Why Do Catholics Honour Their Saints?

During a preparation session for Baptism, a parish team describes the Litany of the Saints that will be said at the ceremony: “We are recalling the men and women of the parish and of our families who have gone before us, who stand with us as we baptize these children.” People may add to the litany the names of holy persons special to their families.

Circles of women encouraging each other in the struggle for their dignity in the church and society include in their prayers a remembrance of women whose witness supports them: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Phoebe, Catherine of Siena, Mary Ward, Marjorie Tuite.

In San Salvador, steady streams of poor people keep vigil at the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero; they find strength and consolation in the living memory of his love for them and are inspired to continue the fight for justice.

What is going on in these easy times—which in their endless repetitions around the world reveal something of the essence of Catholic Christianity? In these moments we see the living practice of the communion of saints. Belief in the communion of saints is confessed in the Apostles’ Creed in connection with other beliefs that support it: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.”

What does this aspect of our faith mean? How does comprehending and exercising it lead to a richer Christian life today? A superb clue is found when we trace how this belief started.

One people of God

The early Christians thought of themselves as a community of disciples of Jesus Christ, filled with his Spirit, assembled around his table, following his Way. Because of this, they were all called saints, a word taken from the root word for holy. They were all touched by the holiness of God.

Saint Paul starts almost all of his letters thus: “To the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia” (2 Cor. 1:1); “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi” (Phil. 1:1); and “To all God’s beloved in Rome who are called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7). The communion of saints was a reality then. It was the vital community of people who, in as much as their challenges and their sinfulness, were redeemed by Christ and sealed with the one Spirit. They were the branches with the vine, one people of God.

A new question came up when members of the community started to die, some of them at the hands of persecutors. The logic of faith led the early Christians to see that even death was not strong enough to break their bond with Christ. Paul is clear on this: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? … I know that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Rom. 8:35-39).

Since those who died were still joined with Christ, they still belong to the community of saints. The community started increasing including both those living on earth and, as the Eucharistic Prayer tells us, “those who have died and have gone before us marked with the sign of faith.”

This development received a major boost when persecution against the church broke out in earnest. From the second to the fourth centuries, many martyrs gave up their lives instead of denouncing their faith. Their instance inspired the community to a deep living of discipleship.

Christians loved these martyrs, appreciated their memory, and found ways to show respect and esteem. When possible, the bodies of martyrs were retrieved and carefully buried. Their graves became places of prayer in pilgrimage. On the yearly anniversaries of their deaths, nightlong vigils would be held at their graves, culminating in a Eucharist at dawn. In time, the stories of particular martyrs spread beyond their own locales, and they were venerated by the church in other places.

Saints known and unknown

The community of saints in heaven is a largely inclusive group, made up of persons both known and unknown. In addition to the martyrs who are known by name, the Christian roll call involves persons whose lives are known from the biblical text, such as Mary the mother of Jesus, Peter and Paul, and Mary Magdalene. Other specific persons whose lives have special relevance for the community because of their great love, learning, pastoral ministry, or spirituality are also recognized as special and recalled by name.

In the church’s first 1,000 years, this acknowledgment happened in a rather informal way by the people and bishops of each local church. Saints were identified thanks to the spiritual intuition of the communities whose lives they had touched. Much the same process is now at work in devotions to the poignantly new generation of martyrs, such as Archbishop Romero or the four North American churchwomen killed in El Salvador. Their impact is already popular among the faithful who clearly recognize their holiness.

The feast of All Saints exalts this ever-widening circle. At first, it was celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost, a date it still holds in the Byzantine Rite. If Easter marks Jesus’ victory over death and Pentecost marks Christ’s sharing of new life with the pilgrim church on earth through the outpouring of the Spirit, then the next Sunday’s feast of All Saints marks the accomplishment of the mystery of salvation as the church begins to be harvested into heaven. Even though it’s different timing on the calendar of the western churches, the feast of All Saints still honors the lives of all good people who have died and are now with God and in living communion with the church on earth. Someday it will be the feast of those who celebrate it now—we hope. Future generations will celebrate the fruitfulness of God’s grace in us as the great earth rolls around the sun.

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