By Fr. Glenn Jones
You may see Catholic churches in your area posting notices about the celebration of “All Saints Day” on November 1. This is our annual celebration in which we honor our brothers and sisters in Christ who have, as St. Paul himself wrote: “…have fought the good fight… have finished the race… have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). …even unto death—deaths very often by martyrdom.
Some still erroneously believe: “There they are … worshipping saints again.” But, as CB’ers used to say: “Negatory, good buddy.” Whenever we Catholics/Orthodox hear others mistakenly accuse us of worshipping saints, we think of Isaiah’s exasperation: “How long, O Lord!?” Hopefully not as long as the Lord replied to Isaiah: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without men, and the land is utterly desolate…” (Isaiah 6:11) Yikes! … that long? Maybe not … but it sure is a pervasive misconception!
When Catholics “pray to saints”, we simply ask for their prayers to God for us … just as one person might ask another person to pray for him (ref: James 5:16). However, as saints in “the bosom of God”, we believe their prayers may be even more efficacious for their having endured faithfully to the end of their lives. As St. Paul emphasizes: “…we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans 12:5) Do we not pray for our family members? So also, we believe, the saints pray for us, and we beseech them in the words of Paul: “…brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed on and triumph, as it did among you…” (2 Thessalonians 3:1) By the way, images of saints are for inspiration, not worship—just as a scientist might have a poster of Einstein, or a basketball player of Michael Jordan.
Now, you may also see postings for “All Souls Day” which is celebrated annually on November 2—El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) in Spanish, in which we pray for our beloved (indeed, for all of the) dead. The belief involves the intersection of many debated interpretations of scripture and theology within Christianity, including Purgatory, faith/works, accepted books of scripture, etc.—too extensively to be expounded upon here. But, if curious, it’s briefly outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras. 1020-1032—about a 10-minute read.
Of course, one of the greatest virtues that leads to being a saint—a sine qua non for sainthood—is that of humility. This theme pervades our Catholic Mass this weekend, especially with Jesus parable of the self-righteous Pharisee in Luke 18. In that parable, Jesus says: “The Pharisee… spoke this prayer to HIMSELF! ‘O God…’” … reminding us of a phrase in the account of Elijah’s sacrifice on Mt. Carmel: “…no one answered, and no one was listening.” (1 Kings 18:29) The Pharisee’s prayer becomes an act of worship of self, implicitly saying: “Aren’t I wonderful?” And the angels … gagged.
A lesson we learn from this parable is the essential nature of contrition for wrongdoing—something we experience even in our own daily interpersonal relationships with one another.
A danger that leads to such arrogant pride is highlighted in that parable: comparing ourselves with others rather than to an objective model—for Christians, of Jesus Himself. We can (and will, if necessary) always find someone “worse” than ourselves.
But God does not judge us on our comparison with others, but rather by what He wants us to be … by what He has taught us. Certainly each person has his own spiritual variables—intelligence, understanding, environment, and the like. But to those who have the privilege of hearing the Gospel, we remember Jesus words: “To those whom much has been given, much is expected” (Luke 12:48) … and the exhortation of the prophet Baruch: “Blessed are we … for what pleases God is known to us!” (Baruch 4:4)
God does not judge as to whether we are richer or prettier or smarter or stronger than someone else? We Catholics believe that we are judged by faith in Jesus Christ, of course … but faith manifest in action in this life—by what we DO, not what we have … as Jeremiah reminds us: “I, the LORD, alone probe the mind and test the heart, to reward everyone according to his ways, according to the merit of his deeds.” (Jeremiah 17:10) … echoed by St. Paul: “…He will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life…” (Romans 2:6-7) … Paul himself echoing Jesus’ famous exhortation: “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?…For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.” (Matthew 16:26-27)
It makes no difference to be the richest or smartest or most beautiful; all avail us nothing if we have not loved God and neighbor, for God gives us the strength or beauty or intelligence we have: “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7) All only benefit us if we use them as they are meant to be used—to glorify God, and to edify and help our neighbor.
Now, sometimes people object at the phrase “to glorify God”, as if God needs His ego to be stroked periodically. But what does “glorifying” God mean? How do we do it? In the same way art glorifies the artist: by reflecting the goodness and spiritual beauty in which each it is made, and from which it came. To be the masterpiece of creation that each of us was created to be … and CAN be. Since God IS love (1 John 4:16), we reflect God BY love.
And so, in this week of All Saints, let’s remember St. John Chrysologus: “Now that we are reborn…in the likeness of Our Lord, and have indeed been adopted by God as His children, let us put on the complete image of our Creator so as to be wholly like Him…in innocence, simplicity, gentleness, patience, humility, mercy, harmony—those qualities in which He chose to become—and to be—on with us” (Sermo 117) … echoing St. Paul himself: “I…beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love…There is one body and one Spirit… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all…” (Ephesians 4:1-6)
Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.