Today, on the Solemnity of All Saints, let’s take a closer look at what we mean by “saints” and sainthood. As is so often true, as you look at our system of beliefs, popular wisdom and a checkered history have obscured the reality. In most people’s minds, saints are those who have lived impossibly good lives. They’ve literally been put up on pedestals for people to emulate and venerate. Sometimes, that veneration has crossed the line into a type of idolatry, as though the saint in question has been taken to be some sort of quasi-divine being. That’s happened to the Apostles and martyrs, and, most especially, to Mary, the mother of Jesus. For this reason, it’s important for us to understand what a saint is, and what a saint is not.
The word “saint” is derived from the Latin word, sanctus, meaning “holy.” In the Christian Scriptures, Saint Paul often addresses the members of the churches in the various cities he’s writing to as “holy ones” [1 Corinthians 1:2, 2 Corinthians 1:1, Ephesians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, and Colossians 1:1]. In Romans [1:7], he addresses them as those “called to be holy.” What does he mean by that? Things and people are acknowledged to be holy by or for their relationship with God. They’re called holy either because they have a special relationship with God, or in order to establish a special relationship with God. That’s what we mean when we say that somebody or something is consecrated—that is, made holy.
So, who are these people who have a special relationship with God—these saints? In each case, Paul is addressing the converts to Christianity from paganism. In a relatively short time, they had received the gospel, believed in it, and been baptized—they had become a new creation by water and the power of the Holy Spirit transforming their lives. Yet, in no way is sainthood reserved only to the early Christians. We generally think of saints as Christians, but that’s not necessarily the case. Anyone who manifests a special relationship with God is worthy of that name. There’s the key: our special relationship with God is manifest when we exercise the wisdom and love of God in our relationships with others and with the world. A saint is one who has become, however imperfectly, a channel of God’s grace. Sainthood is the answer to Saint Francis’s prayer: “Make me a channel of your peace.”
Whom can we count among the saints of God? Whom do we acknowledge as men and women who have manifested the power of God’s grace? Surely, that describes Abraham and the Patriarchs of Israel. Certainly, that applies to Moses and the Prophets. Then there are people like John the Baptist, the Apostles, the early Church Fathers, the martyrs, men and women of prayer, teachers and preachers of the Faith, and servants of the poor, the needy, and the despised. And among all of these, Mary holds a unique place because, by offering herself as a channel, she allowed God’s grace to take flesh within her.
Still, we mustn’t stop there. God’s grace is non-sectarian. What about Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha? What about Confucious, Lau-Tzu, Zarathustra, and Muhammed? Weren’t these people also channels of God’s grace? Some would count people like Dorothy Day, Dag Hammarskjöld, Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, and Martin Luther King as modern saints. Among the saints of the past century, the Catholic Church has recognized Mother Theresa of Calcutta, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, and popes John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II by canonizing them.
What does it mean when the Catholic Church “canonizes” a saintly person? It doesn’t mean that the Church “makes” someone a saint. All it means is that the Church gives its official approval to the recognition of certain outstanding examples of people who appeared as channels of God’s grace and power. Many saints of old were “canonized” by the Christian community holding these people up as examples of holiness. Canonization as a process was instituted by the Church to settle conflicts between partisans of certain controversial characters and their opponents, for example between the French religious followers of Joan of Ark and the English religious authorities who condemned her to death. Just because a holy person’s life has not received the particular recognition of canonization by the Church doesn’t mean that the person isn’t worthy of veneration.
Now, what do we mean by “veneration” of a saint? It doesn’t necessarily mean putting the person up on a pedestal for special honors. What veneration means is the recognition that the grace and power of God are manifest in that person’s life. And, if we recognize that they’ve made themselves channels of God’s grace, we might do well to ask how they did it, and, perhaps, even emulate some of their attitudes and behaviors. That’s all it is. How do we gain that recognition? It comes through observation of how the power of God in any given person overcomes human weakness to bring divine love and wisdom into the world. It’s the power of grace that’s the sign of holiness—of sainthood. We find this expressed beautifully in the Preface of the Liturgy celebrating those who had the strength and courage to give up their lives for their faith in God—those we call the martyrs. The Preface reads, “Their death reveals your power shining through our human weakness. You choose the weak and make them strong in bearing witness to you…”
We could say a lot more about the transformative power of God’s grace in and through those humble enough to submit themselves to its influence. We’ll leave that for another time. For the present, we’ll have to be content to reflect on what it takes to achieve that humility and submission to the will of God. Jesus has spelled out for us the requirements for sainthood. Matthew reports in today’s gospel the eight characteristics of those who would become channels of God’s grace. Here they are:
Holy are the anawim—God’s little ones, for whom the world’s possessions, power, and glory hold no abiding interest. Holy are those who empathize with the suffering, the dispossessed, the downtrodden, and the despised. Holy are those who acknowledge their powerlessness and who have given up the struggle to dominate others. Holy are those who focus their attention and their energies on their relationship with God through conscious contact with him in prayer and meditation. Holy are they who have given up the blame game and ceased trying to punish others or teach them a lesson or force them to conform. Holy are they who have the courage of their convictions and follow the dictates of their consciences rather than conform to others’ expectations. Holy are those who have given up fighting anybody or anything. Holy are those who cling to their relationship with God regardless of what opposition they may face and remain faithful in their hearts even when things turn out badly, or even tragically. These are the Beatitudes.
Don’t think it’s impossible that you are now or may someday become a holy one—a saint—because that’s the life of faith to which we’ve been called as followers of Christ. The road to sainthood has been mapped out for us by Jesus himself in these Beatitudes. Today, we celebrate all those throughout the entirety of human history—known and unknown—who have allowed themselves to become channels of God’s grace. Today, we celebrate you.