Is my Nana a saint ? Solemnity of All Saints

All Saints Day is known by two other names; All Hallows’ Day and Hallowmas. Interestingly, this day is celebrated by Catholics on the 1st of November as a Solemnity but it is also celebrated by other Christians Churches after Pentecost.

When most people think of a saint, they think of a statue high up on a pedestal; one that has a feast day and one that the Church has declared to be a saint. Yet in our lifetime we have encountered ‘saintly people’ who have trusted in Christ alone for his or her salvation and has been an ardent disciple of Christ. (see Acts 9:13, Acts 26:10, Romans 8:27, 1 Corinthians 1:2). I am sure you are thinking of your mother or grandfather or neighbour or religious priest or nun who fits the match. Are they saints you wonder? The short answer is yes, if they have met the prescriptions of holiness, they are!

Confused? Let’s look at the word saint or let us understand who is a ‘holy person.’ From a biblical perspective, something is holy when it is set apart for God and God’s purposes. So, an animal to be sacrificed to the Lord is holy because it is designated for this special function. In Exodus 19, God set apart the Israelites as his own “treasured possession” (19:5). They would be a “holy nation” (19:6) through which God would make himself known to the world. In the New Testament, believers in Jesus Christ are referred to as “saints” or “holy people” because they have inherited Israel’s divinely conferred status as people set apart by God for him and for his saving purposes.

The Church defines a saint as “ a person or persons in heaven (officially canonized or not), who lived heroically virtuous lives, offered their life for others, or were martyred for the faith, and who are worthy of imitation.” Your mother may have lived this life but was never officially canonized by the Church as a saint; believe it or not, she could just be one.

Incidentally, the Church or the Pope does not ‘make’ saints but simply declare what was already in the heart of God by their prudent investigations. The designation of sainthood only recognizes what God has already done. It is interesting to note that in the early Church a saint was declared so by popular acclaim. This was the only criterion; a life lived for Christ acclaimed by all. It was only in 933 AD that the first papal canonization occurred. Today’s feast honours the obscure as well as the famous, the saints each of us have known.

So why was the 1st of November set apart for this solemnity?

In May 607/609, Emperor Phocas presented the beautiful Roman Pantheon temple to Pope Boniface IV who first dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He then removed the statues of Jupiter and the pagan gods and consecrated the Pantheon to “all saints” who had died from Roman persecution in the first three hundred years after Christ. Many bones were brought from other graves and placed in the rededicated Pantheon church. Since there were too many martyrs for each to be given a day, they were lumped together into one day.

In the 8th century Pope Gregory III (731-741) dedicated a chapel at the Vatican in honour of all the saints. He changed the date to the first of November. Pope Gregory IV (827-844) later extended this celebration of all saints to the whole Western Church. This led to the commemoration of the evening before as All Hallows Eve, and it led to the following day, November 2 to be celebrated as All Souls Day, when we pray for all the souls who are still being purified on their way to heaven.

Also, since there are only 365 days in the year, not every person in heaven can have his own liturgical commemoration. Thus All Saints Day was created to commemorate every last individual in heaven, even those who salvation is known to God alone. So if your departed grandmother is in heaven, even though she’s never been officially canonized, on All Saints Day the Catholic Church commemorates her and the work God did in her life. She, too, has a place in the liturgical calendar, alongside the more famous saints.

The Gospel for the Solemnity of All Saints is taken from the Sermon on the Mount; specifically, the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are the “Basic Attitudes of Christ”! This passage is quite fitting for All Saints because all the saints experienced joy in the midst of sorrow or suffering. Jesus says in the Beatitudes that those who are poor, in mourning, or who are persecuted are blessed.

Finally, there are no solo saints, we celebrate the ‘communion of saints.’ A saint is joined to a family of all saints including those who live around the world and those who have gone to be with the Lord. Therefore, on All Saints Day is a perfect time to remember that God has made you special for him and his purposes, and that he has joined you into the eternal, worldwide fellowship of all his saints. Moreover, it’s a good day to take seriously the fact that God wants to make himself known in this world through you as a member of the family of all saints.

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