Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Saints

In November 1887, the founder of the Paullist Fathers, Isaac Thomas Hecker, wrote: “When, in 1843, I first read in the catechism of the Council of Trent the doctrine of the communion of saints, it went right home. It alone was to me a heavier weight on the Catholic side of the scales than the best historical argument which could be presented. … The body made alive by such truths ought to be of divine life and its origin traceable to a divine establishment.”
By 1887, some 44 years had passed since Hecker’s encounter with the Catechism and its exposition of Article IX of the Apostles Creed, “I believe in … the communion of saints,” but the passage of time had done nothing to dull the impact of what he had found there.  Appropriately so, since the Communion of Saints celebrates the bonds that connect us - not only across space, but even more profoundly across time. Uniting past and present, it permeates the Church’s worship and punctuates the Church’s calendar with its many feasts and memorials of saints, culminating today in this great annual celebration in honor of all the Saints. All Saints Day celebrates in particular that part of the communion of saints known as “the Church Triumphant” – not just the thousands of saints officially recognized by the Church, but all the holy men and women, known and unknown, who have already attained the goal for which we here still strive. Living now forever with God and praising him for ever in heaven, the saints - that great multitude from every nation, race, people, and tongue of whom we heard in today’s 1st reading [Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14] help us by interceding on our behalf, uniting their prayers with ours. In the words of the familiar hymn: O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle; they in glory shine; yet all are one within your great design.

The regular reference to and invocation of the saints, not just today but in every Mass, signifies our communion, as the struggling Church on earth, with the triumphant Church in heaven, and reminds us that the Church’s mission in this world is to mirror (however imperfectly) that heavenly community and so transform the world - with love and forgiveness - according to the hope that is Jesus Christ’s great gift to his Church and the Church’s gift to the world.

As one of the seasonal turning points in the ancient Celtic calendar, November 1 was once the beginning not only of winter but of a new year, the eve of which was a frightening in-between time when the spirits of the dead were thought to roam about and possibly even try to haunt their old homes.  Bonfires and jack-o-lanterns (originally carved out of turnips) were part of the defense of the living against assaults from the other world. The celebration of all the Saints on November 1 represented the Christianization of that old seasonal holiday - a celebration of Christianity’s triumph over paganism and of Christ’s victory (as exemplified in the saints) over the demonic forces, which had hitherto held people in fear.

Deliberately celebrated on this day after Halloween, All Saints Day celebrates the hope that replaces fear, exemplified in the lives of the saints and experienced by us in our continued communion with them – a communion which challenges that great opponent of human hope, death, by connecting us not only with the saints already in heaven but with all who have gone before us with the sign of faith. 

Homily for All Saints Day, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 1, 2012

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