All Saints Day
All Hallows’ Day sees us celebrate the memory of the holy ones in heaven with God. The three pathways to being declared a saint are heroic virtue, mysticism and martyrdom. In the last category there are four subdivisions: white martyrdom, where you are persecuted for the faith, but never shed blood; green martyrdom, where you do extreme penance and fasting for the love of God; red martyrdom, where you are killed for the faith; and the most recent category, introduced in 2017 by Pope Francis, a martyr of charity, where you die as a result of putting yourself at risk in the service of others.
The first people honoured as Saints by the earliest Christians were martyrs. The word “martyr” comes from the word “witness”. In fact, All Saints’ Day, celebrated throughout the Church on 1 November, has its roots in the early Church’s Martyrs’ Day, attested to by a hymn written in 359 by St Ephraim. The name was changed to All Saints’ Day in the seventh century.
Our Christian foremothers and forefathers counted themselves blessed to suffer and die as Jesus suffered and died. Indeed, the requirement that a child being baptised must have godparents comes from the time of Christian persecution. Those who had left their Jewish or Gentile families to join the Christian community knew they might be martyred for their faith; to ensure their children would not be returned to their non-Christian extended families they would ask other Christians in God’s name to swear they would take them into their homes and raise them as their own in the event of their deaths. A godparent was honoured to raise the children of those persecuted for the kingdom of heaven.
Prophets and martyrs are often linked. They are put to death because they cannot live any other way. Such is the liberty of spirit, thirst for justice and witness to truth they embody, they threaten the social and religious leaders of their time and place so much that they have to be silenced.
The glorification of suffering and martyrdom can attract fanatics. As uncomfortable as it is for Christians to admit, some of our martyrs did not die with the healthiest of religious motivations. We only have to read their letters to discover that some actively went looking for death: longing and praying that “the crown of martyrdom” would be granted to them. Paradise awaited. There is an important distinction between being killed as a result of one’s faith and zealously seeking to die; between being martyred and being on a suicide mission.
A saint is someone who the Church believes is in heaven with God. When we declare that someone has been “canonised” (in Latin: canonizare: “admit to the authoritative list”) we are saying that because of the way they lived their Christian lives God could not deny them heaven, so they have to be added to the roster of recognized saints. Wrongly, we often think Saints are perfect, but in fact their greatest witness is how they coped with the difficulties of life and how they reflected in a variety of ways the love of God.
We hallow what God has done through them because we hope to join them. St Paul thought saints were everywhere. I think he was right, canonised or otherwise. For most of us, sanctity and martyrdom will not come in dramatic ways. The daily routine of looking after a sick child or spouse or elderly parent, or of living with a mental, physical, emotional or spiritual illness, or bearing the scourge of being unemployed, homeless or addicted, or being unable to shake off the feeling that we are unlovable: they all bring with them the reality of sharing in the lot of the martyrs and the saints.
This is the holy cloud of witnesses who saw God in this world and are now fully alive to him in the next, cheering us on in this life and all the way to the next.
Richard Leonard SJ is the author of The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom (Paulist Press).