The Feast of All Saints may seem some distance from the practical realities of parish life – and light years from the task of pastoral planning – and yet it remains central to what the Church is in its deepest reality and what she seeks to become: a communion of holy men and women who give historical witness to the power of Christ in their lives.
In these saints the Church sees her own vocation and mission realised in flesh and, more often, blood, and it sees that the gift of eternal life is not merely a promise but has been brought to fulfilment in the lives of men and women throughout history.
It is clear in parish life that the past fifty years or so have seen a decline in the veneration of the saints along with other practices of piety. There are many reasons for this ongoing alienation from the saints, too many to rehearse here, but they include their trivialisation as well as their romanticisation. While their names adorn our churches and schools, are plucked out as confirmation names (with the notable exception of St Adolf of Osnabrück) and appear in our liturgies from time to time, the sense of connection between this ‘cloud of witnesses’ (Heb. 12:1) and our Christian life in the here and now can be pretty thin to say the least. The reality of real and constructed saints (for instance, the case of St Philomena who as far as I can tell never existed) and their eccentric hagiographies only complicates the matter.
The neglect and trivialisation of the saints has led theologians to write of the ‘disappearance of a doctrine’ and while it is true that the Second Vatican Council neatly addressed them as “examples of holiness”, as offering “fellowship in communion” and “aid in their intercession” (Lumen Gentium 51), ever since the saints have gone marching out. Their relevance to the lives of ordinary Catholics is rarely preached, they are not often discussed by theologians and their significance is frequently passed over in programs of adult faith formation. The upshot is that the cult of the saints remains largely confined to the arena of personal piety or devotion and holds little intellectual credibility, currency or appeal for the ordinary Mass-goer.
As well, the pastoral reality for many Catholics is that the dead simply disappear. Karl Rahner recognised as much when he wrote:
. . . if people think of their own nearest and dearest as disappearing at death into that darkness which surrounds the meagre light of our existence with its silent infinitude, how can they then find it in themselves to take up an attitude of veneration towards other dead persons merely on the ground that they were holier? (Rahner, “Why and How Can We Venerate the Saints”, Theological Investigations VIII, 7).
What we can draw from this is that the alienation from the saints reflects an alienation from the sacred in general, a disenchantment that closes the door between this world and the next, that no longer sees the bond between heaven and earth, that holds no vision of the thoroughfare between the two that remained upmost in the minds of our ancestors in faith.
As a word to this ancient tradition, the sanctorum communio first entered into the Apostle’s Creed in the fourth century, with testimony of its inclusion given by Nicetus, a bishop of Remesiana (present-day Serbia). The communion of saints also appears in St Jerome’s Credo, a contemporaneous Latin translation of a creed that was used in Antioch.
As noted by de Lubac, the reference to the sanctorum communio that appears in our creed today contains a double meaning present from the very earliest versions of the profession of faith – referring both to the holy ones of the Church, the persons of the saints, as well as to our participation in ‘holy realities’, notable the Eucharist. The communion of sancta, then, describes both the mysteries of Christian worship as the source of holiness (sacramental communion) and the effect of those divine gifts (a communion of holy persons). This provides an explanation for those who have ever wondered why the creed seems to make no mention of the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith.
The subsequent tradition of the Church also upheld the import of saints as examples and pointers to the way of holiness in Christ. In the sixth century Dorotheus of Gaza exhorts:
Imagine a circle marked out on the ground. Suppose that this circle is the world and that the centre of the circle is God. Leading from the edge to the centre are a number of lines, representing ways of life. In their desire to draw near to God, the saints advance along these lines to the middle of the circle, so that the further they go, the nearer they approach to one another as well as to God. The closer they come to God, the closer they come to one another . . . Such is the nature of love: the nearer we draw to God in love, the more we are united together by love for our neighbour.
As imitable models of holiness in its spiritual and social dimensions, the saints draw us into intimacy with God, their sanctity challenging us to conversion in the present and renewing our basic awareness of our capacity for grace. Gregory of Nyssa remarks that the saints cast light, like lamps, upon the path for those who are walking with God, having done God’s will throughout the ages. In their suffering as well the saints emerge as models of Christian life, following as they do the way of self-emptying and self-giving of the crucified Christ and personalising the future which all faithful disciples will receive as their reward, a redeemed humanity in the eternal glory of God.
It can be seen even in this brief overview that in their great variety, common witness to holiness and testimony to the fulfilment of God’s promises, the saints are a source of hope, challenge and companionship for ourselves personally and our life as a Church, including our parishes. The saints capture or embody the purpose for which communities of faith exist, for the making of holy disciples within the Church for the sake of the world. By the practice of invocation, the remembering and retelling of holy lives, the celebration of feast days and in praying the litany of saints, the promise of eternal life in Christ remain not only within our line of sight but surrounds us in the very company of holy men and women who already, even now, live in that light which knows no setting.