Cardinal’s Comment - Remembrance
In November, Christians remember their dead. We still celebrate Remembrance Day on the 11th day of the 11th month to honour those who died in war, especially World War I. But Catholics, in particular, have a wider devotion than this.
Catholics do not believe that all the just go to perfect happiness after death. As well as the possibility of the eternal punishment of hell, Catholics also believe in a time of purification (purgatory) where the deceased are prepared for God’s presence; and they pray that the dead, especially their loved ones, might be released from this.
Our age is often very explicit about sex, but timid and reticent about dying and life after death. Probably these two facts are connected. Promiscuity makes it harder to acknowledge God.
Those who have constructed their own gods in this life are often loath to be reminded that we all have to die and keen to reject any suggestion that God will judge with reward or punishment the good and the evil.
The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that our spirits survived after death, but Christians also believe in the resurrection of the body on the last day, when Christ will inaugurate a new heaven and a new earth in a final cosmic triumph.
Recently I visited Orvieto Cathedral, 120km north of Rome, a black and white Gothic cathedral dedicated in 1290 and described by Pope John XXIII as the most beautiful in the world.
Among its many artistic treasures there is a famous chapel, painted by Fra Angelico and Luca Signorelli towards the end of the 15th century, depicting the Last Judgment when the just are rising with their new bodies to eternal happiness, while the sinful, full of despair, are herded by the devils into hell.
Fra Angelico painted the beautiful image of Christ the Judge, serene and reassuring, but the more powerful figures belong to Signorelli.
He captures well the moral struggle between good and evil in this life, which has such drastic ultimate consequences. Central to this evil is the figure of the anti-Christ, malevolent and charismatic, with the devil whispering in his ear. Surrounding his pulpit are people of every age and type (including confused clerics), violence and oppression, immense temples, evidence of hatred and disorder.
For many reasons the paintings still jar modern sensibilities. We do not like to think everyday acts could have eternal consequences and we struggle with the notion that a good God could condemn humans to eternal punishment.
Signorelli takes his imagery from St Mathew’s Gospel, from the Book of Revelation, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and even Ezekiel’s Old Testament image of the dry bones coming to life.
He inspired Michelangelo’s masterpiece of the Final Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, Rome, where the pope is elected. His paintings today still make any Christian think deeply who is fortunate enough to see them.
+ George Cardinal Pell
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