I had an acquaintance who once used to say, ‘our job as Catholics is to get to heaven, and to take as many people with us as we can’. I think this would be a fair definition of the baptismal calling that we all have; and that fundamental call is to holiness, to sanctity. Each one of us, by our very baptism, is called to be holy, to be a saint.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2683) begins to define saints as, ‘the witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints’. Yet the church also says there are many who have lived lives of heroic virtue who are with God, known to Him, yet remain unknown to most of humanity. It is not to receive honours and praise from people that we strive to live a holy life, to be saints – it is so that we can be part of that great multitude that we read about in our first reading at Mass from the Book of Revelation – the great multitude from every nation that stands before the throne of God. This is the great gift of salvation that we receive through Jesus Christ, a gift we enter into through the sacrament of baptism, and become part of the communion of saints.
To often we give a kind of ‘caricature’ representation to saints; we consider them after their ‘conversion experiences’ and stories about them after their deaths and canonizations, and we forget they were real people with real concerns; often they were people who struggled much as we do with their own human weakness, and yet, through their prayer and faith and the grace of God, they grew to deepen their relationship and love of God in their day-to-day circumstances; we think of St. Augustine as a great doctor of the church, and forget that his youth was spent in a life of self-gratification; we think of St. Jerome translating the sacred scriptures and forget he was notorious for having a quick and violent temper; we speak of St. Francis of Assisi hugging the leper and forget he was petty and self-indulgent as a young man.
But through the gift of baptism, we become adopted children of God, and through the continuous gifts He gives us– as long as we are open to receiving them – we grow deeper in that relationship. As St. John says in his first letter, when God is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is, and as long as we have this hope in God, we purify ourselves. This is where we run into conflict with the ‘world’ because we see ‘purifying’ ourselves for God meaning to ‘give up’ things, to do without all the world offers – and our human nature tends to push back against this. This though, is a distorted mindset, because to grow deeper in love and closer to God is not to ‘lose’ anything; it is gaining everything – to be part of that great multitude seeing God as He is because we have become like Him.’ How could any worldly experience top that?
Jesus gives us a ‘blueprint’ if you will, for deepening this relationship, this love – it is recounted for us in today’s gospel account of the Beatitudes from St. Matthew -we learn that we are blessed, becoming more holy, more sanctified when we deepen these virtues; being poor in spirit, being meek, being merciful, being pure in heart… yet Jesus also states the result of our being more ‘blessed’ in God’s eyes; when choosing God’s ways over the world’s ways, we are reviled and persecuted, and ridiculed. We see that repeatedly in our own culture – in popular entertainment, in politics, and even sadly amongst those who claim to be people of faith.
Jesus doesn’t say being a saint is easy; in fact he says it can be the opposite – but if we truly desire to spend eternity with God, we need to begin living like we mean it in the here and now, starting today, in this moment, rather than waiting until some point in the distant future when we have had our fill of ‘the world’ and realize there is something more than the gratification of our senses in this life. We receive strength and glimpses of this eternity in the Sacraments, which is why the Church constantly reminds us to receive them, particularly Reconciliation and the Eucharist.
We need to be concerned about our own sanctity, to pray for the grace to live a life of virtue, and for others to be strengthened with this same grace; we need to ask others to pray for us, particularly the saints who have gone before us,, ‘the witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom’.
There is a story that Pope St. John Paul II, in the midst of his pastoral travels that took him all over the world, fell ill between two of these trips. Doctors ordered him to rest in bed, but he was insistent that God had entrusted him with the mission to shepherd the people of this world to a closer union with God. When he decided to get up and resume his travels – which many thought was too soon – one of the nursing sisters entrusted with his medical care protested that he should set aside this mission and return to bed; she explained her concern saying, “I am worried about Your Holiness”, to which he replied, “I too, am worried about my holiness.”
On this feast of All Saints, may we too be as worried about our own holiness and the holiness of those we hold dear.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!