“At eventide they will examine you in love.” – St John of the Cross, Spiritual Sentences and Maxims, n. 57.
The six of them arrived simultaneously at the Gate of Heaven. The angel Penuel, who was on duty at that time, received them in his usual, efficient manner. Apparently he had done his homework because, as he approached each one of them in turn for a warm embrace, he rattled off each one’s biodata.
“Ah,” he said, spotting a rather youngish man with a camera hanging from his neck, “Carlos de la Cruz. Chilean journalist. Atheist. Fought against political tyranny. Died in jail. Yes, very nice. Welcome to heaven. Oh, by the way, you will not have much use for your camera here. Too much light, you know, especially when you come in the vicinity of God.”
The man did not say anything, still under the shock of having discovered that there was a God, after all.
The angel went on to the next arrival.
“Ingrid Svenson. Swedish. Lutheran. Unmarried. Spent your life taking care of an invalid brother. Welcome, my dear, welcome!”
The girl obviously felt a bit lost, not having any more to push her brother’s wheelchair everywhere she went. She seemed shy and quiet, but very capable.
Penuel pass on to the figure next to her.
“Seseko M’Butu. Congolese. Animist. Spent your life trying to preserve some endangered species of fauna in your country. Welcome, dear brother.”
The man quietly received his welcome with the natural dignity of a prince. Apparently, he was quite used to dealing with spirits.
“Raju Divarkar. Indian. Buddhist. As a bonze you confined your life within the austere walls and duties of a monastery. You are most welcome, brother.”
The monk bowed slightly, one hand held upright in front of his chest in the Buddhist sign of peace.
“Hideki Yamamoto. Japanese. No religion. Artist. Painted birds and flowers all your life. May you enjoy our own birds of paradise, dear brother.”
The man bowed deeply several times, overwhelmed by the angel’s gracious manner. Meanwhile Penuel had turned towards the last of the party.
“Luigi Cardinal Rampolla. Catholic. Spent most of your life in the Vatican Curia. Died as a Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature. Welcome, brother.”
The Cardinal was a bit surprised not to receive the red carpet treatment he had grown used to, but he kept his peace, being a born diplomat.
“Now,” the angel said, stepping back and overlooking the whole group, “the five of you may enter immediately. As for you”, he added, speaking to the Cardinal, “I am afraid there will be a slight delay. But, I assure you, your stay in Purgatory should not be too long.”
The Cardinal was astounded. Had he heard clearly?
“Are you saying,” he asked in his cultured voice, “that these – these – persons are to take precedence over me, a Cardinal, a prince of the Church?”
“Why, yes,” Penuel answered blandly. “Is there any problem?”
The Cardinal swallowed hard, trying to keep his patience.
“Don’t you think,” he asked as suavely as he could, “that this is pushing ecumenism a bit too far?”
“Not at all, my dear brother,” the angel answered innocently. “You see, these – persons, as you call them, have amply deserved to inherit eternal bliss, whereas you have not. At least, not yet.”
“And why not?” the Cardinal asked in an acid tone. He really felt affronted by the whole procedure.
“Because,” the angel replied patiently, “they have dedicated their whole lives to loving someone or something selflessly. They are what we call here True Lovers. And here love is the only thing that counts, you know. Whereas you dedicated most of your energies to furthering your career, using not-too-loving expedients to climb the ecclesiastical ladder – if you know what I mean.”
The Cardinal blushed. He knew what Penuel meant. And he had to admit that his ambition had often gotten the better of his Christian charity. Nevertheless, he felt somewhat cheated.
“But does it count for nothing that I belong to the Catholic religion, the only true faith?” He was mentally comparing himself to his companions – whose religious background seemed to him quite unsatisfactory.
“Not really,” Penuel answered kindly. “Up here orthodoxy does not have a very high priority. What impresses us here is rather the way a person lives. As for being a Catholic, well – that in itself is not a recommendation.”
“But Jesus Christ was a Catholic!” the Cardinal exploded. This conversation was getting him nowhere and his temper was getting short.
“Let us say,” the angel said with infinite tact, “that Jesus Christ was a reformed Jew. The term Catholic, as you probably know, is not even found in the Bible.”
The other five persons present, although not understanding the finer points of this exchange, were nevertheless aware that their poor companion in fine scarlet robes would be left behind if something was not done. And so, being genuinely loving people, they began to intercede for him. Carlos de la Crus, the atheist journalist, was the first to speak up.
“Senor Penuel,” he said with his charming Latin smile, “you know I never liked priests very much. But this one doesn’t seem a bad fellow. Why don’t you give him a chance and let him in with us?”
All the others joined in, adding their fervent plea to that of the journalist. Even the quiet Ingrid interjected her soft appeal amid the chorus of her companions.
The angel was secretly pleased. This kind of thing happened all the time at the Gate of Heaven and it enabled a fair number of dubious characters to be admitted on the insistence of their companions. A routine case of the Communion of Saints. God always applauded this sort of thing. However, a minimum of justice still had to be preserved.
“Very well! Very well!” he shouted over the clamour of the group. “Just give me a chance to make the proper arrangements!”
They all calmed down, curious to see what would happen.
“All right, Luigi.” The Cardinal winced interiorly at being addressed with such familiarity. But he knew he might as well get used to it because in heaven people did not seem to be very impressed by titles. “Since you never deserved to be made a Cardinal in the first place, you just cannot enter heaven dressed like one. In fact, you will be allowed to go in with your companions only because their merits will cover your spiritual nakedness, as it were. And, in order to signify this, you will have to exchange your clothes with their.”
Naturally the Cardinal was aghast at this turn of events, but what could he do? Besides, deep down in his heart of hearts, he knew he had a lot of things on his conscience he was not too proud of. So he complied meekly.
He gave his precious episcopal ring to Ingrid and took hers (it was her mother’s wedding ring, which she had inherited). He traded his purple cassock and cape for Raju’s saffron robe (this was done discreetly, behind a cloud). He gave his fine Italian leather shoes to Seseko and put on the latter’s old sandals. He exchanged his skullcap for Hideki’s straw hat, and his pectoral cross for Carlos’ camera, which hung at his neck by a leather strap.
And so, on that day, five True Lovers entered triumphantly in Heaven – followed by a shamefaced Cardinal in a rather strange attire. Nevertheless, once again love had had the last word.
By Fr Nil Guillemette