The Feast of All Saints, which we celebrate every November 1st, is generally a time when most people pause to recall their favorite canonical saint: St. Francis, St. Ignatius, St. Dominic, Bl. Mother Teresa, and so on. Yet, what is often overlooked on this day is the degree to which we focus our attention a little too pointedly at those whom we place on a pedestal (not that doing so is a bad thing — we all need models, guides, and intercessors) and aver our gaze at those “saints” in our everyday lives. Instead of seeing the Feast of All Saints and the Feast of All Souls (celebrated on November 2nd) as two distinct celebrations, I suggest that we look at both as two sides of the same coin. This is the coin of the communion of saints, which includes all the baptized living, dead, and those who will come. In this sense, to talk about the communion of saints is to, yes, talk about those who we might describe as saints with a capital “S” (the “official” or “canonical” Saints). But it also includes those who are not so venerated, even those who might not be all that venerable. It also includes you and me.
The theologian Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, of Fordham University, in her excellent book Friends of God and Prophets (Continuum 1999), makes the all-too-sad and all-too-true observation that “the communion of saints is one of the least developed symbols in the history of theological explanation.” The reason why we probably don’t think of the “saints of our everyday lives” alongside the big “S” saints, is precisely for this reason. We don’t have a very good or developed notion of sainthood nor of the communion of saints.
Johnson offers a rather beautiful overview of what the communion of saints means in the Christian tradition that we might find helpful on this day when we pause to remember All the saints — those canonized and, I would suggest, also those who are not.
The communion of saints is a Christian symbol that speaks of profound relationship. In traditional usage it points to an ongoing connection between the living and the dead, implying that the dead have found new life thanks to the merciful power of God. It also posits a bond of companionship among living persons themselves who, though widely separated geographically, form one church community. Since the range of those who seek God is as broad as the human race itself, it furthermore affirms a link between all who have been brushed with the fire of divine love and witness to this in their lives.
We are also the saints, the ones baptized into a special relationship to one another in Christ, that are to be recalled today (and, really, everyday). But we don’t recall ourselves as members of the communion of saints in some self-centered or egocentric way. Instead, our recollection is one of communion, of relationship, of connection, and of companionship.
We don’t go about life alone and isolated, removed from fears and hopes, the joys and sorrows of our fellow women and men. We are called to return to our baptismal and fundamentally human roots, and recall that we are sisters and brother to one another.
The communion of saints includes those great models of Christian living that have gone before us and that are celebrated by the universal church. But the communion of saints also includes all the nameless women and men who have lived their lives without acclaim or notice, who were mothers and fathers, teachers and laborers, children and the like. We have a lot about which to reflect on this solemnity, the Feast of All Saints. While we pause and recall the litany of the big “S” saints, let us also remember ourselves, our family, our friends, and all those whom we might never meet and know.
As the Second Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium, a line that is repeated in the new translation of Eucharistic Prayer III, reminds us, “All the faithful, scattered though they be throughout the world, are in communion with each other in the Holy Spirit” (no. 13). May we celebrate that truth today and live as the members of the communion of saints that we are.