Today we celebrate, remember, and honor all the saints, known and unknown. Back in the earliest days of the Church, martyrs were especially esteemed. The local church celebrated the anniversary of a martyr’s death in the name of Christ – on the anniversary date and in the place of martyrdom – it was all part of what people just knew. By the 4th century the list of martyrs was very much longer and the Church was caught between its desire to remember and celebrate the martyr’s witness and death, an ever-expanding geography, and the practical matter of finding days to set aside to celebrate. Very soon there was a movement to find a common day to celebrate martyrs that were important to the Church while leaving the local communities to set aside days for martyrs that loomed larger in local memory.
If you have ever been to Rome, you have undoubtedly visited the Pantheon, the former temple to the many gods of the Roman world. In the year 609, the Byzantine emperor gave the temple to Pope Gregory who consecrated it to the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs. In time the celebration grew to include not just the martyrs, but all the holy ones recognized by the Church as Saints. But, it might surprise you to know that the canonization process for sainthood was formally and universally established only in the 13th century. Before that saints were locally proclaimed; sometimes by the local bishop, but most often by popular acclaim. Soon enough, the lives of some saints were held to be of such holiness that they were universally celebrated – regardless of locale. Still, the list of saints grew as the faith endured, spread, and worked its way to the ends of the earth.
It is a lot to keep track of. The universal Church, symbolized by Rome, keeps the Roman calendar of saints – but it is not the entire list. The Church also maintains a library of Acta – the lives of the saints – not all of who are on the Roman Calendar. The US Catholic Conference of Bishops can add to the list – and its does. So, we celebrate saints that are important to our nation – Kathryn Drexler, Kateri Tekakwitha, John Newman, Francis Cabrini, and more. Did you know that there is a Roman-Franciscan calendar of saints? Included there are saints important to the Franciscan world, e.g., Nov 8th is the Feast of Jon Duns Scotus! Pretty exciting, heh? (You’ve never heard of him!?!). OK, here is a pop quiz. Name a saint from East Africa.
I think you can see where I am going. The oldest tradition is that we, as a church universal, celebrate all the saints – known and unknown to us. Today we include St. Charles Lwanga and 21 companion martyrs (Uganda), St. Josephine (Sudan), and Isidore Bakanja (Congo). We celebrate the Franciscans you have never heard about. We celebrate the saints whose name and story has been lost to the memory of the Church. We celebrate the ones whose lives resonate in our time, e.g., St. John Paul II, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, all people mentioned by Pope Francis in his talk before Congress.
And, I suspect, each one of us celebrates a saint unknown. A person we have known who impacted our life in ways that were loving, caring, self-sacrificing, and holy. We know they are saints in heaven – even if they don’t have the official title. I suspect many of us can name a person, in our lives right now, who, if it were up to us, would be proclaimed a saint – another one of the saints unknown.
We Catholics have a formal system for sainthood (with a capital “S”!) – but our reformed brothers in the Protestant faith, rightly point out, and well remind us that we are called, in this life, to be hagios, the holy ones, saints. St. Paul addressed his letters to “all the saints” in Rome, Ephesus, and Philippi (Ephesians 1:15, Philippians 1:1). He is saying we can be saints not because of our heroic deeds, virtuous character, or performance of miracles, but because God calls us to himself – to be holy as he is holy; to be merciful as he is merciful. And so we try, we fail, we try again. We trust in God to love, to forgive, and to continue to call us to Himself. And we imitate.
If you would call yourself a believer, then you are told to imitate not only Christ but the saints/Saints. Paul urged his readers to imitate his way of life several times (e.g., 1 Corinthians 4:16). Hebrews 6:12 commands us to “Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (cf. Hebrews 13:7). We do this with respect to St. Francis of Assisi, as well as Uncle Joe and Aunt Lucy – saints known and unknown.
This is a day we remember the Saints whose lives, writ large, are the stuff of feast days; the Saints known only in certain locales or within religious orders. We celebrate the saints, not yet known to the Church, but in whose lives we see the call of Christ. We celebrate and remember that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1), both alive and those passed on into God’s bright glory.
We celebrate all the Saints, known and unknown. And maybe, just maybe, someone is celebrating you and the holiness of your life.
Happy All Saints Day.