In an Italian Graveyard, Reflections on the Last Things

The passing of the seasons has forever been a source of inspiration to poets, painters, and mystics. Especially evocative are the transitional seasons of spring and autumn, which highlight life's transience and invite reflection on the impermanence of all things temporal. In the seasonal scheme of things, November is an eschatological month. The passage from summer's life to winter's death, like a theatrical scene change signaled by a multicolored curtain of leaves closing on summer and, as they fall away, reopening to winter, presents a vivid reminder of the eschata—the “last things.”

This suggestive setting furnishes an ideal mise-en-scène for the back-to-back liturgical feasts of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The faithful rejoice Nov. 1 with the Church triumphant, and the next day offer special intercession for the members of the Church suffering in purgatory. Meanwhile, as members of the Church militant, we reflect on our own pilgrim condition and the final goal of our earthly journey. In America such reflection doesn't always come easy. A heavily commercialized Halloween often monopolizes popular attention and threatens to subsume the two great feasts, for which Halloween is meant to be but a preparation.

Here in Italy things are a bit different. Halloween receives no special attention, while All Saints Day is celebrated as a national holiday, with its attendant dispensation from school and work. All Souls Day, on the other hand, provides an occasion for Italians to visit the cemetery and pray for the beloved departed. Somehow Italy's progressive secularization-and almost pathological phobia of death—has been unable to dislodge this sacred tradition.

This past Nov. 2 I had the grace of participating in this deeply Catholic ritual for the seventh straight year. Accompanied by several confreres I weaved my way through Rome's labyrinthine boulevards and side streets and eventually arrived at the enormous Campo Verano cemetery. Campo Verano stretches over hundreds of acres of land crisscrossed with paved avenues, and densely adorned with cypresses, immense stone mausoleums, marble statues, and simple gravestones, some of which were already in place when Columbus set sail from Andalucía for the New World. It is a veritable necropolis (a city of the dead) which stands in stark contrast to the adjacent living city of Rome.

Though the novelty of these visits has worn off, their spiritual impact hasn't. There is something about the rivers of people flowing slowly along in prayerful silence, many carrying bundles of flowers to lay at the grave of departed family members, that moves me deeply. The only suitable analogy that comes to mind is the experience of visiting the basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and witnessing the faith of the thousands of people that daily arrive on foot—or on their knees—from all over the Mexican Republic. Here at Campo Verano, instead of the miraculous tilma that recalls Mary's maternal solicitude, it is the graphic reminder of human mortality that summons visitors to lift their gaze to God and implore his mercy.

These visits inevitably provoke thoughts on the brevity of life and the consequent vanity of so many earthly pursuits. Medieval wisdom recommended viewing temporal affairs from the perspective of eternity in order to ensure right judgment. Quid hoc ad Êternitatem? provided the formula for weighing the true importance of secular concerns.

This adage, in turn, merely reflects Jesus’ admonition to avoid amassing earthly treasure and instead to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Mt 6, 20). At the Nov. 16 inaugural Mass for the Synod for America at St. Peter's Basilica, Pope John Paul reiterated this teaching in his homily: “The shadow of the world passes away, but the Word of God will not pass away.… God does not pass away and what comes from him does not pass away.”

Besides this eternal perspective, Campo Verano imparts further lessons, such as the singularity of our earthly sojourn. As the popular poem reads, “We shall pass this way but once.” Though life, to be sure, offers many “second chances,” there is no second chance for life itself. Moreover, in this life we are given one task, one mission to fulfill. As I eyed the epitaphs I couldn't help wondering whether each of those souls had fulfilled the mission for which he was created, and more importantly, whether I have fulfilled my own in the years I have lived thus far. If God chose to call me now, would I be able to respond in unison with Christ on the cross, “It is accomplished"?

Now that November draws to a close, we prepare to celebrate the final two eschatological feasts of the month: Christ the King and Thanksgiving. The feast of Christ the King marks the last Sunday in the liturgical year, and reminds us that we are subjects of a kingdom where Christ will reign for all eternity.

Thanksgiving, too, carries eschatological overtones, and not only for the turkey. Along with the opportunity to give thanks for the many blessings received, Thanksgiving signals harvest time, a biblical image of the end of the world and the moment to render an accounting of one's life.

“And some seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold. And Jesus said, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear!'” (Mk 4, 8–9).

Father Thomas Williams is rector of the general directorate of the Legionaries of Christ in Rome.