Ordinary of the Mass
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In the very early days of the Church, the only saints that were venerated were the martyrs—those who had given their lives because of their Faith. There was no procedure for canonization as we know it today—there was no need for canonization because the early Christians actually saw their saints die for Jesus Christ—the martyrs were quite clearly in heaven with their Lord.
And the practice of praying to the saints developed rather spontaneously. The saints had died in God's grace; had died because of their belief in Him; had died for His greater glory. They were men and women just as we are, but clearly they were also God's friends. They were eminently placed to take the prayers of men and place them before God. The living called upon their saints to expedite their prayers, just as they would call upon a friend for help who happened to have the “right connections” in business, or government, or social situations.
Over the years, the Church recognized that there were other people in heaven with God, even though they had not suffered death for the Faith. Certainly among the saints was the Blessed Virgin. And there were others who lived notably holy lives: St. John the Apostle for example, who did not die the martyr's death, but who had persevered in great holiness throughout his life. So along with the martyrs, the Church began to recognize the sanctity of other holy people—priests and laymen, virgins and holy women—people who had done great things to spread the Faith and people who had devoted themselves to the quiet life of prayer and fasting. Such holy people were recognized as saints either because they had performed miracles in their life time, or were able to work them after their death. Even today, we recognize that miracles do happen, and often they are the result of prayer to those who are close to God. The Church investigates such things quite carefully, and makes great deliberation before pronouncing the miracles genuine, and declaring that another saint is in heaven.
While only God is deserving of worship, it is quite fitting that we honor those who found a place in His heavenly court. So the idea of honoring the saints for their achievements arose over the years—today, on almost any day of the week, Holy Mass is offered in honor of one or another of the saints.
But, of course, there are only 365 days in a year, so there is no way that we can remember all of the saints with their own feast day. And even if we could, it should be obvious that there are many more saints in heaven than just those who have been specifically singled out by the Church because of their holy lives or great miracles. In addition to the confessors and the bishops and the virgins and the martyrs, heaven is peopled with housewives and "butchers and bakers and candle stick makers." The vast majority of the saints are known only to God Himself, and there names are not written down in the martyrologies and missals of the Church on earth.
Yet, this Church on earth—what we call the “Church Militant”—feels a duty to honor the entirety of the “Church Triumphant”—and it sees a very great benefit in placing our prayers and earthly concerns before all of God's friends in heaven. To that end we have this feast of All Saints—so that no one of God's holy people in heaven is left without the praise of His people on earth.
Now, we should recognize that the saints do something else for use, beside carrying our prayers to the throne of God. They are a source of great moral strength for the people on earth by virtue of their good example. There are no stories of fiction that are more thrilling and more heroic and more beautiful than the lives of the Saints. They provide role models for people in every walk of life: the active and the contemplative, for religious and for laypeople, for scholars and for laborers, for men and women and children old and young.
The saints are not just the people of the Bible or the martyrs who shed their blood; they don't all work miracles or glide across the floor levitating a few inches above the ground. Perhaps the most important thing that this feast does every year is to remind us that it should be our goal in life to be saints ourselves. That's why God created us, you know: “to show forth His goodness in this world, and to share everlasting happiness with Him in the next.” It is the normal and natural design of God for each and every one of us—not just for an exclusive few. The alternative, damnation, was intended for the angels who rejected God and fell from grace. There is no middle ground!
So today, we honor all the saints, and we turn our thoughts to their good examples, so that some day we may join them in the company of God and His angels: “a great multitude which no man can number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues....”