A reflection for the Feast of All Saints
On occasion of the Feast of All Saints, 1 November , we publish the following reflection by Mons. Francis D. Kelly, Superior of the Casa Santa Maria, Pontifical North American College. It was taken from his "Through the Church Year: Reflections for Feasts and Seasons" (Ave Maria Press: Notre Dame, Indiana, 2009, p. 155)
From the beginning of Christianity, the faithful instinctively sought the help of those who were with God. Inscriptions around tombs of the saints begged their prayers; as, for example, at the tomb of St Peter the Apostle.
On this day in 609 Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome — a pagan temple — as a church in honor of Mary and All Martyrs. By AD 800 a feast of All Saints was widespread in Europe. Significantly, many Eastern Churches celebrate this feast on the Sunday after Pentecost, for it is the chief work of the Holy Spirit to make us saints.
1. "Then I saw the heavens opened" (Rev 19:11).
"I saw the heavens open" — these words of the Book of Revelation suggest a first area of reflection for this feast. It is the "feast of heaven" and invites us to rise above our daily routine, duties, and troubles and to focus on our ultimate goal and destiny — eternal life in heaven. Chapters 4 and 5 of the Book of Revelation present a powerful and dramatic vision of heaven with God the Father at the center: A throne was there in heaven, and on the throne sat one whose appearance sparkled like jasper and carnelian.
Around the throne was a halo as brilliant as an emerald.... In front of the throne was something that resembled a sea of glass like crystal. (Rev 4:2-6).
Eternal worship ascends before God: Day and night they do not stop exclaiming: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come" (Rev 4:8).
At the center of the scene also is Jesus — described as "the Lamb that was slain". To him the saints all sing gratefully: With your blood you purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and they will reign on earth. Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing (Rev 5:9-11).
The author then describes the "great multitude" of saints "from every nation, race, people, and tongue" gathered before the throne of the Father and the Lamb: They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: "Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb" (Rev 7:9-10).
These inspired words of scripture use images and symbols to try to capture something of the awe and wonder of the eternal kingdom. It is important to note that the focus is on God; those who come into his presence are clearly full of joyful gratitude that he has saved them and made them saints.
Those who dwell in heaven experience total fulfillment and endless happiness. As one hymn expresses it: There the body has no torments, there the mind is free from care, there is every voice rejoicing, every heart is loving there.
So on this "festival of heaven" we do well to rekindle our hope in our ultimate destiny. Earthly life is but a pilgrimage on the way to the Father's house. From the perspective of heaven even our trials take on a different dimension: For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:17-18).
2. "In the Church everyone is called to holiness" (Lumen. Gentium, 39)
Our way to reach the kingdom is by holiness of life. Today then is also the "feast of holiness". Yet, we remember that Jesus alone is perfectly holy. Any holiness we may have is totally derived and received from him.
As the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second VaticanCouncil reminds us, "in the Church everyone is called to holiness" (Lumen Gentium, 39). This being the case, we cannot say that holiness is too utopian, too lofty, too difficult. Since God wills it for us, it must be accessible with God's grace. Often we have a distorted idea of holiness, imaging it must require constant exceptional feats of penance or extraordinary works of heroic charity. God may call some to express their holiness in that way. But for most of us holiness is a more mundane reality.
John Henry Cardinal Newman expressed well what holiness might involve for most of us: After the example of the saints our duty is to wait for the Lord's coming, to prepare the way before him, to pray that when he comes we may be found watching, to take up our cross meekly, to pray for all people. May God give us the grace to do much and say little.1
In today's Gospel, Jesus proclaims a "charter of holiness" — the Beatitudes, a way of life that makes sense only if one believes in and looks forward to a share in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus tells us that holiness involves being "poor in spirit", "meek and humble", "merciful", "pure of heart". These are all qualities we need in our ordinary daily life, for it is there that we find holiness. As the Second Vatican Council tells us, ultimately holiness is love: All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love, and by this holiness a more human manner of life is fostered also in earthly society. In order to reach this perfection the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ's gift, so that following in his footsteps and conformed to his image, doing the will of God in everything they may wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor (Lumen Gentium, 40).2
3. "We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" (Heb 12:1).
On this day we celebrate what the Church calls "the communion of saints" — the truth that we are in a mysterious relationship with those who have gone before us. They care for us, pray for us, and can help us.
Dramatic evidence of this communion occurs in the process of canonizing new saints by the Church. Miracles are required to show the presence of the proposed saint in heaven and his or her intercessory power. On a daily and less tangible way we all have access to the friendship and assistance of the saints. In God's family we are all one.
On this day we remember those who have gone before us — parents, spouses, friends — who we pray are now with God. The "communion of saints" reminds us that they really are close to us and can help us. As we rejoice in their eternal happiness we can and should invoke them — the great saints of history, but also the less known, those dear to us. This should be a most comforting aspect of our Christian faith.
The galaxy of saints is wonderful — "men and women of every time and place" — husbands like Joachim, wives like Monica, young people like Aloysius, lawyers like Thomas More, doctors like Gianna Beretta Molla, bishops and priests, monks and nuns — even sinners who seem to have "stolen" heaven like St Dismas, the "good thief". Yet, it is good to be reminded: The Church of the Saints, though rejoicing in her proud heritage of saints in the past, looks with confident faith to the saints of the future. Magnificent saints are yet to appear: magnificent saints, are already in the making. Beautiful and numerous as are the saints —those of bygone days and those of the present — the devout know that God has only begun the building of His kingdom on earth and that a thousand, ten thousand years hence the Church of the Saints will be immeasurably more glorious in the millions of saints who will follow out, in civilizations still undreamed, the imitation of the One and Only Perfect Saint, Our Lord Jesus Christ.3
1 J.H. Newman, "Feast of All Saints", in Parochial and Plain Sermons (San Francisco: Ignatius
Press, 1987), 478.
2 All of chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium on the "Call to Holiness" would be a fitting reading on this day.
3 John Cardinal Wright, "The Church of the Saints", in The Saints Always Belong to the Present (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 42.