During his lifetime, Pope John Paul II canonized some 480 saints. Many people felt that this was a kind of “inflation” of saints, since he alone canonized more than one for every day of the year. But the pope’s view on this was that holiness is the true mission of the Church, and the real call of the Second Vatican Council. The whole purpose of the Church, in his view, was to bring men and women of every time and place to the great reward of heaven. Toward that end, it should not be surprising, he felt, for the Church to raise so many holy men and women to the glory of sainthood.
When the Church canonizes a saint, what she is really saying is that that person, through holy living and a faithful relationship with Christ, has received the reward of heaven. Interestingly enough, the Church has never named one single person who is in hell, but has named thousands of saints who are definitely in heaven. The doctrine on the communion of saints is that that wonderful communion binds together the faithful on earth, the souls in Purgatory, and the saints in heaven under the headship of Christ who has provided for the redemption of all. These are called saints because their destination is heaven itself.
But this particular fest day does not celebrate the sanctity of any particular saint. Not any of the 480 canonized by Pope John Paul, nor any canonized before or after him. This feast day celebrates the saints that we never hear about, at least not officially. These are the saints whose holiness has consecrated the everydayness of life for those who knew them, but whose deeds never gained them the recognition and following of the Church as a whole. Members of this great cloud of witnesses may have made it their life’s work to reach out to the poor or the sick or dying. Maybe they worked for justice in societies that were filled with greed and oppression. Maybe they were all about teaching the young or advocating for those who had no voice in society. Maybe they were people who cured diseases or made life easier for those who labored day after day to feed their children. There are so many who have left this world a little better than they found it. We may never have heard their stories or known their names, but they too are part of the Communion of Saints.
But even that great number of holy men and women does not exhaust the list of saints we celebrate today. Because the Church recognizes those who may not have accomplished great things, but still have attained great holiness. Because holiness is not first of all about what we do, but what God does for us and in us and through us. So the members of this great cloud of witnesses may have been your parents or grandparents whose prayer life, witness and teaching has been responsible for bringing you to the faith. Maybe they were those who served in our armed forces heroically and with integrity. Maybe they are your coworkers who work and live with honesty and grace. Maybe they are the neighbor who helped you clean out your flooded basement. Maybe they are the lady you knew from Church who lived the last days of her life in great pain, but never complained and was always cheerful. These holy men and women have sanctified their families and their homes, and have affected their communities for good. They may never find their names on the list of those in the beatification process, but they too are part of the Communion of Saints.
The point of all of this, and the point of this great feast, is that the Church believes that the 480 who were canonized by Pope John Paul and the thousands who have been canonized over time are nothing but a drop in the bucket! All of us, brothers and sisters in Christ, are called to be saints. And that’s not a popular idea in the thinking of the world today. How many times have you heard someone say with a glint in their eye, “Oh, I’m no saint…” How heartbreaking that kind of thinking is! You yourself may think the whole idea of becoming a saint is impossible, out of the question. Because saints are those lofty men and women who have done incredible things. But that’s not our belief. If the saints are those who are in heaven, then we are all called to be saints, because we were all made for heaven. Why would we want anything else for our lives? The Church says, in stark opposition to all that un-saintly thinking, that we are all called to the Kingdom of God, and that it is absolutely possible for all of us to become saints.
So how do we do that? How can we become saints? What is the path that will lead us to holiness of life? Well, today’s Gospel provides a blueprint. In this very familiar reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us the qualities of those who not only will become saints, but actually are already saints by their way of life and their relationship with God. Blessed are the poor in spirit, he says, and blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, and the merciful. Blessed are those who make peace, those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, or are insulted and slandered because of Christ. These are rewarded with all the blessings of the kingdom. These courageous people are the saints among us.
But we may think that maybe we don’t want to be that kind of people. Who wants to be slandered, persecuted, or known to be meek or poor? What kind of happiness does that give us in this life? Well, Jesus does not want us to be persecuted souls, suffering for nothing. He has no interest in wimpy saints who wallow in self-pity. No, all these are blessed, he says, because they have weathered the storms of life – storms that afflict us all at one time or another in life – and have been faithful to Christ. We are blessed when life tries us and we remain faithful to God who remains faithful to us. In times of trial and distress, we are blessed and we are happy because we have found God working in our lives in ways we might not otherwise see. We absolutely believe that holiness has rewards in this life and in the life to come. If we live that way, we can rejoice and be glad in this life, and look forward to a great reward in heaven.
When I came here in June, I said in my introductory bulletin article that it was my prayer that we would all grow in holiness together. This feast of All Saints is a celebration of that prayer. We have been created by God, for God, and we are truly happy – truly blessed – when we are living that way. Today as we offer our gifts at the altar, let us also offer our lives that we may be made holy by the One who is holiness itself. And after we have received the Body and Blood of our Lord in Holy Communion, let us give thanks for those saints in our lives who have brought us to God. May we all become the saints we were created to be and eventually receive the great reward that waits for all those who believe in Christ.