Originally posted November 1, 2020
Following is a sermon delivered today in the USA. Sightly edited to protect anonymity and printed with permission.
Homily for the Solemnity of All Saints
We can see the hand of divine providence in the fact that the great Solemnity of All Saints this year falls on a Sunday. This year of 2020 has reminded us all that “here we have no lasting city,” that the circumstances of our lives in this world are fragile and passing, that only “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday today, and forever.” So on this Sunday, this All Saints Day, let’s think through, together, a few basic truths about our life and our faith.
First: what does it mean to be a saint? What does it mean to be holy?
It was a very good musician, but a very bad theologian who said: “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.”
As much as we may chuckle about that, that is actually what a lot of people think, so they dismiss striving for holiness – they dismiss the possibility of actually becoming a saint, without giving it much thought. And that is truly tragic, because it is the very reason we were created. If we miss that, we’ve missed the whole point of our entire life. As St. Theresa of the Child Jesus used to say, “If I am not becoming a saint, I am doing nothing.”
Holiness does not mean looking like a statue or a painting. Nor does holiness consist in being sad, or in being odd, or in being sanctimonious.
Rather, holiness is wholeness; St. Irenaeus said that “the glory of God is the human person fully alive.” Holiness is being fully alive in God, being close friends with the living person of Jesus Christ, allowing him to mold us, and use us for his purposes so that we can become the kind of people who are capable of spending eternity with Him in the love that never, never ends. St. Catherine of Siena said that “if you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire.”
Let’s switch gears for a moment. In 1938, The Saturday Evening Post published a poem by Robert D. Abrahams called The Night They Burned Shanghai. It speaks about events in Asia in the lead-up to World War II, but really it’s about apathy: not caring about the most important, the decisive things in life. The last stanza is especially striking, and haunting. It says this:
For some men die by shrapnel / and some go down in flames,
But most men perish inch by inch / at play in little games.
St. Therese of Lisieux said the same thing a little differently. She said: “We have only the short moments of this life to work for God’s glory. The devil knows this, and that is why he tries to make us waste time in useless things. Let us not waste our time! Let us save souls!”
C.S. Lewis wrote something similar. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis has Screwtape instructing Wormwood thus: “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts…”
In the Book of Revelation, Jesus Christ speaks in these words: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.” The answer you and I give to that “if” determines everything.
St. John Vianney said, “The saints did not all begin well. But they did all finish well.”
Take the example of St. Paul. He began as one of the most ferocious persecutors of the early Church. But when he was converted, when the grace of God made its way into his heart and mind, and transformed him, he became the greatest evangelizer in the history of the Church.
Everything hangs on the answer to that “if.” St. Augustine, for instance, was so off-the-charts brilliant that if he wanted to he could have created a seductive and convincing false religion. St. Louis IX, King of France, could have used his rank and his power to ruin his kingdom. St. Ignatius of Loyola, who was an organizational genius, could have used those skills to destroy the Faith in foreign lands.
At the same time, the worst scoundrels in history could have become great saints had they opened the door of their heart and mind to Christ, and used their energy, and their enormous talents, and their power to spread the Gospel. Back at the time of Incarnation itself: Herod the Great could have become a Christmas hero, and taken his place beside the Magi in the Nativity scene. People today might be lighting candles at the tomb of Lenin or Mao as great evangelizers and saints… if their answer to that “if” had been different and had they employed their wills and intellects to the Gospel instead of to evil.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.”
At the same time – and this is an important point – if our understanding of what is meant by “Heaven” is only superficial, then we can’t clearly see why striving for it means everything in our life. When Heaven is understood as little more than “playing golf on the clouds” and as a place where everyone definitely goes, no matter how they lived or what they believed, it is no wonder people dismiss it from their minds. But that’s not what the Church teaches. Rather, the Church teaches about Heaven in these words:
Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness. … [ and yet ] this mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise: [St. Paul writes,] “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
The fulfillment of all desire. St. Augustine famously said, “You have created us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
So this Solemnity of All Saints celebrates all the men and women and children – known and unknown – through all the centuries – who opened their doors to Jesus Christ – and it invites us to do the same, because if we do not spend eternity with God we have wasted our life, pure and simple. St. Therese reminds us, “The world’s thy ship, and not thy home.” The veil between this world and the next is thin, and fleeting is our opportunity for conversion before the moment of judgment.
You and I, each in our own way and in our own state of life, are called to become holy, to become friends of Jesus Christ, to become saints. St Francis de Sales insisted that holiness is accessible to every Christian, precisely in his or her own state in life. He said, “the religious as a religious; the priest as a priest; the married [person] as a married [person]; the man of business as a man of business; the soldier as a soldier; and so of every other state of life.”
The plain fact of the matter is that no one and nothing (except unforgiven sin) can prevent you from becoming a saint: not who wins the elections on Tuesday, not who the leaders of the Church are, not who your family members are, not who your neighbors are. Please God all of those people would be models of virtue and encouragement in their own different ways. But even if they’re not, they can’t prevent you from becoming a saint. Even the concentrations camps could not and did not prevent St. Maximilian Kolbe or St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross from becoming saints there. And if you can become a saint in a concentration camp, you can become a saint anywhere.
St Francis of Assisi often said to his brothers: “Let us finally begin, brothers, to serve the Lord God, for up to now we have done little or nothing.”
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” says Jesus Christ to me and to you, right now. “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.”
We are spurred on by a great cloud of witnesses, including the saints whose relics are within or on our altar, and who, from their place in Heaven, certainly pray for us today.
With the prayers of the saints, let us open the doors of our minds and our hearts wider than ever before to Christ. Because we can all say, with St. Therese:
“If I am not becoming a saint, I am doing nothing.”