The success of our parish photo directory depends on the participation of a majority of the parishioners. So two weeks ago I made a pitch from the pulpit, asking everyone to sign up.
To make my point—and get a laugh—I begged people to have their picture taken for my sake, explaining that the directory is a middle-aged pastor’s only hope of getting to know all his parishioners’ names.
Well, it back-fired. Several people have been heard to say “No, I’m not going to be photographed. Monsignor Smith already knows my name.”
So much for my marketing strategy.
Let me, then, look at the photo directory from an entirely different angle—to be precise, from the perspective of the Last Judgment.
Now I really have you worried! Sign up for the photo directory or else… big trouble on the Last Day. Boy, our pastor sure takes things seriously.
Relax: the Last Judgment I’m talking about is a painting, by the Dominican artist Fra Angelico. The original is in Florence, but a detail of it hung in the dining room when I lived at St. John the Apostle parish. That’s the part of the painting I want to talk about this morning, because it shows something remarkable—angels and saints playing the game we called ring around the rosy. For those of you not familiar with the game or the nursery rhyme, it gathers children together in a circle, holding hands.
The painting reminds us that we’re not going to heaven by ourselves: we’re holding hands with our brothers and sisters. I am not going to heaven; we are going to heaven.
As you might already suspect, I am not using my homily to promote the photo directory—I am using the photo directory to remind us that we’re far more than an odd collection of people who happen to attend the same church. We are men and women, boys and girls, babies and even unborn children all moving together toward Paradise. We’re together because, together, we want to be saints.
Which brings us to All Saints Day. It’s not a day for complicated theology—Cardinal Vanhoye, one of the Church’s great scholars of the Bible, says simply “Today is a great family feast day: we’re united with our brothers and sisters, the saints. They’re close to us, they understand us, they love us, they light our way, and they guide us to true happiness.”
A simple thought, but electrifying! The cardinal continues on the same vein: “In the saints the love of our heavenly Father is easier to see, easier to feel, more lively.”*
But don’t we have enough saints already on the calendar to keep us happy and close to God? Think about the ones whose names we know—St. Francis, St. Therese, St. Anthony, St. Mary Magdalene, and so on and on. Why this nameless group we honour today?
I think there are three reasons why “today we rejoice in the holy men and women of every time and place,” as our opening prayer says.
First, so that we can be assured that heaven is a crowded place! The dramatic stories of apostles and martyrs can leave us feeling like we’re golfing with Tiger Woods, or trying to skate with Sidney Crosby. Many medieval and renaissance artists painted scenes from heaven. But it’s usually our Lord flanked by a few favourite saints. I like Fra Angelico precisely because his vision of heaven is packed with people.
It’s important to remember that we’re all of us—every one, no exceptions—called to be saints. Not, perhaps, St. Gregory of West Vancouver, complete with stained-glass window, but saints nonetheless. And God does not call us to the impossible. God did not become man so that a trickle of his brothers and sisters could join him in the kingdom. No-one is denied sufficient grace to become holy, and no-one should settle for less.
Second, the feast of All Saints calls to mind the men and women we’ve known who, as far as our human judgment can place them, truly deserve to be imitated as much as canonized saints. While we should not go around ‘canonizing’ everyone who dies—the archbishop recently remarked that eulogies that virtually canonize a deceased person are seriously flawed, since it is our job to pray for the dead, not to decide they are already in heaven—it’s nonetheless true that most of us have known someone in our family or in our parish who appeared to possess heroic virtue.
To recognize that friends and family who have passed away may very well be among the number we celebrate today is consoling and joyful.
The third reason is one I have already touched on. We’re here because we want to be saints. We recognize there is something better—much, much better—than what the world promises. But it’s not always that easy to see, as Cardinal Vanhoye warns as he contrasts this world’s thinking with today’s Gospel:
“The world says ‘blessed are the rich, for they shall possess whatever they desire.’ The Gospel says ‘Blessed are the poor.’
The world thinks and says ‘blessed the strong and the violent, for they shall impose their will on all, and take over whatever they want.’ The Gospel says ‘Blessed are the meek.”
The world thinks and says ‘blessed are those who laugh, who enjoy life.’ Christ says ‘Blessed are those who weep.’
Who’s right, the world or Christ?”*
Today is a good day to answer that question. Or to use a common expression, “who has the last laugh?”
I’ll put my money on the smiling people playing ring around the rosy with the angels. In fact, I’ll put my money on you, the women and men, girls and boys of this parish who are striving and struggling, working and praying in faith.
Discouraged? Sometimes. Failing? Sometimes.
But all the while holding on to the hope of heaven, where a surprising number of sinners have found themselves to be saints after all.
*Albert Hanhoye, Il Pane Quotidiano della Parola (2002) 965.