Skip to comments.Restoring The Sacred . . . Reverencing The Saints
Posted on 11/13/2015 2:01:30 AM PST by BlessedBeGod
We all recently began the month of November with the Solemnity of All Saints. Some of us, no doubt, were told that day from the pulpit or elsewhere that "we are all saints," the implication being of course that we need to stop associating the word "saint" with people who stand on pedestals, wear halos, and get canonized after spending their lives doing things that no modern man or woman could possibly be expected to imitate.
I even knew a pastor who would begin addressing the people at Mass on this day with the greeting, "Hello, saints!" This sort of talk reduces the Solemnity of All Saints to little more than a celebration of ourselves. But if our highest ideal of holiness is none other than that person we see in the mirror each morning we are a sorry lot indeed. Frankly, we can all do a lot better than this.
When taken to its extreme, the idea that holiness is for most people beyond reach can lead to a meltdown of what it even means to be a faithful Christian. We saw this recently in some of the proposals floated by certain individuals at the Synod on the Family, who seemed to think that for lay Catholics "in today's world" the virtue of chastity is a hopelessly unrealistic and unattainable ideal and that therefore the Church must learn to accept adulterous and promiscuous "lifestyles" in her children. Such an attitude of despair is incompatible with the Gospel of Christ.
The confusion over what it means to be a saint has arisen in part from a failure to distinguish the two different ways that this word is used. St. Paul utilizes the term to refer to all the believing, practicing members of the Church. In the current translation of the Lectionary for liturgical use in the Ordinary Rite, St. Paul's expression is rendered as "holy ones," meaning simply all those who are in a state of sanctifying grace.
The Solemnity of All Saints, however, pertains to a far more particular use of the word "saints," celebrating those who have successfully completed their journey of faith on Earth and are now enjoying the reward of their fidelity in Heaven. Within this vast community of the citizens of Heaven, there are individuals who fought the good fight on Earth so very well that the Church has chosen officially to recognize them as exceptional role models and intercessors on our behalf before the Throne of God.
Many years ago the U.S. Air Force had a recruitment slogan: "Aim high." That's precisely what the Communion of Saints encourages us to do. The canonized saints lived the virtues to what the Church defines as a "heroic" degree, practicing the virtues with an intensity and constancy well above the ordinary. This at first glance may give the impression that imitating the saints is an almost impossible dream, but in fact it is not.
The saints all began their journey of faith with the same basic "toolbox" of sanctifying grace that we are all given at Baptism. It is our willingness to respond to this grace and God's call that makes all the difference. What seems impossible to man is not impossible to God.
In our Catholic tradition, we not only admire the saints, read their lives, and strive to imitate their examples, but we also reverence them. Many of us this autumn have had the privilege to witness the outpouring of reverence for the child martyr St. Maria Goretti that was accorded to her body as it was brought from one U.S. city to another, with tens of thousands touching and kissing her casket.
At St. John Cantius Church in Chicago her arrival by motorcade was greeted with the continuous pealing of the church bells and the incensation of her reliquary on the church steps. We as Catholics have been venerating the bodies of saints from at least as far back as the second century. This practice builds upon what St. Paul taught, that the body of every baptized Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit and therefore sacred (1 Cor. 6:19).
In the saints and martyrs we find individuals who lived in union with God to a heightened degree. In them St. Paul's words, ". . . it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me . . ." (Gal. 2:20), have been fulfilled in the utmost manner. Thus our reverence for the saints is an extension of our reverence for Christ Himself.
What should also command our reverence is the thought that the saints now behold God face-to-face. This extraordinary prerogative of Heaven's citizens was foreshadowed in Moses, whose face after conversing with God shone with such a radiance that it became necessary for him to veil his countenance when conversing with the people (Exodus 33:11; 34:29-30, 33-35).
In a homily for All Saints Day, the Augustinian archbishop of Valencia, Spain, St. Thomas of Villanova (+1555) identifies three motives for glorifying the saints. To begin with, the saints have served to establish the Church by their labors and sufferings, and therefore, "after God, we owe to them whatever faith and light we have."
Secondly, we are indebted to them for the joy they take in our conversion, salvation, and sanctification, as declared by our Lord, ". . . there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance" (Luke 15:7). Lastly, we owe the saints our gratitude for the help they give us by their intercession on our behalf (Fr. John Rotelle, OSA, ed., The Works of Saint Thomas of Villanova: Sermons, Part 6B, 2000, All Saints, Sermon 4, p. 80).
Key to the reverencing of the saints is the need of presenting them as role models to the faithful. For several decades, there has been a tendency on the part of some homilists to avoid any references to the saints but rather to use as examples of exemplary living non-Catholics and secular heroes.
I recall how once on the Feast of the Holy Family the homilist made the appalling and sacrilegious claim that the Holy Family is an unsuitable role model for families because the Holy Family was not like "real families."
Years ago there was also talk of blocking the canonization causes of St. Therese's parents Louis and Zelie Martin because their piety was branded as too extreme for married couples to emulate. Nothing could be further from the truth. The saints are by far the brightest and best examples of what it means to be human.
Flesh And Blood
It has become somewhat of a habit on the part of modern hagiographers to reassure their readers that the subject of their book was "no plaster saint." There is in this the pejorative implication that some saints were "plaster," which is to suggest that they were something other than human, and likewise the derogatory implication that statues of saints are a bad thing.
This silly and artificial distinction should be done away with. All the saints were real flesh and blood men and women who faced the same struggles we all face.
Our knowledge of the saints' lives is limited to what has been recorded concerning them. Sometimes the only specific details we have about them concern their martyrdom, or some miracles they wrought. What was "ordinary" about them was left unrecorded. Modern candidates for beatification and sainthood, in whom the extraordinary is seen mingled with the ordinary, should serve to remind us that the saints of the more distant past were similarly both heroes and people like us. Statues are simply our way of honoring them and visually connecting with them, in the same way that the many wonderful photographs of modern saints help us to connect spiritually with them.
This brings us to another aspect of reverencing the saints, the veneration of their images. Over the centuries the heresy of iconoclasm, the condemnation of religious pictures and statues, has resurfaced time and again. Since the Reformation, many Protestant denominations have denounced the use of religious images, some even calling the practice idolatrous.
Such critics seem to have given little thought to the fact that we all use images to honor those we love and admire, beginning with the family photos we all cherish, placing them in prominent places within our homes, and even kissing them, especially when the picture is of a family member who has died.
In Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, stone and bronze memorials have been built to honor the founding fathers, past presidents and prominent civic leaders of our country, usually featuring large statues of the individuals being commemorated (the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, for example). Why should we do any less for the heroes of God, the men and women who lived the Gospel and imitated Christ to the full?
Seeing then, how we are "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" (Heb. 12:1), the saints of Heaven, let us like them fix our gaze upon Christ and run the course to the Everlasting Jerusalem as they have, spurred on by their love, their prayers, their example, and their friendship.
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