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Great Cloud of Witnesses

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Solemnity of All Saints. On the solemnity of All Saints, transferred to today in England and Wales, Fr Fabian Radcliffe delights in the Family of God.

It is said that Pope John Paul II canonised more Saints, and created more Cardinals, than any one of his predecessors. Could it be that such large numbers might have the effect of 'cheapening' both Sainthood and the Cardinalate?

In most areas of human life, if lots of people are appointed to positions of rank, they lose something of their scarcity value. As someone sings in one of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas: 'if everybody's somebody, then no one's anybody'.

Perhaps this could happen with Cardinals. It would surely seem less of an honour to be appointed Cardinal if there were already two hundred of them than it would be if there were only twenty. But is it the same with Saints?

Surely not. We might have been tempted to think: 'What, another lot?!' on hearing about a fresh batch of canonisations; but if we thought about it, we would hardly have meant that seriously. To create a Cardinal is not at all the same thing as to beatify or canonise a Saint. Creating a Cardinal means giving someone a particular rank, dignity and role in the Church on earth, either because of his abilities or because of services rendered. And the more people you have taking a leading role, the less important each one will seem.

With canonisation it is quite different. The Pope has not given Mother Teresa (for example) or Padre Pio a new role in the church, either on earth or in heaven. When he is canonising, the Pope is declaring before the whole Church and in God's name, that this particular person, by the end of life, had responded heroically to God's grace and had therefore reached the vision of God to the fullest extent that is possible this side of the general resurrection.

Saints are not ready made. St Augustine sinned a lot in his youth, but by the grace of God and the prayers of his mother he repented and turned to God with even greater energy than he had shown before. And that must be true of any Saint you like to mention.

So canonisation is about the perfection of a person, not about role or position. Each Saint is different, because each person is different; and each expresses something of the infinite creativity of God. So from that point of view, the more Saints the better.

Saints are not canonised for their own sake but for ours. They themselves do not need this recognition. Holiness is nothing to do with whether or not a person is a success in earthly affairs. A good Cardinal may not be a Saint; some Saints are earthly failures.

Holiness is to do with the extent to which a person has been open to the transforming life of God, and is therefore included in the community of salvation which we call the Body of Christ, or, as we say in the Creed, the 'communion of saints'. The Saints are linked to us in this Body.

They sustain us in hope, because they are models for us, and reminders of what is possible for us too through the power of the Holy Spirit. And they pray for us incessantly, because of the love which unites them to us in the Body of Christ.

If we have a strong sense of this Body, the Church militant, expectant and triumphant, then we will be grateful for their intercession and seek it continually. The infinite variety of the Saints means that not all of them will appeal to us equally; but we are bound to find some with whom we can feel especially at home.

The sheer numbers of Saints, as well as their inclusiveness ('from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages'), including all those hidden ones about whom we know nothing, but whom we celebrate especially on All Saints Day, all this strengthens our sense of what it is that we belong to: the human family of God from Adam to the end of the world, drawn together in Christ: both those who like us are still on the way, as well as those who already have a share in the blissful life of God.



Revelation 7:2-4,9-14
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12


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