John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
It’s too bad that All Saints Day comes but once a year.
It’s too bad, because its rarity distorts our perspective. The Church year is filled with solemnities, feasts, memorials and optional memorials of individual, canonized saints. Recent popes, starting especially with St. John Paul II, were active in promoting the cause of saints to demonstrate the ubiquity of sanctity, especially in contemporary times. All Saints Day serves as a solemnity to commemorate all those saints—the vast majority—who are in heaven, albeit not canonized by the Church.
The danger is that we can think of All Saints Day merely as a kind of “grab bag” feast. It isn’t. It is the feast par excellence of the Church.
“Do you think I’m a saint?” ask Catholics sometimes? No, but God not only wants—He expects—you to be one. Becoming a saint is not some “special reward” in the sense it should be something rare: the Eucharist is not rare, but it is the consummate special gift. If you don’t become a saint, your life was a failure.
So Nov. 1 should remind us: the call to holiness is universal. “Be ye holy, for I, the Lord, am holy” (Leviticus 11:44). “You shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Vatican II reminded us that holiness is not some special characteristic reserved for priests and religious: “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect” (Lumen Gentium, # 11).
Ven. Tomás Morales (1908-1994), who himself is a candidate for the altar, sought to make every Catholic aware of that call to holiness. He founded two secular institutes: the Crusaders of Mary for men and for women to help them grow in holiness. The Militia of Mary movement sought to make young people aware of their call to holiness. Books like his Forja de hombres (The Forge of Men) sought to provide the vision of a spiritual path for people.
And then there’s his 12-volume Semblanzas de Testigos de Cristo para Los Nuevos Tiempos [Portraits of Witnesses of Christ for New Times]. It’s especially appropriate for All Saints Day because in that series, Fr. Morales picks different saints from the liturgical calendar to examine what their lives say about living the Christian life. That’s why there’s 12 volumes: Fr. Morales leads us through each month of the liturgical calendar. (Unfortunately, the books remain untranslated from Spanish).
Over the next year, I want to draw from Fr. Morales’ writings to reflect on his ideas related to the spiritual life. Fr. Morales—like Escrivá in Spain or Wyszyński in Poland—recognized that the world would only encounter holiness if lay Christians bring it to every corner of their lives: their jobs, their professions, their associations, their recreation, their communities. The title of one of Fr. Morales’ most important books drives that point straight home: Hora de los laicos [The Hour of the Laity].
Today, let’s reflect on two ideas from Fr. Morales’ meditation for All Saints Day:
1. “Every saint who reveals Christ is the fruit of His grace.” (Cada santo que revela a Cristo es fruto de su gracia)
We should not make the mistake of thinking that the feasts of saints—including the Solemnity of All Saints—are primarily about individual saints. The feasts of saints—be it individual saints or All Saints—are first and foremost about Jesus Christ. Without Him, there would be no sanctity, or possibility of human beings adhering successfully to God’s grace. The saints are not about themselves but about God: how God, amid the diversity of human life and circumstances, is able to lead His children back to Himself.
Thus, every feast of an individual saint, as well as the collective feast of All Saints, leads us back to Vatican II’s teaching: that holiness is for everyone. The sheer multitude and diversity of the saints bears witness to how no state in life is excluded from holiness. There are popes and peasants, workers and teachers, former drunks and former fornicators, converts and cradle Catholics, those fallen away who fell back, ascetics and well-fed. Wherever there are men, there can be saints. Rephrasing Terence, homo sum; sanctitatis a me nihil alienum puto: I am a man; nothing of sanctity can be alien to me. Nothing—provided it is God who begins this good work, and brings it to completion.
“But I am not perfect,” you say. Well, you’re honest. But the key to sanctity is recognizing that it is not you, but God, who must lead the way down that path. Your duty is not to stop, because there is no stop: as in love, one has never “loved enough” – when one stops, one has already begun to slip back. You are not perfect, but you can be better than you are.
Might you slip? Probably. But John Paul I had an answer for that, too: in his book, Illustrissimi, he observes that the likelihood of your getting dirty again does not make the taking of showers a waste of time.
If you believe that God has a plan for you, then He will lead you. Your job is, above all, to be pliable and supple, not hard-necked nor – worse – “hard-hearted.” “If today you hear His voice, harden not your heart.”
2. A day of heaven (una dia del cielo)
As the Church teaches us, heaven is not a place but a state: the saints carry heaven wherever they go. All Saints Day is a day of heaven, a reminder that heaven is not far away, distant and inaccessible. Remembering All Saints is to remember that those we have known in this life have “gone before us, marked with the sign of faith” to await us. Heaven is not so much filled with strangers as a family reunion.
As a little boy growing up in New Jersey, I found it strange that when the evening paper came, my octogenarian grandmother’s attention first turned to the obituary column. As a child, I thought it morbid. As someone who has passed some span of this lifetime, I now understand the awareness that heaven includes friends and loved ones I do want to see again.
The reminder that heaven can be close is also a reminder that holiness is for everyone—and so is the responsibility to aspire to it. Catholics in the United States need to remind themselves of that, because we live in a society strongly influenced by Protestantism, especially literal readings of Scripture. There are Protestant sects that look to Revelation 7 (the first reading for All Saints Day) and see 144,000 as a sign of the infinitesimally narrow gate through which the few elect will pass. When we remember that Revelation was written in sign language, where numbers had value, 12 stood for perfection and 1,000 for infinity, then 12 (perfect) x 12 (perfect, i.e., perfection X perfection) x 1,000 (infinity) would yield the insight “God wants to save everybody!” And that is what Scripture tells us: God “wants all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). It is not God who refuses to offer salvation; it is man who can decline to accept it. As the Dominican Walter Farrell wrote, heaven and hell are no surprises: they are the fruit of labors cultivated, defended and finally reaped, but they are no surprise. Because holiness is “a day of heaven.”
Fr. Morales wanted men and women to reckon with the call of their lives, born in Baptism, to be holy. He did not expect people to seek sanctity in remote places. “Give yourself with hidden heroism to your everyday duty with the greatest love.” There you will find sanctity. “‘Faithfulness in little things’ is the shortcut to the highest sanctity.” Fr. Morales tells us nothing different than St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who promised to sweep her way to heaven by mopping her convent floor well. “What has value before God isn’t the external magnitude of deeds, but the love with which they are done.”
All Saints Day is a day about love: the many ways by which love has led men and women to God.