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A Sistine Catechism

by the Most Rev. Edward M. Egan

We had only three days in Rome to do what might well have been a whole week's work. Hence, before our departure all necessary appointments had been made by mail and telephone. It was clear that we would be on a very tight schedule.

A priest in one of the Vatican offices contacted us on the morning of our arrival. He wanted to know if we would like to visit the Sistine Chapel now that the cleaning and restoration of Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" had been completed. We thanked him profusely but explained that unfortunately we had no free time during working hours.

"Then, come over early in the morning," he suggested. "You can have a look before the doors are opened."

* * * * * *

We walked from the Janiculum Hill, where we were staying, to the Bronze Doors of the Vatican, a distance of about twelve city blocks. The sun was already shining quite brightly at 7:30 in the morning, and the flowers were emitting fragrances they ordinarily reserve for the hours just after midnight. The beauty of a glorious Spring day served only to heighten our anticipation.

Nor were we to be disappointed. Indeed, upon entering the Chapel I was truly startled by what I saw. For forty years I had been in and out of the "Sistina" for Masses, with tour groups, and even in connection with two papal elections. Never before, however, had the wonder of the place so gripped me. Michelangelo's "Creation" in the ceiling and his "Last Judgment" on the back wall had always been soul-stirring but never, at least for me, overwhelming. The general impression was one of a marvelous skill in design but a modest understanding of color. In fact, on more than one occasion I had wondered to myself what might have been the result if a Claude Monet or a Marc Chagall had slipped into the Chapel by night and replaced Michelangelo's pigments with theirs.

And now I knew! A veil of 350 years of dust and soot had been drawn aside to reveal a masterpiece of incredible vibrancy. As one of the restorers of the Chapel was recently quoted to say, the drawing is so powerful and the hues so ingeniously chosen that one almost feels that Michelangelo's figures have come alive and that blood is coursing through their veins.

* * * * * *

The priest who had gained for us our early entrance into the Chapel pointed out a number of details we might have missed on our own. Among them were the patches of the "Last Judgment" which had been left unattended so that admirers might realize how dark and drab the fresco had been before the cleaning, the "britches" which had been painted on several of the nude figures some centuries ago and removed in the recent restoration, and - most interestingly - the curious instrument with which the angels on the right of the Lord were pulling the dead up into heaven. Before the cleaning it was thought to be a rope or perhaps even a chain. Afterwards, it was revealed to be - a rosary.

* * * * * *

On the flight from New York to Rome I had begun writing this article for the Fairfield County Catholic. In it I had planned to discuss the two sections of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church which treat the Virgin Mary, one in the context of the Incarnation and the other in that of the Church. Try as I would, I could think of no way to present them together effectively. Now, gazing on the "Last Judgment", everything came into focus.

Mary appears in the center of the fresco, sitting just to the right of her Son. She is marvelously beautiful not only in loveliness of her face and the grace of her form but also, and especially, in the pose in which Michelangelo places her. It is one which bespeaks the most exquisite humility. Her arms are folded over her breast. Her hands hold her veil tightly in place at the chin. Her eyes are cast down. And her head is pitched away from the Lord, Who dominates the scene, giving the impression that she hesitates even to glimpse His glory.

It is almost as though the artist had, with some wondrous prescience, determined to illustrate the first section of the new Catechism that discusses Mary. In that section the Catechism is primarily concerned with unfolding the Mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. It opens by affirming His divinity "as the only begotten Son of God" and climaxes with an explanation of His having taken on a human nature in order to become one of us "for our salvation."

At length it turns its attention to the Virgin and has this to say: "What the Catholic Church believes about Mary is founded upon what it knows in faith about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary in its turn is taught to make that faith even more clear." Mary is thus revealed to be the humble "handmaid of the Lord" totally at His service. She is proclaimed to be the Mother of God because her Son, Jesus Christ, is the Son of God. She is proclaimed to be ever a virgin because her Son, Jesus Christ, was conceived "by the power of the Holy Spirit." She is proclaimed to be immaculately conceived because her Son, Jesus Christ, is the sinless Savior. Her every glory is because of Him. Indeed, her every glory, in its source and its purpose, is His.

* * * * * *

The new Catechism, however, is not only a catechism; it is as well a Catholic catechism. Accordingly, it addresses itself to Mary also when treating the mystery of the Church. And here too Michelangelo makes the essential point of the treatment most tellingly.

In the "Last Judgment", just beneath the central tier of figures with the Lord and His Mother in the middle, there is another tier made up largely of angels. To the right of the Savior these marvelous creatures, wingless but clearly of another world, are seen drawing the faithful up into heaven by means of a rosary to which the faithful are clinging with all their might. It would be difficult to imagine a more powerful illustration of the following words from the new Catechism:

"Because of her complete adherence to the will of the Father, to the redemptive work of the Son, and to every movement of grace of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the model of faith and charity for the entire Church."

"However, her role in relation to the Church, and indeed, to all of humanity, goes far beyond this. She brought to the work of the Savior a cooperation without equal for its obedience, faith, hope, and ardent charity, so that supernatural life might be granted to souls. Moreover, from the moment of the consent which she gave on the day of the Annunciation, and which she maintained with constancy beneath the cross, until the final salvation of all of the elect, the maternal care of Mary continues without interruption."

"This is why she is invoked throughout the Church as our `Advocate', our `Helper', our `Benefactress', and even the `Mediatrix' between ourselves and her Divine Son."

With these lofty words, the Catechism teaches the lesson of Mary's intercessions on our behalf. With a rosary straining to bring the departed into heaven, the artist offers the same lesson. The media are, of course, different; but the messages are identical: In Mary we have a mother from whom we may right seek love, guidance, and protection. The humble "handmaid of the Lord," who sits beside her Son in heaven, is seeing to it that the rosary, and all such prayers for her intercession, are powerful here on earth. She is His mother and ours as well, and she is ever ready to speak to Him for all of us.

* * * * * *

As we were leaving the Chapel, a guard approached whom I have known for thirty years or more.

"I hope you enjoyed our renewed `Last Judgment'", he announced. "It is more than a masterpiece. It is, above all, a prayer."

"And a catechism too," I interjected.

He hesitated for a moment a bit perplexed and then, with a broad smile, heartily agreed.

"Yes, of course," he declared. "A catechism too and a lovely catechism at that."

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