1 November 2006: Feast of All Saints
Our Catholic heritage teaches us to venerate saints which we do today on the Feast of All Saints. In the breviary, St. Bernard of Clairvaux makes this point for us: “We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of the patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of the apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors, and the choir of virgins. In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints.” This great desire to be one with all the blessed in the presence of the Lord should therefore move us to live a life of holiness — with ample example from the lives of real people.
In the Eucharistic Prayer (the Memorial Prayer after we proclaim the mystery of faith), the priest says, “For ourselves too, we ask some share in the fellowship of your apostles and martyrs, with John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia and all the saints.” When we name the saints at mass, we are saying that we would like to be in solidarity with those who have gone before us, whose lives they have offered for the sake of Christ and the Church. It is for this reason the Eucharistic prayer begins, “In union with the whole church, with Mary, Joseph, the apostles, the martyrs and all saints.” St. Paul calls this, the “cloud of witness” in his letter to the Hebrews (Heb 12, 1).
The veneration of the saints began in the Catholic Church when we honor those who died for the faith in the Roman persecutions. Those mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayer are Roman martyrs. In the 2nd century, martyrs were honored, and by the 4th century, a calendar of saints was in place with their feast days on the dates of their deaths — dies natalis or birthday in heaven. Fiestas on their feasts were celebrated with liturgy, pilgrimages to their burial places, and traditions seeking their intercessions. In the middle ages, the popes held in high esteem their role as keepers of the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul.
When the Roman persecutions ended, the veneration of the saints included not just the martyrs, but holy men and women who were outstanding examples in imitation of the life of Christ, and they provided models of holiness. Pilgrimages, especially in the culture of the middle ages, acquired popularity that great literary masterpieces from Dante and Chaucer had their stories revolved around the pilgrim’s theme. Today, the saints are part of everyone’s life especially in Catholic institutions when nuns and priests tell us of their stories and their pictures are posted on corners. I remember St. Agnes’ life because I had my elementary education in St. Agnes, a branch of St. Scholastica’s College in Legazpi City. The saints’ influence on us was generally instilled by a visual culture: you see their pictures everywhere. One of the most interesting group of men and women in UP are law students. For many of their early years, they have questioned a lot of tradition in the Catholic Church as part of their growth in faith. Intellectuals, literally, they have abandoned many pious practices including the veneration of saints — but come the bar exams in September, you see them offering candles to St. Jude or Sta. Rita, whom they remember in childhood as the patron of impossible cases.
What is interesting in our time today is that the saints may have become less popular, but the truth behind the veneration of the saints remained. Centuries before us, people venerated saints because they were examples of holiness. Today, we do honor them — another word for veneration — but the “saints” are not necessarily those canonized with miraculous stories. Many of those we honor are outstanding men and women such as Oscar Romero who worked for the poor in Latin America, Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Ninoy Aquino, etc. But whoever we honor, we give tribute to them because we need examples of holiness, in a world that is too wild and confusing. We need people whom we can look up to. Karl Rahner SJ defined a saint as “a person who shows us that in this particular way, it is possible to be Christian.” In this particular way of life, it is possible that we will be able to reach our deepest desire: to see the face of God, as St. Bernard of Clairvoux said in the breviary today.
But for me, there is one thing more about the veneration of the saints: it only shows the authenticity of the Christian faith. This cloud of witness manifest to me that faith in Christ is reasonable and worth dying for.