Today is one of the few days in the Roman Catholic Church that the liturgy of a Sunday is superseded by the celebration of a special feast on the liturgical calendar. Today’s feast of All Saints gives us pause, not only to think about those people throughout history who have been named by the Church as deserving of the title “saint” (those whom the Church has “canonized”) but also to reflect on what it means to be a saint. We often hear people speak of someone who has suffered many trials (e.g. those with many unruly children) as a saint. “That woman is a saint,” they say! In that case it seems that sainthood resides in the person’s ability to show grace under pressure or to endure what might make others lash out and turn to violence. We might hear also, “He’s a saint – in church every morning without fail, never without his rosary…” which tells us that religious practice and personal piety are the means to sainthood. And then there are those who speak out on issues of social justice, demanding that governments care for the less fortunate and those whose dignity is ignored. We have been slow to recognize this category of sainthood (although charity has always been part of the Christian path). Justice workers are sometimes unruly, even going so far as breaking the law in service to what they see as “a higher law” in imitation of Jesus. It was Pope Leo XIII in 1891 who began to articulate what has become the social teaching of the Catholic Church in his encyclical Rerum novarum which spoke of unfair labor practices. Do we see crusaders for justice as saints?
The dictionary has many definitions of sainthood – most of them somehow articulating the quality of holiness. Catholics look for miracles, especially healings and visions – and sometimes have clear evidence of how that has manifested in the lives of the canonized saints. A relatively new development is the growing consciousness of the “sainthood” of people who do not share our own religious beliefs and traditions. Who would argue against the sainthood of the Dalai Lama, for instance, especially if we have been privileged to be in his presence? Saint Paul is responsible for the fact that the title of saint appears in the Scriptures; he addresses everyone to whom he writes as saints! So what does that mean?
We may not all look like saints or fit any standard definition of what sainthood means, but maybe – with the virtue of hope in our pocket – we can continue on the way to God, doing our best to love as Jesus did, and as those people whose example we choose to follow have done, trusting that it is God’s measure we can achieve, becoming one in the great Communion of Saints that knows no human reckoning.