By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
Our church’s feast on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, is one of my favorites. It reminds me that the church’s leadership does not have a monopoly on designating saints – and doesn’t want one.
Yes, of course the church’s highest leadership, in this case the pope, reserves for himself the right to designate – canonize – official saints of the church who are held up around the world as models for us to imitate. And the pope’s declaration comes only at the end of a formal process outlined in detail by church law.
Even so, up until the mid-1100s it was common for bishops to declare saints. And even after the papacy took over the task, saints named earlier by local bishops did not have their status rescinded.
More central to our observance of All Saints Day, there is no prohibition against common everyday Catholics like us developing our own coterie of personal saints – people who inspire us live according to Jesus’ Two Great Commandments (Matt 22:35-40, Mk 12:28-34, Lk 10:25-28).
Most Catholics are drawn to veneration of particular canonized saints – and that’s a good thing. I had a Protestant friend once ask me rhetorically: “Why did we move away from saints? What were we thinking? You Catholics have a saint for every vice and every virtue, persons who help you integrate your faith and life. I envy you for that.”
But as I reminded him, every Christian is free to venerate saints – and without regard to whether or not they are canonized by the church.
In my own case, my list of saints is a mix of canonized and everyday folks. Of course, the Blessed Mother is worthy of singular devotion. And like a lot of other Catholics, St. Francis of Assisi warms my heart and inspires me in a special way. I could go on and on in this vein. Indeed, whenever I check out the lives of canonized saints, I’m inspired.
But my list of saints also includes my mother and my father, and my grandparents on both sides of my family. I would add a friend of mine, a Dominican missionary and all-around extraordinary man who died just a few years ago. Several of my mentors and friends make my list – some for their whole lives of God-centered love and service, some for one or a few particular gifts they had which inspire me to serve and sacrifice when I’d otherwise be content to live as a couch potato.
I should add that none of those on my list was perfect, without sin. But then neither was St. Peter or any of the other apostles or saints (excepting, by God’s abundant grace, the Blessed Virgin). Indeed, some of the most moving and inspiring saints – take St. Paul or St. Augustine, for example – were notorious sinners before they allowed themselves to be transformed by the grace of God.
That gives me more than a little comfort.
My personal list of saints includes a lot of people who needed at least some forgiveness along the way – sometimes even from me.
But today, on All Saints Day, I don’t dwell on their shortcomings. I focus on their virtues.
In the Gospel for today we hear Jesus list the Beatitudes (Matt 5:1-12A). Today would be a good day to take just a moment and go through them yourself – trying to match the names of people you have known to each of them.
It’s not essential that you come up with a name for each of them. If you can’t think of a name of someone you would describe as “poor in spirit,” move on. (BTW, we now know that St. Mother Teresa was “poor in spirit” for many years, so use her name if you can’t think of any others.)
As you go through the list, people who have been good influences in your life will come back into your experience.
Who do you know who had reason to mourn but nevertheless inspired you? Who do you know who was meek but who comforted you? Do you know anyone who hungers and thirsts for righteousness? Who makes you grateful for their mercy? The list goes on.
By taking a few minutes to contemplate the Beatitudes and people we know or have known who lived them, we’ll give ourselves a few benefits.
- We’ll come away more mindful of what Jesus wants from us.
- We’ll be clearer about what constitutes a good life – and how we can live it.
- We’ll revisit Jesus’ own encouragement for us in those times when we suffer at the hands of other people: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”
Who knows, by accepting little graces like these in our lives, perhaps a Nov. 1 will come to pass when someone puts our name on their own list of personal saints.
It could happen.