In 2015, I was visiting a priest friend in Perugia, Italy, and accompanied him to the Eternal City, Rome, where he had some official business to attend for his Diocese.
Having close to three hours to spare, I decided to go to the Vatican Museum. This was not my first time there but unlike my previous visits, the lines were much shorter, with very few pilgrims in attendance. (If you have been there, you know what I am talking about).
As I nonchalantly made my way through the halls of antiquity, admiring the aesthetics, I entered into the chapels of all chapels, the Cappella Magna, the Great Chapel. When Francesco della Rovere was elevated to the Chair of St. Peter in 1471 he took the name Sixtus IV (hence its name). The first Mass in the Sistine Chapel was celebrated on Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 15th, 1483. Some of the most beautiful and important artwork in the Chapel are frescoes painted by the great Michelangelo; one of the best known artists of his day.
When I walked into the Sistine Chapel, what stood out to me was the large and impressive image of the prophet Jonah appearing directly above the center of the Last Judgment. It caught my eye. This is Jonah. I thought, “Why is he here?” He was depicted with his head thrown back, his legs hanging forward. By his side, a fish nibbles at his thigh, which St Jerome in his commentary states is an allusion to the big fish that swallowed him.
Jonah received a mission from God to preach a message of repentance to the people of Nineveh. At first he resisted and was disobedient to God and thus almost lost his life. However, God was compassionate towards Jonah, heard his prayer and forgave him.
Jonah is the only prophet with whom Jesus identifies himself with in the New Testament and to whom he explicitly refers by name: “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” He said to them in reply, “an evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights”(Mt 12:38-40).
The scribes and the Pharisees were blinded to the reality of Jesus’ ministry and still sought a sign. Many people in our world today expect to see a sign in order for them to believe. Just as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, Jesus is a sign to this generation. Jonah preached repentance for sins and Jesus said there is something greater than Jonah here. What’s greater than Jonah is our Lord Jesus Christ and His triumph over sin and death. We show great love and humility towards God when we come before Him and humbly acknowledge our sinful nature and make restitution for our sins.
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation we recognize that we are indeed sinners, but God’s love and mercy are overwhelmingly greater than our sins.
When John the Baptist began his preaching ministry to prepare people’s hearts and minds for the coming of the Messiah, he said, “repent and believe!”
On April 3 (Reconciliation Monday), every Parish throughout the diocese will be offering confession. Priests, gentle shepherds of the Lord, will be available to guide you and even more importantly to forgive you on behalf of Jesus Christ for all of your sins; thus leading you back into the fold (the Church). You will experience in a beautiful way the love and mercy of God.
The prophet Ezekiel reminds us in (33:11), God does not desire the death of a sinner but that he be converted and return to him. If some time has passed since your last confession, don’t be afraid to return – come home.
To prepare, make a good examination of conscience prior to coming. I remember one time my doctor said to me, “Father, why did you wait so long to come in to see me?” My response was, “I was afraid.” His response to me was, “Now you know how most of us feel about confession.” My doctor had a point. I did feel nervous, but he took good care of me despite my apprehension. It is normal to feel nervous before entering the confessional. However, just as a doctor takes excellent care of his patients, so too does the priest for those in the confessional.
St. Paul states in 2 Corinthians that the priests of the Church have a ministry of reconciliation and are ambassadors of God’s mercy. It is one of the great privileges of priesthood to hear and absolve sin in the name of Jesus Christ.
As I reflect on my time in the Sistine Chapel, it was made clear that my question “Why is he here” upon seeing the prophet Jonah, was answered. Perhaps Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the prophet Jonah in the Sistine Chapel to be a constant reminder that we are called to be a repentant people who are redeemed and forgiven through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
(Father Anthony Giamello is pastor of St. John the Apostle parish in Milford)