01 November 2008

Which Saints on All Saints?

On All Saints Day, the Church does not celebrate all those who were baptized, particularly the faithful who are still living. For the Church does not use the word “saint” lightly. Therefore, she does not refer to any or every Christian as a “saint.” Rather, the word “saint” is reserved for those who have led exemplary lives of holiness. And as a mark of their holiness, these men and women would not see themselves as saints. Rather, they would see themselves as unworthy of this honor.

It is not a mark of pride, then, but a recognition of godly humility when a person is canonized (officially recognized) as a “saint.” And it is a witness to all the faithful that we should strive not to be saints, but to live humbly, “soberly, and justly, and godly in this world, looking for the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ.” (Ti 2.12-13)

The greatest honor bestowed upon a saint, then, is to imitate that person’s life. And there are two things in particular that we should strive to imitate so that we might worthily commemorate the saints.

First, all saints—whether known or unknown—freely confessed Christ and His unending mercy by willingly sacrificing their life. Many of the saints made this confession by spilling their blood as martyrs. Others, however, did not receive the crown of martyrdom, but nevertheless made a great confession by sacrificing all that they had and all that they were for the love of God and the love of all men.

To commemorate the saints by imitation, then, means that we adopt this same attitude of self-sacrifice; that we become willing to give up all our possessions, all our ambitions, all our desires, even our own life if necessary, in order to attain the kingdom of heaven. That is how the saints lived and died; and we honor them by living as they did.

Secondly, all saints strove not for fame, but for humility. All of them desired to be known not for their deeds or writings. Rather, they desired simply to gain true life by losing their lives in a life dedicated to repentance. For they saw themselves as unworthy of even the least of Christ’s mercies, and so lived St. Paul’s creed: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” (1 Tim 1.15)

To commemorate the saints rightly, then, means that we adopt their spirit of repentance and humility; that we strive not to impress others, but instead strive to divest ourselves of all pride and self-serving desires. To live knowing that no one is worse than we are, that all are more deserving, and that the Lord should first save everyone else, even the worst sinner—that is the saints’ spirit of humility and repentance that we should strive to imitate. And whenever we do, we truly honor them.


Christopher Esget said...

It would appear that St. Paul wasn't afraid to refer to all Christians as saints, e.g., 1 Cor. 6.1; 16.1; 2 Cor. 1.1.

Fr John W Fenton said...

Pr Esget,

I am honored that you read my meager writings.

If one were to argue from the Scriptures for a broader use of the word "saints," I'm not entirely convinced that the three instances you've provided offer the strongest argument. "Not before the saints," "the collection of saints," and "all the saints who are in all Achaia"--in either a narrow or wider context--do not require a reading of "all Christians."

Nevertheless, I wouldn't be surprised if such a use could be found in St Paul or elsewhere. For whatever reason, however, the Church through the ages has limited the semantic domain of this word.

But even if my argument about the vocable "saints" is hogwash, would not the greater point obtain; namely, that the true commemoration of the heroes of the Faith is the imitation of their sacrifice and humility?

Pray for me.

Christopher D. Hall said...

Good post, Fr. Fenton! I especially liked the exhortation to not try to be a saint...that comes naturally for me.:) Seriously, emphasizing the desire for humility gets to the core.

You may have answered my question by implication in your recent comment, but I'll ask anyway: are you aware of citations where the Apostolic Fathers clearly use "saint" in a more limited fashion? I'm thinking a point of comparison is the tri-fold Office that St. Ignatius clearly defines, viz a viz the more ambiguous usage in the Pauline Epistles.

Even if such an early "limited" definition of saint is non-existent, however, what you write gives pause for thought. That the Church has consistently honored few with the appellation should caution use against reading the term as a general category in the Scriptures. In other words, we should always be skeptical of the assumptions we bring to the text and check them against the reading of the Church.