Homily for All Saints
November 1, 2005
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
Good liturgy begins with the act of confession. So I begin with a personal confession: I think canonizations should be abolished.
That got your attention, didn’t it?
Why would we get rid of canonizations? They are the means of holding up for our imitation holy men and women, to be an inspiration to us? We all need models to follow if we are to hope to lead lives of holiness. We need people like St. Teresa and St. Paul and Dominic and Ignatius and all those larger-than-life figures.
That’s all true. But canonizations, with all their pomp and circumstance, run the risk of obscuring a significant part of our faith. A very significant part, it turns out. It is so important that it is included in the very creed we recite every Sunday. “We believe in the communion of saints.”
The communion of saints is not just the gathering of those ‘on the list’, those whose statues are on pedestals in our churches. It is something much richer and more central to our faith than that. The communion of saints speaks to the whole vast collection of the holy ones down through the ages.
It begins with those holy men and women, many of them nameless, who kept the revelation of Yahweh and the promise of the covenant alive through that long history of exile and return, of failure and grace, in the Old Testament. They passed on from generation to generation the hope of the messiah who would liberate the people.
Then after the resurrection of Jesus there was that small body of disciples — remember, they weren’t even called “Christians” yet, that came years later — who were so on fire with the realization that Jesus still lives that others caught their joy and excitement and were drawn to the faith.
You can almost imagine how it happened: someone would ask, “Where do you get your joy and vitality and commitment to life from?” And the answer would come: “because I know my redeemer lives, because Jesus has freed us from sin and guilt.” Or: “Why do you put yourself out for people whom society spurns and mocks?” “Because I realize that I was once an alien and outsider.” “Why do you lavish so much care and love on children, who don’t deserve any attention?” “Because they are so close to God and have so much wisdom to teach me.”
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews sees this body of saints as a ‘great cloud of witnesses. They are the throng of spectators sitting up in the arena and cheering us on as we fight the fight down on the field in the amphitheater.
And here’s the most amazing thing: they are all indeed saints, but they were all sinners. Every last one of them, except for that extraordinary woman Mary.
They lied, they stole, they cheated and defrauded their neighbor, they committed adultery, they worshiped false gods, they murdered and violated their sisters and brothers.
But by the power of Christ’s love they were converted — turned around, transformed — step by painful step. And now they live with the Lord and plead for our victory.
So what are we to do about those canonizations, really?
My suggestion would be, if they help you, build them into your spiritual life by all means. But don’t make the canonized into celebrities, different from and separate from, you and me. Unreal spirits instead of weak flesh and blood as you and I are.
You know, there were followers of Dorothy Day who were so entranced by living in her aura that they said she was a living saint. And her response was: “Don’t trivialize me!” Don’t turn me into plaster, just keep your eyes on the poor and not on me.
And then don’t let the canonized eclipse the saints you have know personally. We need to each hold our own internal canonizations of those people. They’re named ‘St. Uncle Mike’ or ‘St. Granny Elsie.’ Their Mrs. Kowalski who taught you your dignity in third grade, or Coach Jackson who got you to believe in yourself. They’re the fellow worker who showed you what it means to put in an honest day’s work; the neighbors who opened their home to a kid at risk of being lost on drugs or who was abused and then abandoned by a dead-beat father.
Hold your own private canonization of a fellow sinner, and then give praise to God that he or she is only one of that great communion of saints, that vast cloud of witnesses, whom we shall soon meet once again, face to face.