For centuries, Christians have been gathering on the first day of November to celebrate the Feast of All Saints. But why? From the earliest days of the Church’s history, Christians gathered on the anniversaries of the deaths of the saints on the site of their martyrdoms. There is, for example, archeological evidence of devotion to St. Peter at the site of his tomb from the first century A.D.
For the early Christians, the martyrs were great heroes. They had given their lives for their faith in Christ, preferring torture and death to denying their Savior. The legends of their lives, miracles, and courageous suffering were the favorite stories of young and old. From an early age, Christians taught their children to desire that they too might receive so great an honor as to be able to give their lives for Christ.
In the persecutions of the depraved emperor Diocletian, the most brutal faced by the Roman Church, the number of martyrs became so great that they could not all be commemorated on the days of their death, and so a common feast for all the martyrs was instituted. At first, only martyrs, the Blessed Virgin, and John the Baptist were honored, but after the legalization of Christianity and the reduction in number of martyrs, new forms of saints came to be honored – the confessors, who had not shed their blood for Christ but confessed Him constantly and courageously throughout their lives.
This steady build-up in the honor given by the Christians to the Saints culminated in the dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary and All Martyrs on May 13th, 609. This church had previously been the Pantheon, a temple where the Romans would bring the statues of the gods of the various countries that they conquered. One of the particular features of the Roman empire was its capacity for integration of different religions. That is, rather than forcing the people they conquered to adopt the worship of the Roman gods, the gods of the conquered peoples became a part of the Roman pantheon (or collection of gods). The result was a rather incoherent collection of deities that nevertheless constituted a cohesive system of religious control for highly political ends.
This tendency of the Romans to integrate new gods into their worship explains their inability to comprehend the Christians’ refusal to sacrifice to their idols. After all – what could it hurt to burn a little incense before the statue of the emperor? They weren’t asking the Christians to give up their worship of Christ or to make big changes in their way of life. Why couldn’t they do both – worship Christ as their real god and also burn some incense before the Roman statues – just like all the other peoples the Romans had conquered had done?
The Christian martyrs, though, were steadfast in their refusal to offer any form of worship, even just burning a little incense, to any god but the one true God, the one revealed in His Son, Jesus Christ. In the ultimate reversal of fate, the very monument of Roman paganism, the Pantheon, was re-dedicated as a Christian temple in honor of the men and women who refused to bow down to the Roman idols who used to inhabit the very same space.
All Saints Day is thus a feast of victory – the triumph of the saints over the false gods of paganism. But it is not merely a celebration that recalls a past event – the triumph of the martyrs before the legalization of Christianity in 313 A.D. or the dedication of the Pantheon in 609. It continues to be a Holy Day of Obligation because it teaches two essential truths for life as a Christian today:
First, All Saints Day exists to recall to our minds the importance of devotion to the saints. Martin Luther and the other Protestant “reformers” accused Catholics of reverting to pagan idolatry by “worshiping” the Saints. To be sure, there were excesses in the honor given to saints at certain points in Church history – times when honoring saints seemed to eclipse a relationship with Christ. But this is to ignore why Catholics honor the saints. Unlike the incense offered to pagan idols, Catholic devotion to the saints is about love for Christ who is glorified in His saints. Thus the liturgy proclaims: “For you are glorified when your Saints are praised; their very sufferings are but wonders of your might: in your mercy you give ardor to their faith, to their endurance you grant firm resolve, and in their struggle the victory is yours” (Second Preface of Martyrs).
The victory of the Saints – especially the martyrs – is ultimately the same victory of Christ on the Cross made present in their victorious suffering. So when we praise the courage and determination of the martyrs in the face of persecution, we are really praising the courage and determination of Christ that are made present in them. We need the saints to remind us of the heroism that we ourselves are called to exhibit in following Christ. We should keep the example of the saints before us at all times in order to be reminded of how to live the Christian life. Like the early Christians, we should recount the heroism of our ancestors in the faith to our children on a regular basis, inspiring them to display zeal for Christ’s Gospel.
Do you have a teenage son who struggles to stand up to peer pressure? Inspire him with the story of St. Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio, who in 1928 was martyred by the atheist Mexican revolutionaries at the age of 15 for refusing to deny Christ.
Do you have a daughter who struggles with chastity and modesty? Inspire her with the example of St. Maria Goretti, who at the age of 12 resisted an attacker who wanted to violate her innocence and died a martyr for chastity.
Do you have a friend who mourns her children’s distance from the Faith? Inspired her with the example of St. Monica, whose tears converted her son, St. Augustine, from a life of dissipation, becoming one of the greatest theologians and doctors of the Church.
Do you know a man who longs to be the best husband and father he can be? Inspire him with the example of St. Joseph, who was the perfect guardian of the Blessed Mother’s purity and helped Christ to grow “in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man” (Lk 2:52).
A great way to get to know the saints is to follow the Church’s liturgical calendar. On nearly every day throughout the year, the Church designates a saint for our devotion. Take a few minutes each day (especially as a family!) to learn about that saint of the day and be inspired by their stories.
The saints are not just inspiring examples, though – they are also friends to accompany us on our journey. As Catholics, we believe in the communion of the saints – the Church militant here on earth, the Church suffering in Purgatory, and the Church triumphant in Heaven. We are deeply connected one to another. The Saints not only help us through their inspiring example, but they continue to assist us through their prayers. We should develop not only an admiration for but even friendship with the saints but speaking to them about the struggles and joys of our lives and by asking for their assistance.
There are many feast days throughout the year that the Church could designate as holy days of obligation – the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, inviting Her to become the Mother of God; the Transfiguration, when Christ foretold the glory of His Resurrection; Ss. Peter and Paul, the princes of the Apostles. Are the saints commemorated today more important than the Blessed Mother or Christ Himself? Of course not! But Holy Mother Church has chosen this day to remind us of an essential truth for the Christian life: the destiny of the Saints is meant to be ours as well.
The Saints are those who have lived a life of heroic virtue here on earth and now enjoy their reward in Heaven. Life in Heaven is not just a boring experience, sitting around doing nothing, listening to angels play harps. The saints not only see God, but they are transformed by God, to the point that they are so full of His glory as to become images of the living God. Heaven, then, is our true homeland. Here on earth we are only sojourners, exiles even, and contemplating the Saints, we should see them as our fellow-countrymen and compatriots in the truest life of all.
St. Bede wrote eloquently about this reality: “Let us consider that Paradise is our country, as well as theirs; and so we shall begin to reckon the patriarchs as our fathers. Why do we not, then, hasten and run, that we may behold our country and salute our parents? A great multitude of dear ones is there expecting us; a vast and mighty crowd of parents, brothers, and children, secure now of their own safety, anxious yet for our salvation, long that we may come … and embrace them, to that joy which will be common to us and to them.”
“Why do we not, then, hasten and run, that we may behold our country?” There are so many things in this life that keep us from hastening and running towards our true country, Heaven. How often have you thought that there is no hurry, that you can enjoy the pleasures of this life for a while, and that those of Heaven can wait? How many times have you fallen into lukewarmness about that which out to be the principal goal of our lives: to pursue with all of the forces we can muster life forever in Heaven enjoying and being transformed by the glorious vision of God by rejecting here and now the allure of sin? This is why we all need the Saints to remind us of our heavenly goal. That great multitude of the saints is waiting for us, longing for us to join them in adoring God.
Even though the pleasures of this life can seem satisfying, the glory of God that awaits us in Heaven is greater than we can possibly imagine. St. Bede continues, “That beauty, that virtue, that glory, that magnificence, that majesty, surpasses every expression, every sense of the human mind. For it is greater than the glory of all saints; but to attain to that ineffable sight, and to be made radiant with the splendor of His face, it were worthwhile to suffer torment every day … so that we might behold Christ coming in glory, and be joined to the number of the saints.”
Dear brothers and sisters, we should ask all of the saints in heaven each day to intercede for us, so that our desire for our heavenly homeland might continually grow stronger. Even the desire for Heaven is already a grace given by the Lord, and we need the Saints to obtain this grace for us. Thus we can make our own the words of an ancient hymn to all the saints, “Oh you martyrs in purple, oh you shining confessors, call us out of exile into our heavenly reward.” Blessed be God in His angels and in His saints!
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Solemnity of All Saints, A.D. MMXIX