The Solemnity of All Saints (Vigil Mass)

Today’s readings

Since we’re gathered here on Halloween, All Hallows Eve, I thought I might get your attention by doing a little homily I like to call “Would Jesus Go Trick-or-Treating?” It’s an important topic, because I think a lot of parents wrestle with the message of Halloween and whether or not they should support their children joining in the festivity.

And I think it’s an important thing to wrestle with. On one hand, we don’t want to make a joke out of evil, because evil is real and it’s no joke. But on the other hand, we don’t want to call attention to evil by making a big thing out of it. Exorcists tell us that those are the two common mistakes that we can make about evil: First, we might say think there is no such thing as the devil. Satan would be happy for us to do that, because then we’re not on guard against him. He is real, he’s out there, and we do have to be on our guard. The second mistake we might make is that we look for evil everywhere, and that just shuts us down and keeps us from living the Gospel. Neither of these is a good thing, and both of them play into Satan’s plans for us.

So let’s talk about Halloween. Its origins are a bit murky, and many people think that what happened is that we sort of baptized a pagan festival. Yes and no: there is a traditional pagan festival on October 31st, but apparently there is a traditional pagan festival on the last day of every month, so really that’s nothing particularly special. More likely, Halloween was a celebration of the Eve of All Saints – hence the name, Halloween, All Hallows Eve. All Saints Day originated in the year 609, when it was celebrated in May. But in the ninth century, it was moved to the first of November, which is when the Germanic church celebrated it, and it’s been celebrated then ever since.

The origins of trick-or-treating may have been in Ireland where an ancient Gaelic festival celebrated the harvest and marked the beginning of winter – the time of year when a significant portion of the population would often die. Because of the fear of death that came with winter, these celebrations seemed to have included going door to door asking for treats dressed in costumes, which were thought to disguise the living from life-taking spirits.

So the origins and intent of Halloween are more or less benign, and mostly intended to honor the saints. But in our country, over time, a more sinister tone was added to the celebration. Think of some of the more horrific costumes, extremely elaborate and grotesque “haunted houses,” and parties where more evil customs were brought to the celebration. Add that to some of the more elaborate horror movies that get released this time of year, and you can see how it would be easy to brand Halloween as an evil holiday.

Fundamentalist Christians especially see the evil, and thus throw out the entire celebration. But we are not fundamentalist Christians. So we remember that God is good, and that he is always in control, and we do not give the demonic or the evil any power it doesn’t already have. In fact, a lot of people think that there is more demonic activity at this time of year than normal, but exorcists tell us that is not true. It’s just that people tend to open more doors by their worrying and by doing some things they shouldn’t do to celebrate the holiday.

So now let’s remember what this holiday is really about. Today we celebrate the feast of all the Saints – those who have been officially canonized over the ages, and those that perhaps we don’t know of, but who God certainly knows. This is the Church Triumphant, those who have conquered evil and have mastered holiness. They have accomplished what they were created for, to take up their rightful place in the Kingdom of Heaven, that place that God has prepared for each one of us. Today we celebrate their triumph, and hope for our own triumph, for we too wish to live forever with our God. We celebrate the example the saints have given us and we depend on their intercession, which helps to guide our lives and lead us on the path of life eternal. So it is right to celebrate this as we celebrate other holidays, with great festivity.

I think it’s important that we celebrate Halloween and All Saints Day as one, which is the intent. If we do that, we keep our minds on what is positive and turn away from all that bids us evil. So yes, I think it’s okay to trick-or-treat, to celebrate with parties, and to dress up. But I’d skip the more evil costumes, perhaps in favor of costumes honoring the saints, and any party games that summon evil, like Ouija boards.  In fact, if you have an Ouija board in your house right now, I want you to go home and destroy it and throw it away – don’t even give it to someone else – it’s not a party game.  All these are things that open the door to evil, and we always want to avoid that.

Avoiding evil was the glory of the saints. That was part of the path to holiness for them. As we celebrate all the saints today, we might think of some who famously battled evil and won. Saint Michael the Archangel, my middle-name patron, fights the battle of evil that we don’t usually see, every single moment. He is a wonderful patron, and we should memorize the prayer to him and pray it often. Saint Benedict battled evil temptation in his own life by rolling around in briars rather than give in to a lustful memory.  The Saint Benedict medal is particularly powerful in warding off evil.  Saint Patrick, my principal patron, famously converted the pagan king of Ireland to Catholicism and exorcised the forces of evil in that country. His famous Breastplate prayer is considered a deliverance prayer and a help to those who feel oppressed by evil. Of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven and Earth, is a powerful protector of all of us, her children. And let’s not forget our Guardian Angels, who do battle for us on a daily basis. That’s just a few of the saints who battle for our good.

And in the spirit of their glorious battle, we should dedicate ourselves to joining them one day. We are all supposed to be saints, and as tall an order as that may sound, it needs to be our number one priority. Because there is no one in heaven who is not a saint. So then, we need to take all the help God and His Church gives us: we must dedicate ourselves to the sacraments, particularly the sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist, which together are more powerful than a solemn exorcism. We must put prayer at the beginning, in the middle and the end of our to-do lists, dedicating ourselves to the Blessed Sacrament, to the reading of scripture, and devotions, particularly the rosary. We have to make every effort to live the Gospel, and to give witness to the power of God’s love in our lives and in our world. Because if we honor and witness to Christ in this life, he will surely be our advocate in the life to come.

So yes, I think Jesus might trick-or-treat. But we come to him today for the best of all treats, the saving grace that he offers us that we might join the saints in heaven one day. We come to Jesus rejoicing and full of gladness, because we know that those who belong to him will have great reward in heaven.

The Solemnity of All Saints

Today’s readings

Today, the Church militant – which is all of us – rejoice with the Church triumphant – which is all the Saints in heaven – because of the great glory of God. This glory they can already see; we hope to see it one day. And we will see it if, please God, we perfect ourselves and grow in holiness to the point that we too become saints for the Kingdom of God.

But I think many of us bristle at the very idea of becoming a saint. We might even throw up our hands in some conversations and say something like, “hey, I’m no saint…” Saints are those people in elaborate paintings or statues, who lived lives that we find very remote. Saints just seem out of touch and sainthood seems way past our grasp.

But that’s all wrong. We were all made by God to come back to him one day: we were, in fact, made for heaven. Becoming a saint is the vocation of all of us. That’s what we were put on earth to do. Because the most important thing we know about saints is that they are definitely in heaven, which is our true home, and that’s where we were meant to return some day. To get there, we ourselves have to become more like them. We have to grow in holiness and make our reliance on God’s grace and mercy the central focus of our lives.

It may help to know that most, if not all, of the saints struggled with holiness too. Think about Saint Paul himself: he began his career by persecuting Christians and we know that he had a hand in the stoning of Saint Stephen. Or think about Saint Augustine who was an intellectual man who disdained Christianity, until his mother’s prayers caught up with him. Or we might think even more recently of Saint Teresa of Calcutta who experienced a very dark time in her life when she could not even communicate with Jesus. But Jesus was still there and led her to heaven.

And so this feast in honor of all the saints is an important one. We celebrate those saints we know of like Mary and Joseph, Peter and Paul, Patrick and Dominic and so many others. But we also celebrate the ones we don’t know of; people whose faith and goodness only God knows. And most importantly, in celebrating them, we vow to become like them: close to Jesus who leads those who believe in him past the gates of death to the glory of heaven, where our reward will be great, as Jesus says in the Gospel today. On that day, we will indeed rejoice and be glad!

The Solemnity of All Saints

Today’s readings

How would you react if someone called you a saint?  We hear that, sometimes, don’t we?  When we do something good for someone, sometimes they’ll say, “Oh, thank you, you’re a saint!”  But how does that make you feel?  Do you bristle a bit and think, “not me!”?  I think we all have that kind of reaction.  Saints are the people we see in statues and hear about in amazing stories.  No way could we ever be confused with people like that.  More often than not, we would be likely to say to someone, “now I’m no saint…”

… As if that were a good thing.  When we think about saints, we get stuck, I think, on those saints of statues and medieval stories.  But today, the Church is asking us to think about saints in a broader way.  Yes, we include all those “official” saints that have been canonized through the ages.  We are told that Pope John Paul II canonized some 482 saints during his pontificate.  This is an impressive number, to be sure, but it is even more impressive when you realize that that is more than the previous seventeen popes all put together!  Some criticized him for doing that, saying that it cheapened the process of canonization.  But his feeling was that the Church is in the business of bringing people to heaven, so canonizing many holy people was the right thing to do.

And that’s an important piece of information about our official saints.  Canonization recognizes that the person is certainly in heaven from what we know of him or her.  That’s why the process is so intricate.  And this is contrasted with the fact that the Church has never said any person is in hell.  So we know of thousands of people that are certainly in heaven, but no one who is in hell.  This illustrates that God’s will is done in the end, doesn’t it?

But, as I said, I think the Church wants us to think about saints in a broader way.  There is the story of a schoolteacher who asked her children what a saint was.  One little girl thought about the saints she saw in stained glass windows, and said “Saints are people the light shines through.”  Think about that for a minute – that little girl isn’t far from the kingdom of God there.  Because all people are called to let the light of Christ shine through them, and saints are those people who have let that light shine through.

Heaven is that great multitude that John the Revelator tells us about in today’s first reading: that multitude “which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.”  They are wearing, he tells us, white robes, which have been washed in the blood of the lamb.  That seems very counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?  Everyone knows that blood stains like nobody’s business.  But he’s speaking poetically here, and recognizes that nothing washes us sinners quite as clean as the saving blood of Jesus Christ.

And that’s really the only way.  Because we’re quite right when we bristle a bit at being called saints.  We can’t be saints all on our own.  We aren’t good enough, we can’t make up for our sins with any kind of completeness, and there’s basically no way that we can jump high enough to get to heaven.  But this feast of All Saints recognizes that we don’t have to.  We don’t have to because Christ has saved us through no merit of our own but based solely on God’s love for us.  The fact that we can be called saints is a grace, and we dare not bristle so much that we turn away from that grace.

We are all of us on a journey, and we know that our true home is not in this place, however good it may be.  We are on a journey to heaven, and that means that we are in the process of becoming saints.  The reason John Paul could canonize so many saints is because he had so many to choose from.  None of them were good on their own merit; they became more and more like their heavenly Father by joining themselves to Christ.  Jesus said, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” and there is no way to do that except to follow him.

So, no, of course, not all of us will be canonized.  Most of us will go to the Kingdom rather imperfect in many ways.  But if we look to those canonized saints for inspiration, perhaps our relationship with the Lord will lead us and our brothers and sisters to that place where all the saints worship around the Throne of the Lamb.

So yes, today we honor the great saints like Mary and Joseph, Patrick and Petronille, Francis and Dominic, and all the rest.  We glory in their triumph that was made possible by joining themselves to Christ.  We take inspiration from their battles and from the faith that helped keep them in Christ when they could have turned away.  If God could do that in their lives, just maybe he can do that in ours too.  Perhaps, if we are willing to accept it, he can keep us “strong in times of trials and doubts; courageous when challenged; compassionate to the broken; wise for those who are searching; outspoken when others hold a fearful silence; anonymous in performing loving deeds; persevering when struggles will not just evaporate; defending justice when the world ignores or presses down those on the margins; gentle and strong in the face of what opposes the gospel.”[1]

Those virtues are virtues that we think about when we think about those official, canonized saints.  But they are virtues for which we can and should strive as well.  The desire and the grace to attain those virtues comes from God himself, and the reward for receiving that grace and living those virtues is a heavenly relationship with God.  What could be better than that?

One of my very favorite hymns in our tradition is the one we sing today: “For All the Saints.”  It speaks of our great battle with evil, and the grace of God that overcomes it all in the lives of the saints.  When we picture ourselves as part of that great throng of saints, it changes the singing of the song.  Would it not be great if we could be part of that countless host of which we sing:

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,

singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!


[1] Jude Siciliano, OP, First Impressions.

St. Boniface

Today’s readings

Boniface was a Benedictine monk in England. He gave up the real possibility of being elected abbot of his community in order to reach out to the German people. Pope Gregory II sent Boniface to a Germany where paganism was a way of life, and where the clergy were at best uneducated and at worst corrupt and disobedient. Reporting all of this back to Pope Gregory, the Holy Father commissioned him to reform the German Church. He was provided with letters of introduction to civil and religious authorities, but even so met with some resistance and interference by both lay people and clergy. Yet, he was extremely successful, centering his reforms around teaching the virtue of obedience to the clergy and establishing houses of prayer similar to Benedictine monasteries. Boniface and 53 companions were finally martyred during a mission, in which he was preparing converts for Confirmation. The success of Boniface’s mission was that he helped the people and the clergy to see how far they had strayed from God’s plan for the Church.

In his blindness, Tobit came to see what was important, too. If we remember all the way back to Tuesday, we heard about Tobit being made blind by cataracts caused by bird droppings, and later in that same story, he scolded his wife for accepting a goat as a bonus on her labor, because he did not believe her story. I mentioned then that Tobit had to learn that charity – for which he was quite well known – begins at home. His period of blindness gave him that very insight, I think, and in today’s story he rejoices in his cleared vision.

Through the intercession of St. Raphael, Tobit regained his sight and was able to see his son safely returned from a long and dangerous journey. He saw also the return of his family fortune. And he saw the union of his son Tobit with his new wife Sarah. There was great cause for rejoicing in all that he was able to see and Tobit didn’t miss a beat in placing the credit where it belonged. He said,

Blessed be God,
and praised be his great name,
and blessed be all his holy angels.
May his holy name be praised
throughout all the ages,
Because it was he who scourged me,
and it is he who has had mercy on me.

And so we praise God today for angels who help us to see what’s really important. We praise God for angels who clear up our clouded vision and help us to see past the obstacles we’ve put in God’s way. We praise God for saints that point us back in the right direction – toward Jesus Christ. We praise God for all those witnesses who help us to overcome our pride and self-righteousness so that God’s way can become clear to us. May we rejoice along with Tobit and Anna and Boniface and his companions, and all the rest that God has brought us back to him, time and time again.

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