Well, y’all … midterms this week. Batten down the hatches; it may be a rough ride.
Now you may have seen on the signboard in front of the Catholic church last week a notice about the celebration of All Saints Day, and perchance mused, “Now what are those crazy Catholics up to now?” The misinformed may have thought (with an eye-roll): “There they go … worshipping saints again.”
Au contraire, my good reader! Not in any way worshipping, but simply venerating the memory of those wonderful examples of faith who have “fallen asleep” in Christ, in St. Paul’s term, and have gone ahead of us to our Heavenly hope, homeland and origin. Our All Saints celebration reminds us that, despite the difficulties and trials of this life, regardless of their arduousness or duration, always our hope is in Jesus and in His sacrifice for us out of His divine love.
We were reminded of this hope again Saturday with our Mass reading from St. Paul: “…it is my eager expectation and hope that I shall not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me…[but] to be with Christ…is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” (Philippians 1:20-24) Yes, to remain with one another is certainly more necessary so as to work as God’s instruments on earth, seeking always that road of goodness and charity of loving God above all, our neighbor as ourselves—those two great commandments outlined by Christ.
Sometimes, though, when we think of the ancient saints such as the apostles and those of the first centuries of Christianity, they can seem too untouchable and too … well … “Olympian”, if you forgive the term. And so … let’s fast forward (or, to newer generations, “scroll” forward) to a couple of more recent saints whom may not seem so remote—especially as they worked here in the Americas.
St. Martín de Porres lived in the 1600s in Lima, Peru. Born of a Spanish father and a freed African slave mother, he became a Dominican non-ordained brother (Dominicans following a rule outlined by St. Dominic around the turn of the 13th century), and was assigned to the hospital, where he worked for the rest of his life, ministering to the very sick and poor—particularly to the African slaves—and at times giving up his own bed and food for them. He would often go to the docks to care for slaves as they were unloaded. Disregarding the unbearable stench and filth covering those poor souls after weeks of being chained and stacked like cordwood in the ships’ holds—truly a hell on earth—nothing deterred San Martín from their aid.
Once when chastised by a fellow Dominican for laying a dirty sick man covered with sores upon his own bed, Martín simply replied: “…with a little soap I can easily clean my sheets, but not even with a torrent of tears would I ever wash from my soul the stain that my harshness toward the unfortunate would create.” Because of his humility, sanctity and incomparable charity, Martín became well known throughout Lima, and through much of Latin America, dying in 1639—so respected and beloved that he was carried to his grave by church officials and noblemen. The Santuario de San Martín is one of the largest churches in Albuquerque.
A more recent and nearby saint was André Besette, a Holy Cross brother in Canada (the same order which founded the University of Notre Dame in Indiana). An orphan, he became a sickly and weak man, attempting various occupations and at age 25 finally applying for entry in to the Congregation of the Holy Cross. At one time he was going to be dismissed because of poor health, but the intervention of a visiting bishop saved him.
André was given one of the humblest of jobs in religious house: that of porter—a doorkeeper—at Notre Dame College in Montreal … and also assigned as laundryman and messenger. As porter he opened for guests at all hours of day and night and would notify the persons for whom inquirers were seeking. He liked to joke later in life: “When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door, and I stayed there forty years!”
Brother André acquired the reputation of being a wonderful counselor. By the end of his life he had four secretaries to help handle the 80,000 letters he received annually. Brother André died at age 92, and was canonized in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI. St. André believed that the only true life was in Christ, living that declaration of Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
These—and thousands like them, known and unknown … the faithful butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers—are who we celebrate and remember on All Saints Day … recalling Pope (St.) Clement I’s wisdom that those who imitate the saints themselves become saints, because the saints followed and imitated Christ.