In Festo Omnium Sanctorum
A Short Homily for All Saints
Throughout the year we celebrate the feasts of the saints. Some will have universal significance – the first Apostles, the hosts of martyrs, the great Popes and Bishops, the learned Doctors of the Church; others will have a more local significance – England and Wales has a national calendar and Westminster a diocesan one, so we celebrate the likes of St Alban (our first martyr), St Edward (King and founder of Westminster Abbey) and the English Martyrs.
The thing that always strikes me most about the saints is their sheer number and variety. When I go abroad I love to learn about the local saints. I spent a fortnight in Italy this summer and visited the shrine of San Pellegrino (an Irish hermit who lived in the Appenines), which is located in a mountain-top village some 4,000 feet above sea level. I also had the privilege of saying Mass over the tomb of my patron, St Nicholas, which can be found in the southern Italian city of Bari. In the world of the saints, there is something for everybody. That’s why we all have our favourites.
So, today we celebrate all the saints officially recognised by the Church – the famous ones as well as the more obscure ones. But this is only part of the mystery that we celebrate on the Feast of All Saints. We also commemorate - perhaps, it could be said, we especially commemorate – the many saints in Heaven whose names we do not know.
In the first reading, St John describes his vision of ‘a huge number, impossible to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language’ standing in front of the Lamb, ‘dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands.’ The white robes and palms stand for victory over sin and triumph over death. These are the blessed ones who have lived holy lives – the poor in spirit, the gentle, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted – those who have lived out the Beatitudes in their daily lives and can now rejoice in the glory of Heaven. They include men and women from every age, background and race; they include, please God, members of our own family and people we have known. We honour them today and ask them for their assistance.
There’s a more personal dimension to our Feast as well. One day, we hope to be fellow-citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, to take our place amidst the assembly of apostles, the host of martyrs and the college of confessors. The Church on earth is one of sinners trying, yearning, fighting to become saints. The witness of thousands of our brothers and sisters show us that anything is possible with the grace of God – many of the great saints (like St Augustine or St Mary Magdalene) had been great sinners. Saints are not just dead people with strange names and long beards who populate stained glass windows – they are our friends and our exemplars. They are real people who struggled with the sort of very real problems and temptations that we face, even if they wore funny clothes. Their lives show the transforming power of God’s grace.
Sanctity is within our grasp!