Today we celebrate, remember, and honor all the saints, known and unknown. The feast day has its own history of how it came to be. Back in the earliest days of the Church, we did not so much think of “saints” but rather martyrs were especially esteemed. It was very much a local event, as the local church celebrated the anniversary of a martyr’s death on the anniversary date and in the place of martyrdom. By the 4th century the list of martyrs had grown considerably with some martyrs being celebrated more universally. 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. The date of celebration was in May. Over time, the celebration grew to include not just the martyrs, but all the holy ones recognized by the Church as Saints. Again the saints were locally proclaimed and again, in time, as the list grew and geography expanded, the Church again began to consider a day to celebrate all the Saints. In the year 730, Pope Gregory III celebrate what became All Saints day as we know it.
Over the next 1300 years there have been a lot more saints proclaimed locally and universally. 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 exiciting, heh? (You’ve never heard of him!?!).
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 in 2015
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.
The Cathedral in Los Angeles has a tapestry that lines both sides of the nave of the church. All the people depicted, like us in the pews, are facing towards the altar in prayer and worship. Among the many folks depicted are the very well-known saints. It is easy to spot St. Francis, St. Anthony, St. Bonaventure and a number of Franciscan saints. It is easy to spot all manner of well known saints by the iconography we associate with them. What I love about the tapestry is shown in the left most panel above. There among the saints, popes, religious sisters are two young women. In almost every panel you see the saints unknown. We can see ourselves in them
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.