By Fr. Paul Tomasso
Dante has proceeded to the second heaven, the planet Mercury, where he meets the great Emperor Justinian who says of himself, “Caesar I was, and am Justinian” [line 10]. This reminds us of the truth that, in the Purgatorio, Pope Adrian V communicates to Dante—in the afterlife, titles, honors, dignities cease and only the individual remains [Purgatorio 19.130-138]. Nevertheless, the individual retains his memory, his perspective and his awareness of the life he lived in the world, a life that was helped or harmed along the way by choices made.
Justinian remembers that he was converted to believe correctly in the humanity and divinity of Christ by Pope Agapetus who “used his eloquence to woo my heart unto the perfect faith” [lines 16-18]. This experience was pivotal in Justinian’s view of himself as he continued to transfer military responsibilities to his generals and turned his energy to the codification of Roman law. While he saw both of these decisions as strengthening Rome and its progress forward, he also saw law as something spiritual in its goal of justice. We can see his high regard for justice later on in his discourse when he refers to Christ as “the Living Justice” [line 121].
Through much of this Canto Justinian reviews with Dante Rome’s history from its earliest times, its glories and struggles, down to the Christian era and the reign of Charlemagne. Justinian’s discourse is not simply to praise Rome or himself, but in it he tries to point out that Rome, the Eagle, was a part of God’s plan. Rome was an agent of Redemption in the Crucifixion [line 87]. And the Law, which Justinian codified, strives for Justice which ultimately only Christ, “the Living Justice brings about. The Eagle and the Law, strong as they may be, serve Christ who is greater than both.
For all that is reviewed and discussed in this Canto, Justinian concludes with a brief, poignant reference to a then known Romeo who loyally served but was cast aside by the Count of Provence. “Could the world know how brave a heart he bore….Much as it lauds him now, ‘twoud laud him more.” [lines 140, 142]. The best life is not about Rome (glory) or the Eagle (power). Nor is it about codification of law (accomplishment). The best life is about pure, loyal service, a service that is without ambition, a service that—while maybe not being recognized on earth—will be rewarded in heaven.
Fr. Paul Tomasso is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY. He was ordained in 1981 and, since then, has served in a variety of pastorates and assignments. Currently he is Director of Seminarians and Parochial Vicars and is also Vicar General for the Diocese of Rochester.