This exceptionally long sermon was delivered at All Saints’ Vigil in Greyfriars Convent, Elgin, on 31 October 2013.
‘Greet one another with the holy kiss.’ Before you rush to put this into practice, listen to the second bit of this quotation: ‘All the saints send you greetings.’ (2 Corinthians 13:12) In these words St Paul closes his second letter to the Corinthians. It seems this is the phrase particularly appropriate for tonight, as we are celebrating the Vigil of All Saints. However there’s one little complication, because he opens his letter saying: ‘From Paul […] to the church of God at Corinth and to all the saints in the whole of Achaia.’ (2 Corinthians 13:12) It apparently doesn’t make much sense, because saints are usually dead and in heaven. Certainly this greeting is for people who are to listen to this letter read at a gathering, i.e. living here and now. If you haven’t read this letter yet I can tell you that its content makes this greeting even more confusing because, along with the first letter, it reflects a very stormy and argumentative relationship between the Corinthians and St Paul. The image emerging from both letters displays anything but a holy community. His other letters, to different communities, are not short of clues clearly showing that the community in Corinth wasn’t unique in that respect. And yet St Paul writes to all the saints in the whole of Achaia; he greets every Christian living in Greece at that time.
For St Paul, all those who believe in Jesus Christ, have been baptised in the name of the Trinitarian God and remain in communion with the Church, are saints. They are saints because they have been sanctified by the Holy One of Israel, God the Father. Purified by the blood of Jesus Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit, Christians are consecrated to God as his own possession. We are holy, because we have been made holy – “holy-fied” – let me use such a made-up word. We are holy regardless of our own particular moral situation; we are holy though we are not perfect in our faith, hope and charity. We can compare this kind of sanctity to this building, this church; it’s not perfect: there are some cracks in the walls; some dust gathered in inaccessible bits, it’s rather cold and so on. But, regardless its imperfections, it’s a holy place because it’s been consecrated to God. And it’s the same story that we profess in the Creed: we believe in ‘holy Church’, made out of impure and imperfect members: us.
Well, if we are already holy, why should we bother about our moral stance? Why should we avoid evil and look for good? Well, we can think about this consecration as our final destiny or, in other words, as the state we are to reach. We can compare it to an artist, a stone sculptor, standing in front of a massive chunk of marble. For him the sculpture is already there, locked inside the rock; his task is to remove all the superfluous bits around it. When it’s done, the beauty of the sculpture is visible to everyone, not just to the sculptor. Each one of us is such a perfect beauty created by God; by our efforts of rejecting evil and choosing good, we uncover and reveal that, step by step. Our moral choices are our responses to God’s love, not the way of earning it.
There’s always been one particular way regarded as a fast track of some kind: martyrdom. Those who shed their blood on account of Jesus were considered purified and perfect because they had paid the highest price. They were admired and respected, and that was the origin of the cult of saints. We can find some hints of this in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 7:55-60) and particularly in the Book of Apocalypse. (Revelation 7:13-14)) In the year 313 AD Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, allowing Christians to practise their religion freely. Relative religious freedom gave space to develop sanctity in ways other than martyrdom. The Church was looking for a new kind of role model: people who were living holy lives devoted to prayer and charitable work without the stamp of martyrdom at the end. Those were people whose spiritual and charitable achievements became inspirational to others. Originally individuals were considered saints without any formal process; you can recall the crowds in Rome shouting ‘Santo Subito!’ (meaning: Saint now!) during the funeral of late pope John Paul II. More formal recognition of sainthood started by the end of the first millennium. So after two thousand years we’ve got a plenitude of canonised saints.
Do we actually need them? And if so, what for? I’d like to look at two possible answers to such a question. Firstly, we pray to them. Some are patron saints of countries, regions or nations, like St Andrew the Apostle or St Patrick. Others take care of particular causes or situations, like St Anthony of Padua, a patron saint of lost things and people, or St Cecilia, a patroness of musicians. My favourite one is St Jude, of lost causes, and my namesake patron. But why do we need to pray to them; can’t we – and shouldn’t we – pray directly to God the Father? I’ll give you one example. A couple of weeks ago my friends gave birth to a little boy. It turned out he’d been born with an extremely serious heart defect. His parents have been praying for the little boy, along with a few dozen of their friends. Similarly those uncountable friends of ours standing before God join their prayers to ours. In the Church we call it the communion of saints
Another reason we need the saints for is to follow in their footsteps – such a presumption is quite common. There’s actually one problem: which one should we imitate? Many of the saints from the distant past seem to be irrelevant to our modern world. Over 20 years ago I was fascinated by St Francis of Assisi. I was wearing sandals all year round (though winters in Poland were much harsher than here) and decided I would never have a car. However, four years later, I realised it was all very noble but totally irrelevant to my vocation. It wasn’t my path; it had been the path of St Francis only. Another problem is the huge variety of the saints’ ways of life: from powerful sovereigns to the most defenceless, from the wealthy to the poorest of the poor. And last but not least, there’s a massive over-representation of popes, bishops, priests, monks and nuns among the saints – none of them particularly relevant to those who don’t see themselves called to these specific ways of life. As a side effect/issue this over-representation accidentally suggests that sainthood is something available exclusively to an ordained or consecrated minority only.
All these problems have led me to the conclusion that the canonised saints as a whole show that sainthood has been possible at all different times, in very different circumstances and in many different ways. Though there has been such a variety of them, there are a few elements common to all of them: regardless of their wealth or poverty, they were free of greed; they craved what was right; they were driven by mercy; their intentions were honest… If it sounds a bit familiar, these qualities are listed in the Beatitudes; (Matthew 5:3-10) we will listen to them tomorrow at Mass, but let me recall them right now:
- Happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Happy the gentle: they shall have the earth for their heritage.
- Happy those who mourn: they shall be comforted.
- Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right: they shall be satisfied.
- Happy the merciful: they shall have mercy shown them.
- Happy the pure in heart: they shall see God.
- Happy the peacemakers: they shall be called sons of God.
- Happy those who are persecuted in the cause of right: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
These are the qualities of saints, and each one of us, you and I, are called to make them ours. Each one of us is unique. Your way of sainthood is unique, because your circumstances are unique, even when similar to that of others. So you have to find your way through life.
Let me use one example. I love hillwalking in Scotland; for me it’s an experience comparable to nothing else. But unlike many ranges in continental Europe – like the Alps – there are very few trails in the Scottish Mountains. Most of the time I have to find my own way. Sometimes technically I follow someone’s footsteps when I use farm tracks or stalkers’ paths. But they rarely lead all the way to my destination, so at one point I have to leave them and go my own way. It’s similar in life; we all share the same starting point (birth) and we’re all heading to the same destination (heaven), but each one of us must find his or her own unique way.
So far I’ve been talking about the canonised saints. But it’s a bit misleading, giving an impression that sainthood is something reserved for a small group of individuals, carefully hand-picked and selected by God. But that isn’t true. Sainthood is not optional for a Christian; sainthood is not recommended to a Christian; sainthood is compulsory. It’s the only way we can enter heaven and stand before God who is Holy, as St Peter writes in his first letter, quoting from the Book of Leviticus: ‘be holy in all you do, since it is the Holy One who has called you, and the scripture says: Be holy, for I am holy.’ (1 Peter 1:15-16)