The Little Flowers of St. Francis, a book chronicling the history of St. Francis and his order, the Friars Minor through stories and anecdotes, may seem to some not to have offered much hope for the salvation of the common man. In The Little Flowers of St. Francis, there were several stories that seemed to be very disheartening to anyone hoping to go to heaven. These stories, however, did indeed offer hope to the general population through the understanding of the true doctrine of purgatory.
To understand purgatory, one must understand the different kinds of punishment due to sin, of which there are two. First is the temporal punishment due to sin, and second, the eternal punishment due to sin. Eternal punishment due to sin is the damning of a soul to the fires of hell for all of eternity, which is incurred by dying in a state of mortal (grievous) sin. Eternal punishment can be avoided through the sacrament of penance, in which someone confesses his mortal (and venial, or lesser sins, if he chooses). Temporal punishment is not washed away through penance and is built up through every sin. To give an analogy, if a person throws a ball through another person’s window, he will have to apologize to that person, but he will still have to make it up to that person somehow, like perhaps through buying another window. If someone dies while having incurred temporal punishment due to sin, but not eternal punishment, he will no go to hell. Rather, he will have to make it up to God by going to a place of cleansing called purgatory. Once that soul has been cleansed of all traces of sin, it may enter heaven. All souls that end up in purgatory will with certainty go to heaven at some point. A person can lessen his time in purgatory by performing good works while still on earth, and thereby gaining indulgences. A soul’s time in purgatory can also be lessened by the prayers and good works of those on earth who offer up these things for the souls in purgatory.
In several stories, Friars who had died were seen through visions by other Friars, and some of them did not go directly to heaven but to purgatory. It may seem that these Friars, who were extraordinarily holy men, should not have had to go to a place of suffering before entering heaven. It may seem that the regular man or woman, who did not practice the extreme poverty and other virtues that the Franciscans did would have no chance at getting to heaven. It must be remembered what purgatory truly is: a place of temporary (temporal) suffering, not of eternal damnation. Those who enter it will eventually get out.
In chapter 50 of part one of The Little Flowers of St. Francis, a story is told that offered great hope for the common man. It said that a very holy Friar, Brother John of Alvernia, said a mass for the souls in purgatory, which caused many to be liberated from it. What offers hope is the great number of souls that were in purgatory, described as “innumerable sparks of fire coming out of a burning oven”. If there were so many souls in purgatory, then all of these souls would eventually have gone to heaven. This offers great hope for the common person, because if so many souls were destined for heaven, then getting there would not seem impossible. It would seem to be an attainable reward. Also, the very fact that a simple Mass said by a holy man could alleviate the sufferings of so many is very uplifting.
Contrary to what some may believe, The Little Flowers of St. Francis was an uplifting piece of literature that did offer hope for the common man. To someone who believes in predestination, however, The Little Flowers offed little solace. It provided no means for man to determine whether or not he was among the elect, or among the damned. But from a Catholic perspective, The Little Flowers offered hope to those of us who do not have the ability to live like the Franciscans. Purgatory itself may be a place of suffering, but it is also a place of great hope, much greater than on earth.