One of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy is the Pantheon, visited by over six million people a year, and seen from outside by countless millions more. At nearly two thousand years old, it is the best-preserved ancient Roman structure, and is still the largest un-reinforced concrete dome in the world. During the middle ages, when engineers had forgotten how to make cement and build domes, the building took on a mystique that it has never lost.
Why was the pantheon so important? The building was a symbol of one of the secrets to Roman power: After the Romans conquered a country, they would take that people’s gods into the pantheon, making them a part of their own pagan worship. (The word “pantheon” means “all the gods.”) Assimilation, not only of language and culture but even of religion, was the key to Roman dominance of the entire known world.
All of that, of course, changed with the collapse of Roman paganism after Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman empire in the year 380 A.D. For years the pantheon was abandoned until the early 600s, when Pope St. Boniface IV decided to transform the space into a Christian church, now called “St. Mary and all the Martyrs.” The church was dedicated on November first, which a century later became today’s feast of All Saints.
For the early Christians, the saints were the answer to the multiplicity of gods present in paganism. No longer did they need to appease all of the different gods in the pantheon for a good harvest, for long life, fertility, or so forth, but there was a new heavenly army at the ready to assist them, those who, in the words of the book of Revelation, “have survived the time of great distress; [and] have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”
The saints were not distant deities who needed to be appeased by sacrifices, but rather the friends of believers who were ready to come to their aid. Holy Mother Church still holds this feast in so high regard that She continues to require our participation at Holy Mass on this day so that we might be reminded of this truth: that we are participants in the communion of the saints.
Tomorrow, the church militant – those of us here on earth – will gather to pray for the church suffering – the poor souls in purgatory on the commemoration of All Souls. Today, though, we are here to sing the glories of that “great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue,” the saints. Throughout the year, we celebrate many of them on their dies natalis, their birthday – not, though, their day of birth into this earthly life, but their birth into the life to come by their death.
This week, as I visited the children in our school I talked to them about the saints and their homeland of heaven. I asked each of the classes, “What do you need to do to go to Heaven?” One kindergartener pointed out what few people think to mention, “You have to die.” We also gather here to celebrate all the saints to remind ourselves of what is to come. This earthly life is not the end, but only a test, a passage to the true life that is to come, the chance to pass through the tribulations of this life so that our souls, like the robes of the saints, might be washed a brilliant white in Christ’s most precious blood through the forgiveness of our sins.
Heaven is a place that inspires much confusion, but there is no reason for that to be so. St. John tells us today in the first reading what it will be like. In his vision of Heaven, he says that the saints and angels, “prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed: ‘Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.’” The saints are not subjected to an eternity of boredom, but instead engage in the deepest fulfillment of the reason that God made each of us in the first place: They worship God.
God made us to give Him honor and glory. This means that the closest we can get to Heaven here on earth is the Holy Mass, where all the saints and angels still tremble with holy fear before the coming of the Lamb. This tells us something about the mystery of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – that what we experience here is something that is not of this world, something far above and beyond the normal experiences of our daily lives, just like the vision of Heaven that St. John describes to us today.
What, though, is Heaven? One of the school children asked me, “How long would it take to drive there?” I explained, “Well, you can’t get there in a car. You couldn’t even get there in an airplane. You couldn’t even get there in a rocket ship!” Heaven is so far beyond anything that we have ever experienced that it escapes the imagination. “Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC 1024).
The Catechism states that, in Heaven, Christ makes us “partners in His glorification” (CCC 1026). Just as Christ is glorified by His Father, those who have been cleansed of their sins by Baptism and Confession will also be glorified in Heaven. The saints are not mere spectators in Heaven: They share in the very glory of Christ.
We should strive for Heaven with all our hearts. It should be the object and determining factor of every decision in our lives: Will this bring me closer to Heaven? Today, the saints show us that this transformation and glorification in Christ is possible. They have gone before us, victorious in the great tribulation, and now they plead for us, that we too might share in Christ’s glory. Through their intercession, may we too share in the prize for Christ’s victory over sin and death: the eternal life of the blessed, forever in Heaven.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Solemnity of All Saints, A.D. MMXVIII