Who ran by faith the narrow way:
The great and low together stand
With glory crowned at God’s right hand.
How blest are those who wrought the peace;
As heirs they share the Victor’s feast;
And prophets by injustice slain
Have claimed the Kingdom’s righteous reign.
Come, ye martyrs red and virgins white,With teachers wise and students bright,
All wives and husbands, monks and nuns,
With bishops, priests, and deacons, come.
Come, holy men and women all;With heart and voice sing praise and call
To Christ who rose triumphantly
That we may join your company.
—Harry Hagan, O.S.B.,
At my grandparents’ house, many years ago, I discovered a book that changed my life: a St. Joseph’s Daily Missal. That prayer book, which had belonged to my grandmother or perhaps my aunt or uncle was from the 1950s and was the resource for lay Catholics wishing to take part in the pre-Vatican II liturgy. While there wasn’t anything special about that particular book, which fell to pieces long ago, I discovered a new world in its pages, and it was a world populated by Saints from all times and places. I read about early Christian martyrs, monarchs and peasants, monks and bishops, nuns and holy women who had consecrated their lives to Christ, and even those who had personally known Jesus. I learned prayers written in their honor. Something within me was awakened and I set out on a journey of discovery and faith that, despite many twists and turns, I’m thankfully still on today.
And, each year, as Halloween and the Solemnity of All Saints (November 1) approaches, I find myself in a very different space than most others around me. I think some of that difference reflects what is probably the simplest, most child-like facet of my piety—my devotion to the saints—but it’s also because All Saints Day has always seemed like such an obvious celebration to me.
Now, those who are much better trained in liturgy and hagiography than I am might remind me that All Saints Day is an ancient celebration that was originally intended to honor the early martyrs and, as a celebration of the martyrs, it is a celebration of the Paschal Mystery—the passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus. They might continue by explaining to me that it was because of Christ’s victory over sin and death that the martyrs had reason to hope and found the faith and courage to face death, knowing that death was not the end, but only the beginning. And, of course, those liturgists and hagiographers would be right. But when I think about All Saints Day, knowing its history and theology, I still feel like there is a simpler, equally true significance to this feast: this is the day when each of us as Church can take a moment and reflect and look at one another and say, “Yes; this is right because this is who we are.”
We get a hint of this “rightness” in the First Letter of John: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God. Yet so we are… Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes themselves pure, as he is pure” (3:1, 3). All Saints Day is the day for us to celebrate those members of the Church—women and men who were not all that different from each of us—who have persevered and who tried, sometimes with imperfect success, to live in and for God.
One of the reasons that I find the saints so inspiring and captivating is because each is a unique person, with an individual personality, way of engaging God and the world, and as much a mixed bag of grace and sin, strength and weakness as I am. Some doubted and questioned (think of Saint Joan of Arc or Blessed Thomas Tsuji) or were very much products of their time (Saint John of Capistrano and Pope Saint Pius X are good examples). Others experienced profound conversions (such as Saint Camillus de Lellis and Saint Margaret of Cortona) or even lived more than one vocation (like Saint Elizabeth Seton, a wife and mother who later founded the Sisters of Charity). In the end, however, they found a special union with God by keeping their attention fixed on greater truths than those offered by the world and by choosing to say “Yes.” They risked change; they became holy. I imagine that this is one of the reasons why the Gospel proclaimed each year on All Saints Day is the Beatitudes: the Church is reminding us that authentic holiness must be lived out in ways that touch the very core of who we are. This is how the saints changed the world in ways from which we still benefit today.
Having said all of that, I have to admit that I feel a bit sad for those who like to keep the saints safely on their marble pedestals, at arms length. We need to hear their stories because they tell us exactly what it means to live a life of discipleship and how beautiful that life can be. But they also remind us that discipleship has a cost—even the most cursory reading of the lives of the early saints and more recent martyrs shows us that the Christian life places burdens upon us and that sometimes faith can demand everything of us. As Pope Benedict XVI observed, "This, then, is the meaning of today's Solemnity: looking at the shining example of the Saints to reawaken within us the great longing to be like them; happy to live near God, in his light, in the great family of God's friends. Being a Saint means living close to God, to live in his family" (Homily for All Saints Day, 2006).
This is where we can begin to unlock the “secret” of the saints. The saints weren’t simply those who “lived” their faith in their heads as a sort of sacred intellectual exercise, with God as a problem to be solved and Christianity as just one philosophical perspective among others. Saints are Christians who do something with their faith, who put their faith into practice in dynamic ways that change the world around them. And these changes weren’t always the grand sorts of signs and wonders that we like our saints to perform. Usually, their dynamic faith was lived out in the most mundane aspects of life, moment to moment, day to day.
Think about it. Even if we take all the stories that we know of the most beloved saints, like Saint Francis of Assisi or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, we quickly realize that those tales give us only the faintest hint of what their daily lives were like. And just as our lives can never really be summed up in a single moment or experience, their lives were a succession of moments in which they chose, again and again, to try to want more, to try to be more, and to try keep their attention focused on a way of living and loving that was bigger than they could ever hope to become.
All Saints Day asks something of each of us. As we offer a prayer of thanks for our spiritual ancestors (including those whose names and stories are lost to history, but who are still held precious and loved by God), we are being invited to remember that we are also called to do something with our faith in dynamic ways and to find comfort in the presence and prayers of so many gifted, faulted, and graced individuals who found the faith and strength to really live the Faith they professed.
A prayer for All Saints Day +Almighty ever-living God,
by whose gift we venerate in one celebration
the merits of all the Saints,
bestow on us, we pray,
through the prayers of so many intercessors,
an abundance of the reconciliation with you
for which we earnestly long.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)