Brief synopsis of the readings: Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints instead of the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time. All Saints Day always falls on November 1st and this year it falls on a Sunday. In our first reading from Revelation, John is describing one of his visions. An angel carries the seal of the living God and orders four destructive angels to hold off on their destruction. Then the seal is placed on the foreheads of 144,000, from all the tribes of Israel. Then a larger crowd proclaimed God’s victory. One of the elders asked where these people have come from and was told that they have proved faithful through great persecution. In Matthew’s Gospel we read from the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the gentle, those who mourn, etc. They will be rewarded in heaven.
I’ve always been a little amused with All Saints Day. I grew in an area where most Christians were not Catholics and they would often tell me what I believe. Among them, I was told, was that we Catholics worshiped the saints (ie, other humans) instead of worshiping God. From time to time I would attempt to engage them to no avail.
I explained that we can all agree on the value of praying for others and asking them to pray for us and we also agree that those who choose God will be granted salvation in heaven. I then explained that the ability to ask someone for prayer does not stop when the person dies. While it was good to ask my grandmother to pray for me when she was still with us, I could also ask her (pray to her) to pray for me. Are her prayers more effective now that she’s in heaven? I don’t know, that’s not my call. But the fact that I can’t talk with her face to face doesn’t mean I can’t ask for her prayers.
I’d like to tell you that I was successful. Alas, most of the time the person’s response was: “OK, but why do you worship saints instead of worshiping God?”
All Saints Day gives us the opportunity to reflect back on those people who have been important in our lives and in our faith. Sometimes they were people we knew in person (like my grandmother), sometimes they are people we’ve been told about. But we believe all these people are in heaven and their prayers can benefit us.
So who becomes a saint? Good question. In the first few centuries of the Christian Church they were exclusively martyrs, those who died for the faith (St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Stephan, etc.). But as Christianity became more and more accepted there needed to be some accommodation for those who lived holy lives but weren’t martyred.
I imagine we’re all familiar with the fact that there is now a process to canonize someone (ie make someone a saint). The process has changed over the last 2,000 years (what hasn’t?) but for the last 1,000 years or so nobody can be considered a saint without the Pope’s permission.
Saints are people who have lived lives that have led others to follow the path to God. But they never stopped being human and none of them are perfect. And this has caused some controversy. Evangelists who also owned slaves. Martyrs who were previously anti-Semites. You get the picture.
The canonization process certainly has its place and we have learned about people we wouldn’t ordinarily know about. St. Francis lived in a small town in Italy and died when he was only 45. But his belief in living simply and his ability to attract followers has made him a household name. One of those followers, 700 years later, was a Polish Franciscan priest, St. Maximillian Kolbe. During World War II he was arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
A prisoner from his cellblock escaped, and as punishment 10 prisoners were selected at random to die of starvation. Fr. Kolbe wasn’t chosen, but another man was. When the man protested that he had a wife and children, Fr. Kolbe offered to take his place. He was the last of the 10 to die. The man whose life was saved lived until 1995.
But learning about the lives of the saints can impact us also. My grandfather was a carpenter and spent most of his life in a factory making baby furniture; when he retired he built a workbench in the basement. We don’t know much about Jesus’ father, St. Joseph, except that he was a carpenter. My grandfather had a picture of St. Joseph above his workbench and would often pray to him. At his funeral I suggested that my grandfather should look up St. Joseph: “You will know him by the callouses on his hands. You will be able to talk with him about the beauty of wood and the simple satisfaction of making something that lasts.”
And finally, while we often think of All Saints Day as including only those canonized by the Vatican, I don’t think that’s true. Our stories are (hopefully) replete with those who have brought us to our place. Maybe it was an older relative but not necessarily. Maybe it was a teacher, or a neighbor, or even someone who wasn’t very religious.
Maybe we look to someone who was particularly pious, but maybe not. Sometimes the saints in our lives are those who showed great courage in the face of adversity. Speak to anyone who has combat experience during war and ask about his saints and he (or she) will often describe those who died in battle (“the real heroes are the ones who never came home”).
I was once at the Washington D.C. memorial for those who died in Vietnam. The memorial lists the nearly 58,000 casualties. I struck up a conversation with a man standing next to me and learned he was a Marine during the war. I thanked him for his service and he said: “Don’t thank me. Thank them.”
As we commemorate All Saints Day, let us not only think about the saints in our lives. Let us also pray that we may become the saint in someone else’s life.