I have spent the past few days in Rome attending meetings at the Vatican. The city of Rome is a city of Saints and Martyrs of the Church. One cannot walk far before encountering the statues, shrines, relics, churches, stories of the Saints and Blesseds who are such important bearers and role models of our Catholic Tradition. The Roman Catholic Church commemorates the Feast of All Saints this Friday, November 1.
The earliest certain observance of a feast in honor of all the saints is an early fourth-century commemoration of “all the martyrs.” In the early seventh century, after successive waves of invaders plundered the catacombs, Pope Boniface IV gathered up some 28 wagonloads of bones and reinterred them beneath the Pantheon, a Roman temple dedicated to all the gods. The pope rededicated the shrine as a Christian church.
According to the great historian, the Venerable Bede, the Pope intended “that the memory of all the saints might in the future be honored in the place which had formerly been dedicated to the worship not of gods but of demons” (On the Calculation of Time). But the rededication of the Pantheon, like the earlier commemoration of all the martyrs, occurred in May. Many Eastern Churches still honor all the saints in the spring, either during the Easter season or immediately after Pentecost. The Anglo-Saxon theologian Alcuin observed the feast on November 1 in 800, as did his friend Arno, Bishop of Salzburg. Rome finally adopted that date in the ninth century.
Surrounded by such a Cloud of Witnesses
The month of November is the month of the Saints. November 1 heralds a time of serious reflection and prayer with the Saints and Blesseds of our Catholic tradition.
It is also a good opportunity for us to take stock of the way that Pope John Paul II changed our way of viewing the Saints and Blesseds. The very way of “reading” saints has changed. In only 26 years of pontificate, John Paul II gave the Church more than 1,338 Blesseds and 482 Saints. They are travel companions, in joy and suffering. They are men and women who wrote a new page in their lives and in the lives of so many people. This was precisely the Pope’s message: Holiness is not a gift reserved for a few. We can all aspire to it, because it is a goal within our capacity — a great lesson reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council and its call to universal call to holiness (Lumen Gentium).
Is it possible to sketch a model of holiness à la John Paul II? It is a holiness lived day in, day out. A saint is an authentic, concrete person, as John Paul II has told us over and over again. That person’s testimony of life attracts, teaches and draws, because it manifests a transparent human experience, full of the presence of Christ. For the Polish Pontiff, the call to holiness excludes no one; it is not the privilege of a spiritual elite.
The real “stars” of John Paul II’s Pontificate were the saints and blesseds who did not try to be regarded as heroes, or to shock or provoke. A saint is an ordinary person, a doctor, a university student, a nun who was a former slave, a priest who endured the Soviet gulags, a married couple, a catechist, a young mountain climber. Friends.
The world needs credible witnesses more than teachers. With his decision to proclaim so many Blesseds and Saints, John Paul II has wished to propose figures capable of accompanying us along our journey.
Karol Wojtyla himself was an extraordinary witness who, through his heroic efforts and especially his suffering, communicated the powerful message of the Gospel to the men and women of our day. A great part of the success of his message is due to the fact that he was surrounded by a tremendous cloud of witnesses who stood by him and strengthened him. He introduced us to his many friends who form that cloud of witnesses: they are none other than the Blesseds and the Saints.
Father Thomas M. Rosica, CSB, is the Chief Executive Officer of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation. He assists Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi.