By Corinne Winter
At the beginning of this month, we celebrated the Feast of All Saints. Theologically, it recalls a fundamental tenet of our faith: the communion of saints. Pastorally, the celebration urges us to look to the saints for inspiration and encouragement, two things we can certainly use in these difficult times.
When thinking of the canonized saints, we might think first of asking their intercession to help us obtain special favors from God. We look to patrons for particular causes: St. Peregrine for those suffering from cancer and Ss. Agatha, John of God and Raphael for nurses, and so on.
We certainly trust that the saints in heaven (whether canonized or not) will join us in prayer, and we recognize that the church has accepted as authentic a small number of miracles attributed to their intercession. Still, obtaining what we ask is not the primary focus of devotion to the saints. Concentrating our attention there may even lead to disillusionment if we give in to the faulty idea that our prayers are heard only to the extent that our wishes are granted.
Even when I was in grade school, the primary way in which the saints were presented was as examples to be followed. We heard countless stories, especially of saints who showed remarkable faith, devotion and courage at an early age. Each saint modeled a virtue to which we should aspire. The bishops gathered at Vatican II affirmed that “the authentic cult of the saints [consists] in a more intense practice of our love, whereby …we seek from the saints’ example in their way of life, a sharing in their communion (LG51.)”
Canonized saints (and others not yet canonized) demonstrate many qualities that we hope to integrate into our own lives for our own good and the good of the world so in need of healing today. I think immediately of St. Oscar Romero. He and many others, some of whose names we do not know, have suffered persecution and death for acting on their faith-filled conviction that all people have fundamental rights and dignity. May we be drawn to speak and act courageously, especially on behalf of the marginalized who are suffering the effects of the pandemic and the racist acts that we read and hear about in the news.
I think too of saints who acted generously, sometimes even putting themselves at risk, to care for those suffering from severe and contagious illnesses. Some of those founded or joined religious communities dedicated to caring for the sick and the poor. Others set out on arduous journeys to teach and serve especially the underserved in lands, languages and cultures unfamiliar to these future saints. They chose to serve, knowing only that people were in need. May we strive to serve others lovingly and generously according to our means and abilities.
Some saints are known for suffering patiently themselves through long illnesses or injuries. Those canonized on that account identified themselves with the suffering Christ and offered their trials as prayer for others. May we find patience and grace to put up with everything from the small inconveniences to fear to our longing to spend time with loved ones. May we do what we can to make the situation better for others rather than focusing on our own pain.
Another important aspect of the doctrine of the communion of saints is that it reminds us of the power of Christ’s resurrection as we think of those already enjoying fullness of life in him. The power of the resurrection is the source of our hope. We can’t know how things will turn out tomorrow, next year or at any time during our history. However, we know our ultimate destiny. “By celebrating the days on which [the canonized saints] died, the church proclaims the paschal mystery in the saints … [and] proposes them to the faithful as models who draw all people to the Father through Christ (SC104.)”
Finally, as we celebrate the communion of saints, which includes all who live in Christ and all who have died in him, we are called to live in communion with one another here on earth. We are members of the living body of Christ. In Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are called to proclaim that truth by our lives. In this time when we see so much bitterness and division, let us join our prayers with those of all saints asking for wisdom and conversion for the sake of unity.
(Corinne Winter is a professor-emerita of St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)