Today is an awesome day for several reasons. As a child I always loved the day after Halloween — November 1st — because that meant that my birthday was exactly two-weeks away. For the last ten years or so, that hasn’t been all that important (although I do still like the month of November — I’m a Fall Season sort of person). The other reason today is awesome is the Solemnity that we celebrate in the Church calendar — the Feast of All Saints.

I am of two minds about the way that the Church separates today’s celebration and tomorrow’s — All Souls — because I am a firm believer that, following the language of St. Paul, we are all saints in communion with one another through Baptism into the Church, which is the Body of Christ. Today seems, on one hand, to be a little too ‘exclusive’ because it recognizes those who are officially listed in the canon of saints. Yet, on the other hand, there is something about collectively holding up the models of Christian living the saints we recognize as models of Christian living. St. Bernard of Clairvaux highlights the value of this example and inspiration the saints provide in his Sermon 2:

Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself. We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to swell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors and the choir of virgins. In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints. But, our dispositions change. The Church of all the first followers of Chris 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.

It was in talking with one of my professors at the Washington Theological Union not too long ago that the idea that twofold understanding of the saints’ relationship to us outlined by Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ — namely, as both patrons and companions — can help make sense of the All Saints/All Souls split. All Saints is the celebration of the Communion of Saints in terms of the patronage model, while All Souls is the Church’s recognition of the companionship model. I’m not sure if I entirely buy the split, preference always seems to go to the canonized saints over the anonymous or lesser-known companions in Christ.

In her essay, “A Community of Holy People in a Sacred World: Rethinking the Communion of Saints,” (New Theology Review 12 [1999] 5-16), Johnson encourages us not to focus so much on the patronage model that has become the de facto mode of approaching the Communion of Saints, but to remember that the Communion of Saints is far richer and broader than those canonized. “The point is that corporately, inclusively, without discrimination, the whole living Church is a communion of saints” (6).

It seems, following the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, Johnson — who wrote Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints –supports my reluctance to embrace the demarcation of All Saints and All Souls:

The Church is not divided into saints and non-saints. Vivified by grace, every woman, man, and child, in whatever diverse circumstances and of whatever race, class, ethnicity, sexual persuasion, or other marker that at once identifies and divides human beings, participates in God’s holy life… the holiness of ordinary persons in the midst of ordinary time needs to be ever more strongly underscored if people are not to be robbed of their heritage and their true identity (7).

The Jesuit author James Martin, SJ, who wrote the hugely popular My Life with the Saints (Loyola Press, 2006) — still one of the books I most often recommend to people — recently wrote a piece in America Magazine about the importance of emphasizing both patron and companion models of the saints in a healthy tension, rather than swinging to one extreme or the other.

When it comes to devotion to the saints one must hold in tension their dual roles as patron and companion. An overemphasis on one destroys the saint’s humanity, renders their earthly lives almost meaningless and negates their roles as models, examples and companions as Christian disciples. An overemphasis on the other makes their new lives in heaven meaningless, renders the tradition of intercession irrelevant and negates their current place in the communion of saints.

However we strive to hold the tension between patron and companion in our image of saints, we should always remember that we are each intimately part of the Body of Christ, connected to one another beyond space, time and all things that would otherwise separate us in our world. It’s nice to know that we walk with companions who are also friends of God and prophets, as we work to be the same for others. Likewise, when we pray Ora pro nobis, we should remember that we can similarly offer our prayers for others.

Happy feast day!

Photo: Ira Thomas

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