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.”
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:
Jude Siciliano, OP, First Impressions.