by Rev. Nicholas L. Gregoris
I'll never forget the first time I attended Holy Mass at the Pantheon when I was a seminarian studying in Rome back in the early 1990s. As I listened attentively to the moving polyphonic motets, umbrellas began to open up as a gentle rain came down through the "oculus" ("the eye") or "opening"in the Pantheon's massive rotund roof. I distinctly remember being mesmerized by the rain gathering on the floor of the Pantheon as incense billowed and I chimed in to join the chorus of Gregorian chant that continued to ring out without missing a beat.
After the Consecration, on what was until then a rather drab, dreary and damp day in the Eternal City, streams of Mediterranean sunlight came pouring through the "oculus" to warm our chilled faces. As I reflected back on that day, basking in the Roman sun on this November 1, the lines of Robert Browning popularized by Frank Sinatra ("Old Blue Eyes") came to mind: "God’s in His Heaven, all’s right with the world."
Normally, the Pantheon is packed with tourists who circumambulate its immense interior while gawking at the tombs of the artist Raphael Sanzio; Umberto the First (King of Italy from the House of Savoia); and other luminaries of times past. They stare up in amazement at the "oculus" whose grandeur has set the highest standard for the construction of domes ever since: from the famed "cupola" of Florence's cathedral and the splendid dome of St. Peter's Basilica on the Vatican Hill to the monumental Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
Most tourists appear oblivious to the signs telling them to observe a respectful silence in the Pantheon because it is a consecrated church. Indeed, centuries ago, in order to salvage the Pantheon from barbaric pillage, the Popes dedicated the Pantheon to the honor of "Sancta Maria ad Martyres" ("Holy Mary of the Martyrs"). Nonetheless, later Popes in the Renaissance would be guilty of their own plunder, stealing the bronze that used to cover the Pantheon's exterior (now only hole markings are left) to decorate their basilicas and palaces. Hence, a famous Latin phrase was coined, a veritable play on words: "Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barbarini" ("What the barbarians didn't do, the Barbarini family did!").
The Catholic Church has always boasted of having a knack for "baptizing" pagan realities because she follows faithfully the pastoral advice of St. Paul to the young priest and bishop, St. Timothy, to accept whatever is good, true and beautiful in all cultures. As the Synod Fathers recently reminded us in their "Relatio Finalis" ("Final Document"), the Catholic Church acknowledges the "semina Verbi" ("seeds of the Word") and the "praeparatio evangelica" ("preparation for the Gospel") found in different faiths and families that are imperfect and, therefore, in need of that healing and fulfillment which the Church alone can fully provide.
Instead of abandoning the Pantheon and other pagan shrines like the Colosseum (where Christians were sometimes martyred, being thrown as food to wild beasts), the early Christians turned those shrines into places of worship. For this reason, each year on Good Friday, the Pope leads the Stations of the Cross ("Via Crucis") at the Colosseum.
For centuries now, the Pantheon – a pagan temple once dedicated "to all the gods" – has been a venerable Christian church dedicated "to all the saints" and thus celebrates its patronal feast on November 1, the Solemnity of All Saints.
But who exactly are "all the saints" whom we honor each year at the beginning of the "Ninth Month"? We honor the "Communion of Saints" ("Communio Sanctorum") which consists of the "Church Triumphant," the "Church Suffering" and the "Church Militant." The "Church Triumphant" encompasses all those saints, canonized or not, who already enjoy the beatific vision of God in His heavenly kingdom. The "Church Suffering" refers to the holy souls of all the faithful departed in Purgatory undergoing a final purification before being admitted into Heaven since, as St. John the Evangelist and Seer of the Apocalypse teaches us, nothing impure can enter into God's all-holy presence. One might think of Purgatory as Heaven's ante-chamber, analogous to a doctor's waiting room: You know you're going to see the doctor eventually, but you may have to wait awhile before you get the go-ahead from the receptionist to go in.
We are the "Church Militant," still living in this vale of tears, fighting the good fight of the faith, and trying to run out the course to the finish line. Our goal is definitely Heaven, but some of us who remain faithful to the cause of the Gospel may have to take a detour, making a must-needed stop-over in Purgatory for a final spiritual cartharsis.
Which leads me to reflect on the annual Commemoration of All Souls (November 2). On this day each year, priests and seminarians dressed in Roman cassock and collar; consecrated religious garbed in a variety of colorful habits; black-clothed widows and widowers, accompanied by their still somber and mournful relatives with elaborate bouquets of flowers in hand, flock to Rome's historic "Campo Verano" to pray at the tombs of their faithful departed loved ones.
This year again, some prayed in silence, while others chanted or sang hymns; my particular group recited the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary even as a nearby group did the same to create a melodious harmony, rather than a cacophony. Why did we make such a great effort?
Because we Catholic Christians believe – as do our Jewish friends, as did Our Lord Who was a pious Jew in first-century Palestine – that although the souls of the just are in the hand of God and no torment shall touch them (Book of Wisdom), it is still a good, pious and holy thing to offer sacrifices for the dead (2 Maccabees), whose souls are being purified like gold in a furnace.
For this reason, each celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass, which is the sacramental representation on the altar of the one and all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary, is offered "from the rising of the sun to its setting" throughout the world, in suffrage for all faithful Christians, living and deceased.
If we search the Sacred Scriptures carefully, we find other allusions to the doctrine of Purgatory in Jesus' own teachings: that we will not be released from prison until we will have paid the last penny to fulfill God's justice; that there are sins that will not be forgiven either in this life or in the life to come.
Beyond Divine Revelation, we also have the private revelations, visions and devotions of saints like Nicholas of Tolentine, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, Catherine of Genoa and Rita of Cascia, who assure us: (1) that the "Four Last Things" of Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell are realities; (2) so too are Purgatory and the spiritual pains suffered there to make amends to God on account of the temporal punishment due to our sins; (3) and that we should strive to spend our lives on earth practicing virtue while avoiding sin, especially mortal sin, lest we run the risk of going to Hell rather than up in Heaven where we belong.
With the teaching and preaching of Pope Francis, we have all come to a better appreciation of the evil that is physical poverty. But how often do we hear about the evil of spiritual poverty? We call the holy souls in Purgatory "poor" for a reason. They are "poor" because they cannot help themselves. Rather, they rely on our merits, prayers and sacrifices to assist them in their journey from Purgatory to Heaven. Further, as the Gospel of the Beatitudes read on the Solemnity of All Saints teaches us, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." What does it mean to be "poor in spirit" in this evangelical context? The "poor in spirit" are those who rely on God's providential care to meet all their temporal and spiritual needs.
As we reflect on the infinite mercy of God during the upcoming Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, especially as Pope Francis opens the Holy Door in Central African Republic at the Cathedral of Bangui on November 29 (the official opening of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy), we must remember that God is all-just and that His perfect justice requires of us nothing less than perfect reparation, either in this life or in the next.
Hence, the importance of endeavoring to gain indulgences for ourselves or for the souls in Purgatory. After all, what could "divine mercy" truly and fully mean if we did not, first and foremost, cultivate, inculcate and inculturate in our lives, in our families, and in contemporary society a proper sense of sin and God's inscrutable justice?
Speaking of indulgences, it is worth noting that on October 31, 1517 ("All Hallows Eve"), the Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg (Germany). In his 95 Theses, Luther challenged not so much the doctrine of Purgatory per se but the widespread abuse of selling indulgences for which the Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel became infamous as he traveled throughout Bavaria, with the slogan: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul into Heaven [from Purgatory] springs."
Tetzel was selling indulgences, thereby committing the sin of simony or the selling of spiritual goods (condemned in the Acts of the Apostles) for the purpose of collecting monies to build what is now St. Peter's Basilica. Tetzel was mentioned in a recent lecture of Cardinal Ludwig Müller to a German audience. With the Synod on the Family then looming on the horizon – where certain bishops were preparing to say that one can maintain doctrine (indissolubility of marriage) while changing practice or discipline (allowing the divorced/remarried to receive Holy Communion) – the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reminded his listeners that Tetzel had the doctrines of indulgences and Purgatory correct, but his deviant practice caused the Reformation!
A final thought comes to mind at Rome's "Campo Verano." Nearby is the ancient Basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura where we find the tombs of St. Lawrence (deacon and martyr); St. Stephen (proto-deacon and proto-martyr); as well as that of Blessed Pope Pius IX.
In an adjacent field is a statue of the Venerable Servant of God, Pope Pius XII who, on the occasion of the bombing of the San Lorenzo neighborhood during World War II, immediately left the Vatican to comfort the Roman people. There, with his hands outstretched in the form of the Cross and his eyes raised toward Heaven, the "Angelic Pastor" ("Pastor Angelicus") as he came to be known, prayed for God's mercy as a Good Shepherd in the midst of his war-torn flock.
The Basilica of San Lorenzo honors the saint’s martyrdom. As treasurer of the Diocese of Rome, Lawrence was ordered to deliver the goods of the Church to the pagan Roman authorities, whereupon he presented the poor of the City (which story must gladden the heart of Pope Francis).
For what the authorities deemed an act of impertinence, Lawrence was grilled to death. An adage says that "he who laughs last laughs best"; Lawrence is said to have joked with his executioners: "Turn me over; I'm done on this side!" In Rome's historic center ("Centro Storico"), near the Via del Corso, there is another church dedicated to St. Lawrence known as "San Lorenzo in Lucina," in which the grill of Lawrence’s martyrdom is believed to be kept in a special chapel, causing the frequently irreverent Romans to call the church "San Lorenzo in Cucina" (St. Lawrence in the Kitchen)!
These were some of the thoughts that flooded my mind on the first two days of November in Rome in the aftermath of the Synod. Rome has a happy way of bringing the past to bear on the present.