Many of us have been to high school or college reunions – many of us to our 40th or 50th high school reunion, as I was privileged to do in 2005 and again in 2015. Sadly our high school had long since closed. Our reunion, however, was not an occasion for such somber reflections. Rather it was a celebration of one another and of the memories we still share from a world long gone. As for those classmates who could not be with us, whose earthly labors have already ended, we can only hope that we will all come together again at the greatest reunion of all in the kingdom of heaven! It is that great eternal reunion of the communion of saints which today’s 1st Reading [Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14] portrays and today’s solemnity of All Saints’ Day celebrates.
In November 1887, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, wrote in the Paulist magazine: “When, in 1843, I first read in the Catechism of the Council of Trent the doctrine of the communion of saints, it went right home.” The doctrine of the communion of saints had a decisive impact upon young Isaac Hecker’s spiritual search, leading him into the Catholic Church a year later.
Appropriately so! What would we be without the communion of saints?
For one thing, church would certainly be a duller place! Just look around! Besides the multiple images of Mary and three images of our patron Saint Paul, just to my right here is the shrine of a great modern Doctor of the Church, Saint Therese of Lisieux, “the Little Flower.” Further down that aisle is an altar honoring an ancient Roman martyr Saint Agnes. Directly across the nave is the altar of a great early missionary Bishop, Saint Patrick, who obeyed Jesus’ command to go and make disciples, even if that meant going outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire. The altar next to his honors Saint Anne, the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. Meanwhile, portrayed in paintings above those altars and decorating the walls of this church, we see numerous other saints, a hint of the multitude we remember today whose names are known to God alone.
The communion of saints unites past and present, permeates the Church’s worship, and punctuates the Church’s calendar, culminating today in this great annual celebration in honor of all the saints. All Saints Day celebrates that part of the communion of saints known as the “Church Triumphant” – not just the thousands of saints officially recognized as such by the Church, but all the holy men and women, known and unknown, who have attained the goal for which we all aim. Living now with God and praising him forever in heaven, the saints – that great multitude from every nation, race, people, and tongue of whom we heard in today’s first reading – helps us by interceding on our behalf, uniting their prayers with ours.
The regular reference to and invocation of the angels and the saints, not just today but in every Mass every day, signifies our union, as the still struggling Church on earth, with the triumphant Church in heaven, and reminds us that the Church’s mission in this world is to mirror that heavenly community of angels and saints – and so transform the world according to the hope that is Jesus Christ’s great gift to his Church and the Church’s gift to the world.
As one of the seasonal turning points in the ancient northern European calendar, November 1 was once experienced as the beginning not only of winter but of a new year, the eve of which was imagined as a frightening in-between time when the spirits of the dead might roam about and possibly even try to haunt their old homes. Bonfires and jack-o-lanterns (originally carved out of turnips) were part of the defense of the living against an assault from the other world.
Deliberately celebrated on this day after Halloween, All Saints Day celebrates the hope that replaces fear and the victory of grace over sin, exemplified in the lives of the saints and experienced by us here and now in our continued relationship with them – a communion which challenges that great opponent of human hope, death, by connecting us not only with the saints already in heaven but with all who have gone before us with the sign of faith.
Homily for All Saints’ Day, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, November 1, 2023.
Photo: « The Crowning of Mary, Queen of Heaven, » Mural by William Laurel Harris highlighting the Communion of Saints, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY.