Today, the Solemnity of All Saints, we praise and thank God for all the holy men and women of every time and place who now enjoy the fullness of life and joy with God in heaven.
We know the names of some of these saints because they have been canonized and lifted up for our emulation and devotion. We can safely assume that there are many other saints in heaven whose names we do not know, but we nevertheless honor them on All Saints’ Day.
Devotion to the saints is a hallmark of our Catholic faith. Why is it so important that we know the saints and give them our veneration? It is because the saints are our heroes in the faith. Men and women like us, the saints are very real examples of holiness and perseverance, oftentimes in the face of great suffering. The saints are clergy and laity; men and women; young and old, from all vocations and circumstances of life. From the examples of their holy lives we draw inspiration. They have completed their pilgrim journey to heaven, and they beckon us to follow them, assuring us that, with God’s grace, we too can become saints.
Many of us can remember growing up hearing the lives of the saints in our homes and schools. The Church still urges us to know the saints by becoming familiar with their lives. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council reminds us that the saints show us the very face of Christ. He speaks to us in them. We come to know Christ better in knowing the heroic lives of the saints. It was St. Jerome who said that ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ. We could well add that ignorance of the saints is also ignorance of Christ.
In these days of discouragement and anger over the sins of some clergy, it is important to remember that the Church of Jesus Christ consists of far more holy men and women then sinful priests and bishops. Every Sunday we profess our belief in the “communion of saints.” In doing so we confess that we are truly united with all those who remained faithful to Christ, whether living or deceased.
All Saints’ Day is followed immediately by the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day). In fact, the entire month of November is dedicated to praying for the dead. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that praying for the dead is one of the spiritual works of mercy.
Sometimes the question is posed: “Why do we pray for the dead? Isn’t our fate sealed at the moment of death? What good does prayer do then? When we die we are destined for either heaven or hell, and no amount of prayer can change that.”
True enough, but for those whose sins have been forgiven, i.e., those destined for heaven but still in need of final purification from the temporal effects of sin, there is purgatory. The Catholic practice of prayer for the dead is bound up with our belief in the reality of purgatory. Unless we die in a state of perfection, i.e. with all sins forgiven and all temporal punishment due to sin remitted, we cannot enter heaven. Again, the Catechism teaches us that “all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name purgatory to the final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (no. 1030-1031).
Prayers for the dead should be part of our daily prayer, not only in the month of November, but throughout the year. The souls in purgatory rely on our prayers. So, too, we rely on the prayers of the souls in purgatory for all of us still making our way to heaven.
All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day attest to the profound union that we have with the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory who will one day reach the fullness of salvation. This union cannot be broken even by death. Let us readily ask the intercession of the saints in heaven, and never fail to remember in prayer our loved ones who have died.