soul's Day celebrated by his monks on 2 November, which day was gradually devoted by the entire church to the relief of the poor souls. In memory of this fact, a new archconfraternity was erected at Cluny in the parish of Our Lady. By Brief of 25 May, 1898, Leo XIII granted this "Archconfraternity of Prayer for the Poor Souls in Purgatory" the indulgences of the old Roman Confraternity of Prayer and Death (see above), and authorized it to aggregate similar confraternities throughout France and its colonies ("Analecta eccles.", 1898, p. 328; Beringer, "Die Ablässe", II, 475 sqq.). The "Associazione del Scaro Cuore di Gesû in suffrago della Anime del Pugatorio" was canonically established in Rome (Lungotevere, Prati), in a church of the Sacred Heart, and granted indulgences and privileges by Leo XIII (1903-5). The director of this association, which includes non-residents of Rome in its membership, is Victor Jouet, who edits "Rivista mensile dell' Associazione".

Having named the best-known and widespread confraternities for the poor souls, we must not forget that, among the numerous other confraternities and pious associations, there is scarcely one — if indeed any — which does not seek to promote with special devotion the intercession for, and help of, the poor souls. Indulgences of the confraternities are ever applicable to the souls in purgatory, and the privileges of the altar for churches and for priests, who are members, may be used in favour of dead members or for all poor souls. The formation of the "Catholic League for Constant Intercession for the Poor Souls in Purgatory" was proposed by certain pious citizens of Rome, approved by Leo XIII in the last years of his reign, and enriched with indulgences. The only requisite for membership is to recite thrice daily the prayer, "Requiem æternam dona eis Domine et lux perpetua luceat eis. Requiescant in pace. Amen", thereby gaining once daily an indulgence of 200 days (cf. Raccolta, 1898, pp. 53339 sq.). In conclusion we must mention the thousands and perhaps millions of the faithful who have made the heroic act of charity, thus assisting in the most perfect manner the souls in purgatory, and finally the crown of all these associations, in this work, is the Order of the Helpers of the Holy Souls.


Mon. Germ. Hist. Libri confraternitatum, ed. PIPER (Berlin, 1884); Necrologia Germaniæ I-III (Berlin, 1888-1905); Reccuil des historiens de la France. Obituaires I-II (Paris, 1902-6); ZAPPERT, op. cit.; EBNER, op. cit.; MOLINIER, Les obituaires françoisais (Paris, 1890); Beringer, "Die Ablässe ihr Wesen u. Gebrauch (Paderhorn, 1906; French tr. Paris, 1905); MIGNE, Dict. des confréries in Encyclopédie Théologique, L.

About this page

APA citation. Hilgers, J. (1911). Purgatorial Societies. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Hilgers, Joseph. "Purgatorial Societies." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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