In the Company of the Friends of God
I recall a bit of wisdom shared by a wise person some years ago. It goes, “In this world there are two kinds of people—those who are saints, and those who make us saints.” Yet despite that we might be quick to identify people as one or the other, that is, being saints or being those who make other people saints, it is likely most of us have spent time doing both. The reality is that we are all on our way to sainthood, all of us. We just don’t admit to it so easily. This is the short explanation. We are on our way to eternity. Our time on earth will come to pass. When it ends, our bodies return to dust. But we do not cease to exist. We are created anew, a truth we cannot yet fully grasp. St. John tells us in the second reading that “what we shall be has not yet been revealed.” And yet, “we know that when it is revealed we shall be like God, for we shall see God as he is.” St. John is speaking to the community of faithful Christians who have heard God’s Word and strive to live it faithfully each day, those he calls “children of God.” Now, in that new creation, we will be either with God forever (which means we are saints), or we will be somewhere else—somewhere away from God. Hopefully, we are making our way willingly to God and sainthood even as we speak. As disciples of Jesus Christ and members of his body, we strive for a life that expresses our love for God … although every so often we lapse into selfishness and lose our focus. But when we come to our senses, we repent of our sins, are reconciled with God and our neighbor, and return to the journey. So if we strive to live by the values of the Gospel right now, and are on our way to God in the life to come, then we are on our way to sainthood.
Whenever we speak of Saints, we often refer to the official list of women and men proclaimed by the Church to be examples of heroic virtue, and who are held up as models to the human family of authentic Christian living. I looked it up and some estimates place the official count between 8,000 and 10,000. But if we split hairs between Saints and Blesseds and Venerables and Servants of God, that number might change. In the end, the Church might have trouble collecting factual evidence on every saint throughout her history, so there might never ever be an answer to the question.
Kathleen Manning, in an article in the magazine US Catholic writes, “The precise number of Catholic saints will always be debatable. Early Christian communities venerated hundreds of saints, but historical research by 17th- and 18th-century Catholic scholars determined that very few of these saints’ stories were backed by solid historical evidence. Lives of such well-known figures as St. George, St. Valentine, and St. Christopher were based either on a legend that often predated Christianity or were entirely made up. Other saints had local followings. In (13th century) rural France, St. Guinefort was venerated as the protector of infants after he saved his master’s baby from a snakebite. St. Guinefort was a dog.” (http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201310/how-many-saints-are-there-28027)
By the middle ages, all it took was a bishop’s approval to recognize someone as a saint. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V created the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to do the background check on potential saints. In 1969, Pope Paul VI purged from the official list those not based in historical fact, and streamlined the process for recognizing holy women and men for the veneration of the faithful. Some popular names were taken off the universal calendar, but no one has been officially demoted, just quietly retired.
The Feast of All Saints was established by Pope Boniface IV in 609 AD, and the date of November 1 was assigned by Pope Gregory III in the mid-8th century. This feast celebrates all who enjoy the company of God in heaven. And they are all saints, official and unofficial, declared and undeclared. In the end, the number of all who are with God in heaven is known to none but God alone. God desires we spend eternity with him in heaven. God wants us to become saints. Our job is to cooperate with God’s grace and get there, whether we make the list or not.
Clearly the official title is not what matters. Even God is not bound by our lists. On a side note, last year the news reported erroneously that Pope Francis said dogs can go to heaven. He never said that exactly. But we know God does not ever need human approval to do whatever God wills. What matters more is that none of us ever walks the journey alone to eternal life with God in heaven. We hear the Word of God and struggle to live the Gospel faithfully always in the context of community. Every saint is accompanied by other holy women and men, whether they make the official list or not—the Twelve Apostles, Mary Magdalene, Martha and Mary, Stephen, the Gospel writers, all in community. The martyrs of the early church suffered and died together. Even hermits who sought the solitude of the desert would find time to mentor others on their spiritual journey. Francis of Assisi gathered a company of friends about him, and four are buried alongside him in the Basilica that bears his name. His friend and contemporary Clare is buried in another basilica at the other end of the city, having lived the same rule of life with her sisters. And only a few weeks ago, Zelie and Louis Martin were declared saints of the church, a married couple and the parents of Therese of Lisieux. Saints are not born in isolation. They do not come to faith in isolation. They do not struggle or triumph in isolation. Saints are those who are with God, and will always be found in the company of other saints. Remember that if you want to be with God, God will always be surrounded by his friends. We just happen to know them as saints.
The book of Revelation tells us that only 144,000 are marked with the seal of the servants of God. But in the next line, John tells us of “the great multitude that no one could count from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” We cannot limit God’s call that all God’s children join him in eternal life. We have assurance that there is room for so much more than we can imagine. And we travel the road to heaven in company with one another. We encourage and help each other. We challenge and call one another to conversion. God calls us all to be saints, and the journey to heaven begins long before our earthly journey is ended. It begins in this life alongside one another in community.
In his sermon on the mount, Jesus points to us those who possess the kingdom even now—the poor, the meek, the merciful, the clean of heart, the persecuted, those who mourn, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who work for peace. We truly need each other’s help if we are to get to heaven. So even if you think yourself only as one who makes other people saints, I am confident God calls you, too. Work hard to become a saint, and thank those around you who work just as hard to make you a saint.
Rolo B Castillo © 2015