Naming the saints within the context of the official prayer of the churchthe apex of the church’s life, as the Second Vatican Council called itreminds us that as Christians in the here and now we stand in solidarity with all those who have gone before who live as part of the church itself. It is for that reason that that part of the eucharistic prayer begins In union with the whole church as it calls on Mary, Joseph, the Apostles, martyrs and all the saints. We stand with all those who are so named, making up what the Letter to the Hebrews calls the great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1). The cloud of witnesses is the church writ large.
The veneration of the saints began in the Catholic Church with honors paid to those who died for the faith in the Roman persecutions. Veneration of the martyrs can be traced back to the second century, but by the fourth there was already in place a calendar of saints’ feast days which honored their dies natalis (literally a birth day, which was the day of their death), liturgical ceremonies, pilgrimages to their burial places and traditions seeking their intercession. It is worthwhile to remember that well into the Middle Ages, the most important honor enjoyed by the popes was in their role as protector and custodian of the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul.
The naming of the saints in the eucharistic liturgy is not a historical adornment but a theological claimnamely, that the veneration of the saints included those who are not known by name but who sleep in Christ. The tradition reflects the full sense of the church as a living reality beyond the merely sociological and contemporary.
At the end of the Roman persecutions in the early fourth century, the instinct for venerating the saints did not end. The ascetics, monks, great pastoral bishops, holy women and men were honored for their outstanding imitation of Christ and as those who provided the church with new models of holiness. St. Athanasius, in his famous book on the monk Antony, caught the continuity between the old and the new well when he observed that Antony was a martyr every day of his life. Such outstanding figures were honored in their lifetime and venerated after their death.
In pre-modern cultures the space between our world and that of the spiritual was extremely porous. Saints were considered to be not only great figures of the faith but also ready aides before the throne of God and powerful conduits of grace, healing and help. Their relics were loci of power. Their shrines and churches were awesome centers of prayer and a place where miracles not only happened but were expected. Pilgrimage to their shrines was a common part of medieval culture and a frequent metaphor for the Christian life itself. Both Dante and Chaucer, in their respective masterworks, set their stories within the language of pilgrimage.
North America, a land of immigrants, reflects in its church life the ancient popular heritage of honoring the saints whose memory has been kept alive as peoples crossed the ocean to this country. In the medium-sized, blue-collar town where I live, this memory is clear, with parishes reflecting the ethnic background of their congregations: for example, St. Patrick (Irish), St. Stephen (Hungarian), St. Adalbert (Polish), St. Augustine (African American) and St. Bavo (Belgian).
This popular tradition of honoring the saints was very much a part of my own upbringing. The nuns in our parochial school told us the stories of the saints that are still part of my memory. We had discussions about what patronal saint’s name we would choose for confirmation. We celebrated the feasts of St. Patrick and St. Joseph in the local parish church. We had our throats blessed on St. Blaise’s day. The side altars of our parish church had candles burning before the statues of St. Anthony (patron of lost things), St. Jude (patron of hopeless cases) and the Little Flower, whose fame was widespread. Each week some men of the parish would meet under the patronage of St. Vincent de Paul to plan their work for the poor of the parish. Altar boys learned of St. Tarcisius; and the priests, always eager to foster vocations, would tell stories of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests. I knew from a young age that St. Lawrence, the saint for whom I was named, was burned on a griddle by the Romans. Every automobile we owned had a St. Christopher’s medal on the dashboard.
The stories we read or heard were reinforced by a strong visual culture: we saw the saints. We had holy cards with pictures of the saints to be tucked into our missals. The stained glass windows taught us a saintly vocabulary: Sebastian with his arrow-studded body; Catherine with her wheel; Barbara, her tower; the Little Flower with her shower of rose petals; Francis showing the wounds in his hands; Peter with his keys and Paul his sword. Our classroom bulletin boards never lacked a saint’s saying and a picture.
What is interesting about the contemporary church in which we live is that the kinds of saints we are interested in are not always those who are canonized. Countless are the works of mercy put under the patronage of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day. Innumerable are the young people who are inspired to work with the poor because of Oscar Romero or the martyred women and men in Latin America. Many are those who seek a deeper life of prayer because of the writings of Thomas Merton.
With the search for saintly models for our timea search amply aided by the papal interest in saintscomes a new vocabulary and a new iconography. The ancient martyrs died because of hatred for the faith; many of today’s martyrs die because of a hatred for love and charity. We live in an odd age, when people who claim to be Christians by heritage mercilessly persecute other Christians out of hatred for their social ideas and activities. More than likely, every one of the trigger men who in 1989 shot the Salvadoran Jesuits and their companions was a baptized Catholic. The old iconography of martyrdom featured lions, the executioner’s axe or the burning pyre. Today’s iconography must show the gas chamber, the bullet in the back of the head and the torturer’s electrodes. The vocabulary and the iconography change but the story of martyrdom remains the same.
It is difficult to generalize about how contemporary Catholics view the saints. Many still invoke them for help, as the lines of international visitors who line up to pray before the altar of Blessed John XXIII in St. Peter’s Basilica attest. Others, perhaps the majority, seek in our saints models of how to be a Christian in this age. Pope John Paul II frequently alludes to the martyrs in his writings for the simple reason that those witnesses show there are some things so valuable and true that it is a worthy thing to say so with one’s life. The tradition of the saints is a long meditation (a kind of existential exegesis) on the word of God. It was the late Karl Rahner, S.J., who wrote that the saint is the person who shows us that in this particular way it is possible to be a Christian.
Finally, I come back to the liturgy. The invocation of the saints in our common worship reminds us of the capacious character of the church which, as the patristic tradition loves to say, reaches back into the just men and women of the Old Testament, continues through the Christian tradition, and includes us in this day and age. The church is one vast ekklesia of the living and the dead mutually supporting each other by our common prayer to the Father with Christ in the Spirit. In that great democracy the saints we call by name and those unnamed whom we remember are not figures frozen in glass or carved from stone but brothers and sisters. Not to understand that is to live with an emaciated and impoverished understanding of the church.
The liturgical honor paid to the saints has a strong eschatological edge to it. We hope to be what they are: those who now see the face of God. Under that umbrella of God’s presence are not only those who are named in the canon of those officially recognized by the church but all those who sleep in Christ. To honor the saints is to honor all those of our own families who are with the Lord. It is also a yearning that we too will be with them when we die, as we are imperfectly with them as we keep their memories alive. In the reading in the Liturgy of the Hours for the feast of All Saints, St. Bernard of Clairvaux makes that point explicitly. Here is what he says to his 12th-century monastic audience: We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of the patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of the apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors, and the choir of virgins. In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints.