I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues. —Revelation 7:9
God calls every person to be a saint. Sanctity—which means thinking, loving, and living like Jesus—is not an optional goal meant only for a select few. The Solemnity of All Saints, celebrated on November 1, reminds us of our glorious calling in Christ.
The Church recalls for us on this day that the saints are not limited to those now bearing the title “saint” by us on earth. To be sure, Saint Peter, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and Saint Francis of Assisi are truly, definitely, saints, as their official canonization by the Church attests. But so too are those among the “great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues” (Revelation 7:9; first reading from Mass). That is, all in heaven are saints, regardless of whether they are officially recognized as such by the Church. The Preface of the Mass of the day suggests the same: “[T]oday by your gift we celebrate the festival of your city, the heavenly Jerusalem, our mother, where the great array of our brothers and sisters already gives you eternal praise.” The price of heavenly citizenship is sanctity.
This insight—that only saints live in heaven—might give us pause. Anyone reading this entry is hopefully planning on reaching heaven. If we follow the Church’s teaching, attend Mass each Sunday and pray regularly, and practice charity, our chances are good for heavenly admittance—and we should believe this. But how many of us hopeful for heaven are also aiming to become saints? If we think that heaven is possible without being a saint—that is, without being holy—then we are not thinking with the mind of the Church.
A key lesson of the Solemnity of All Saints, then, teaches us to desire sanctity above all else while we work toward our heavenly home. We should think of the Solemnity of All Saints as our own future feast day. St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) speaks in the Office of Readings for the Solemnity of how its observance inflames him with a “tremendous yearning” to be with the saints and “share in the citizenship of heaven.” We might feel the same—at least for a time. “But our dispositions change,” he admits. “The Church of all the first followers of Christ awaits us, but we do nothing about it. The saints want us to be with them, and we are indifferent. The souls of the just await us, and we ignore them.” So, if simply seeking sanctity from time to time is insufficient, what should we do? If we wish to be with the saints, we must know what they did to become saints, and then ask ourselves how to follow their example.
The common denominator among the saints is their likeness to Christ. Indeed, in the beginning, God created us in his image and likeness (see Genesis 1:26). Subsequent sin disfigured us, and personal sin continues to do so. Christ comes not only as a model for us but also sends his Spirit and his grace to work a wonderful transformation that reshapes us in his image. Every saint is a unique personality, but every saint has also become a living, breathing reflection of Jesus. St. John tells us in the second reading from the Mass for All Saints that “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). By keeping Christ before our eyes, and aided by his grace, “we shall be like him” as saints.
But it is also important to understand why the Church recognizes a hierarchy among the saints. The greatest saints are the martyrs, for they are like Christ not only in their lives but also in their deaths. After the first Christian centuries, the Church saw a pause in the Roman persecution of her members. As a result, the faithful less frequently saw martyrdom as a way to conform themselves to Christ in both life and death, and they turned to other means of sanctity, especially an asceticism which highlighted death to self and to the world. Those who lived such a life and died a natural death were likewise venerated as saints. St. Anthony of the Desert (251-356) and St. Martin of Tours (316-397) are among the most renowned among these kinds of saints.
The first reading from the Mass emphasizes the saints’ imitation of Christ not only in life but in death. Those who surround the throne of God, it says, “are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). In the early centuries in Rome, in fact, the celebration of the collective body of saints and martyrs was observed in the springtime of the year, closer to the Paschal Mystery of Jesus, and many Eastern Churches continue to commemorate the martyrs around the time that the Church celebrates Christ’s death and resurrection.
While God may not be calling each of us to be martyrs, all Catholics are washed in the blood of the Lamb—first in baptism, then in the Eucharist. As we should expect, there is an intimate connection between the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Eucharist, and sanctity. Traditionally, for example, each church altar contained the relic of a martyr (although relics of saints who were not martyred are now permissible). It is the martyrs, however, who most clearly connect sanctity with the Eucharist. For like the martyrs, the Eucharistic bread and wine manifest the dying and rising of Christ before our eyes. Ultimately, the best way to participate in the life and death of Christ, achieve sanctity, and appreciate those we remember on the Solemnity of All Saints is to become martyrs; the second-best way is to receive the Eucharist worthily.
“Let us all rejoice in the Lord,” the Mass’s Entrance Antiphon announces, “as we celebrate the feast day in honor of all the Saints, at whose festival the Angels rejoice and praise the Son of God.” Truly, the Solemnity of All Saints is a joyful day: a day to rejoice in the salvation won by Christ; a day to rejoice in those who have lived holy lives; a day to rejoice in our own call to sanctity.
The above entry appears in Ascension’s book Solemnities: Celebrating a Tapestry of Divine Beauty, by Christopher Carstens, Denis McNamara, and Alexis Kutarna. Featuring each of the 17 annual solemnities, Solemnities: Celebrating a Tapestry of Divine Beauty examines the theological, spiritual, and liturgical foundations for each celebration; explains the beauty of the solemnity by a commentary on artistic illustration of the celebration; and offers ideas for living the solemnity in one’s daily life. Solemnities: Celebrating a Tapestry of Divine Beauty was awarded Second Place in the “Pastoral Ministry—Parish Life” category by the Catholic Media Association in 2023. See more about the book at Solemnities: Celebrating a Tapestry of Divine Beauty
Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and children.
Image Source: AB/WikiArt. Enthronement of the Virgin or, The Trinity in its Glory, c.1445, by Jean Fouquet