Saints have long been a favorite subject of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. At a requiem Mass for the then recently deceased Pope John Paul I, Cardinal Ratzinger said: “The saints are the columns of light who show us the way, transforming it into the path of salvation while we pass through the darkness of earth.” In 1985 he told an interviewer: “The only really effective case for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced, and the art which has grown in her womb.” And as pope he told the Roman curia in December 2007: “Each saint who enters into history represents a small portion of Christ’s return, a renewal of His entrance into time, showing us His image in a new light and assuring us of His presence.”
“How many saints are there?” I get that question often. “God alone knows,” I respond. “That’s why we celebrate All Saints’ Day.” Its popularity reflects the awareness of the People of God that those officially declared saints are only the tip of the iceberg – or as they say in Africa, the ears of the hippopotamus.
I have been researching the lives of the saints for a series of 21 talks soon to be available as a recorded book from Now You Know Media. Such reading is wonderfully uplifting, and deeply moving. Because my mother died when I was only six, the unseen spiritual world – the world of God, the angels, the saints, and of our beloved dead – has always been real to me. I know people who are there: my dear mother first, and now so many other loved ones. Reading about the saints, and writing their stories, deepened my knowledge of that unseen but real world, and of the people in it.
If the saints have one thing in common, it is simply this: they were all, in their own way, in love with God. That is what the Lord wants for every one of us. Is that possible? Is it even realistic? It would be neither, but for one thing. The One Who calls each one of us to love Him with heart, soul, and mind, is already in love with us – passionately, madly, with a totality and intensity that makes the greatest human love seem in comparison like a child’s infatuation.
The saints are not remote figures in some stained glass window. They are real people of flesh and blood. They are our sisters and brothers in the great family of God, into which we were born in Baptism. That is why we pray to them: not as we pray to God, of course, but asking them to pray for us. What could be more natural, what more fitting? God never intended us to be lone rangers. He wants us to support each other. One way we do that is by praying for one another. Priests receive such requests for prayer all the time. “Father, please pray for my little granddaughter,” a parishioner said to me only last Sunday. “She is having a difficult operation to preserve her failing eyesight. If it fails, there is nothing more they can do.”
If it is right, and natural, to ask our friends here on earth to pray for us, how much more fitting to ask the prayers of our heavenly friends, the saints? Being close to God, their prayers are especially powerful.
When we walk through dark valleys, and clouds seem to shut out the sunshine of God’s love, the saints walk with us. When we rejoice at some answered prayer, some great achievement, some unexpected blessing, the saints rejoice with us. When we stumble and fall, and think we can’t get up again, because we’ve been down so often before, the saints are praying for us – starting with Peter, who understands because of his own humiliating fall. When we come to walk the last stretch of life’s road, which each of us must walk alone, we’ll find that we are not alone. The saints will be with us, starting with Mary, the Mother of the Lord, to whom we have so often addressed the request: “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
Hebrews 11 contains sketches of the Old Testament saints: Abraham, who at God’s call, left his homeland and all security and went forth “not knowing where he was going” – but trusting that God knew; Moses, “who endured as seeing him who is invisible” – and many others besides. The opening verses of the following chapter (12) portray these heroes of faith as spectators in an arena, cheering on us who are running the race for which we were entered at baptism, and which they have already completed. The words thrilled me when I first discovered them as a young teenager. They thrill me still.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings to closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (RSV)
John Jay Hughes is a priest of the St. Louis archdiocese and the author, most recently, of the memoir: No Ordinary Fool: A Testimony to Grace (Tate Publishing).
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