Called to Holiness
(Readings: Apocalypse 7:2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12)
Introduction to Mass
Every year when this feast day comes round we think about the Christian believers who have come before us in history, who have now entered God’s presence and are “seeing God as he really is”, as today’s second reading says. We also reflect on the meaning of sainthood and sanctity, and the fact that our calling as followers of Christ summons us all to share God’s own holiness.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries…
Fundamentally this feast day today commemorates our fellow Christians who have already died and who have already embarked on the eternal life of God's Kingdom.
These are the men and women we call “the saints”, and I suppose it gives us a sense of perspective if we remember that they probably make up the largest part of the membership of the Church. Those of us who happen to be alive at the moment are only a small fraction of the total community of believers, since it started two thousand years ago. The majority of Christ’s disciples already live in eternity.
Out of all these men and women, who have “gone before us”, as we say, “marked with the sign of faith”, I suppose one of the most obvious aspects of today's feast is that it highlights those rather special individuals that we know as the canonised saints: Christians from different periods of history who became well known for the holiness of their lives.
Some of the more old-fashioned books about the saints could be a bit discouraging, perhaps, for the majority of ordinary believers struggling against various petty faults and weaknesses.
The saints, the way they were often presented in stories about their lives, often appeared to be two-dimensional characters - either individuals who seemed to have been especially consecrated to God from the moment of their birth, who never seemed to find faith or prayer or moral effort difficult; or else they were people who started off as spectacular sinners only to have a dramatic conversion and a complete change of direction in their lives, from which they never looked back.
These were people who could be looked up to, and prayed to for help, but they weren't easy to identify with or to imitate or take encouragement from in our own Christian life.
Fortunately a lot of the more recent biographies of the famous saints make an effort to portray them as recognisable human beings.
Saint Vincent De Paul, for example, was a social climber during the first part of his life as a priest. He was ashamed of his peasant roots, and even avoided meeting his father when he came to see him at college because he was embarrassed by his lower-class appearance. Yet under the impact of God’s grace he became renowned for his work on behalf of the poorest sections of society.
Saint Alphonsus Liguori had a highly-strung temperament which made him neurotic and over-scrupulous, tendencies he had to struggle to cope with right to the end of his life. Yet under the impact of God’s grace Alphonsus became a gifted counsellor and a sought-after guide of people’s consciences.
St. Peter Fourier and St. Alix le Clerc worked together a great deal, but they actually didn't get on very well with each other because of what we would now call a “personality clash”. There was an absence of warmth between them which seems strange for two very obviously holy people working together for the same ends. And yet again they achieved a great deal by collaborating in the reform work that followed the Council of Trent, in the field of parish affairs, in the religious life, and in leading ordinary Christians to deeper faith and holiness.
When we find psychological flaws and sometimes downright selfish motives (to begin with, at least) on the part of the heroes of the Christian faith it tells us two things.
For one thing, it tells us that God calls everyone, regardless of their character or their type of personality, to be holy, to be close to him, and to be like him - each in their own way.
And the second thing it tells is that these great examples of holiness weren't semi-divine figures who were strangely perfect without making much effort. It would be more accurate to say that they were sinners who didn't give up. They were people with very recognisable weaknesses and inadequacies who persevered in turning to God and placing themselves under his influence.
When we realise how true this is of the great examples of Christian spirituality, it's much easier, I think, not to lose hope in our own case. We're all called to be like God, and God does make us like him, if we don't give up on our side.
That’s the basic lesson I would take from the celebration of this feast of All Saints. We should remember that those of us who are alive now only make up a small part of the whole Church compared to all the Christians who came before us and handed the faith down to us.
And on top of that the people we look up to as great saints were very often men and women who faced all the same obstacles that we face - except that they didn't give up so easily and kept trying for longer. It’s that aspect of their example above all that we should try to imitate in our own relationship with God.