Are all saints Catholic — or even Christian?
Saints come from every nation, race, people and tongue. They are who we are — children of God
Q. It seems to me that some of the “All Saints” whom we celebrate on Nov. 1 are not necessarily Catholics or even Christians. Am I correct?
A. When I was a child, way back in the middle of the last millennium, I attended Ascension School in north Minneapolis. Every year, right before Halloween, I and my fellow students would walk several blocks to get a free pumpkin from Joe Greenstein, the “pumpkin man.” He was also our alderman, but at the time, I really didn’t know what that involved.
His gift of a free pumpkin endeared him to us youngsters, and maybe to our parents as they remembered his generosity at election time — I don’t know. Did I mention that Joe Greenstein was Jewish?
We knew that he didn’t belong to our church, but somehow we knew that he was a good man. It was unusual to meet Jewish people, but they lived not so far from Ascension Church and School in those years.
“St. John tells us that we must recognize who the saints are
and who we are: children of God, all of us.”
— Father Michael Kwatera
The memory of Joe Greenstein’s yearly gift to us kids reminds me of something that we Christians would do well to remember: Among the saints, all the saints whom we honor on Nov. 1, are some who were not Christians. Among God’s holy ones of all times and places are many who never heard of Jesus Christ, but somehow, mysteriously, were saved by his death and resurrection, just as we are.
Their “baptism” may have been what Catholic theologians have called the “baptism of desire,” a desire deep within us for holiness and goodness and salvation. Maybe this is at the heart of Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous chorale, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” of humanity’s desiring. Notice that it’s not “Jesu, Joy of Christians’ Desiring.”
God’s great homecoming, which All Saints’ Day anticipates, will include people of all colors and creeds and nationalities. It is a great panorama of holy ones that is spread out before us.
All year long the church has honored one saint after another in its liturgical calendar. She has held up for admiration and imitation the lives of certain of her members, those who have exemplified what it means to be Christ-like. These saints, our patrons, the holy men, women and children who have gone before us in faith, are brought back to our memories to make their lives real for us.
Our journey to God is sometimes a difficult one, especially when we think we are traveling alone. The solemnity of All Saints reminds us that in the “communion of saints,” we are never alone — that all the saints, those who are canonized and those who are special to us alone, like Aunt Sophie or Cousin Brian or our friend Marilyn, are with us to help us, to intercede for us, and to help us understand what is happening in our lives of discipleship. They allowed the will of God to be done in their lives. They will help us to do the same if we call upon them.
Recognizing the holy
In order not to miss anyone whom God has honored, the church celebrates a solemnity in recognition of all the holy ones of God.
The book of Revelation tells us that these saints are an innumerable crowd; that they come from every nation, race, people and tongue; that they all shout the same anthem: “Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10).
But such a view of the Last Days always makes us reflect on our present day. Who are we today who will make up that grand scene tomorrow? We are American and Chinese, Russian, Afghan, African and Asian — all who are Christ’s.
And what are we, that crowd of the future, doing now in our present day? Engaging in mutual exploitation and destruction of the one planet that is our home? Failing to respect those who have received the same baptism as we have?
Can we, those baptized in Jesus Christ, be doing this to each other? How will we sing “Alleluia” together with that great crowd of saints?
Will we love each other to life then who distrust each other to death now — Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Muslims, Jews and Palestinians?
St. John tells us that we must recognize who the saints are and who we are: children of God, all of us. Our model is Jesus, the son of God who tells us who is blessed, namely, those who, like him, are poor in spirit, just, generous, compassionate, peacemakers — not later, but now.
We are to be now the saints we hope to be then. If we of every nation and people and tongue are to sing “Alleluia” then, we must do so now — not just with our lips, but with our lives that are shaped by the Beatitudes. There’s no better place than here, there’s no better time than now, to do so.
Around the eucharistic table, we who are called to be saints now join the saintly host of heaven now. Let us not celebrate with them only, however. Let us unite with all who gather in faith around the tables of this world — in the Middle East, in Ukraine, in Africa, in Latin America, close to home and far away. Let us sing now what we hope to sing forever: “Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb. Alleluia!”