If you should make a list of all the saints and blesseds whom this column has introduced you to over the past few years, you would probably note that:
- A very large percentage of the formally beatified and canonized have belonged to religious orders.
- A very large number have been bishops.
- There have been more men than women.
- Lay saints among the non-martyrs have been relatively few.
Some explanation can be offered for these percentages.
- Religious orders interested in promoting the canonization of their own members have in their own communities the means and a natural agency to broadcast knowledge of their holy ones and stimulate devotion to them; and canonization requires an organized campaign.
- Bishops are leaders, and as such are usually better known than even their holiest priests.
- Women saints are normally nuns, honored, of course, within convent walls, but not widely known outside them. Publicizing their virtues is thus a preliminary necessity. (Witness St. Therese of Lisieux, for example.) But men are more likely to have faced the public and won recognition by public good deeds.
- Lay saints have been less frequently beatified or canonized simply because, unless they are martyrs, they are less known than nuns, than men, than bishops, than members of religious orders.
You may notice, however, that the Church of late is trying to achieve a greater balance in accepting the causes of people of more diversified background. Today when Pope John Paul II visits some remote country, he may there bestow the title “blessed” or “saint” upon a holy person of that land. Also, a lay Native American, Kateri Tekakwitha, has been beatified; and a lay professor of law, Contardo Ferrini. This fact encourages bishops today to propose for sainthood diocesan priests like Msgr. Nelson Baker of Buffalo; reformed alcoholic laymen like Matt Talbot of Dublin; and liberated black slaves like Pierre Toussaint of New York.
Of course, beatification and canonization are only certifications of the holiness of a few of the saints. The vast majority of God’s saints in heaven will never be canonized because the Church on earth has insufficient evidence on which to base the certification. There are hosts of our own friends and kinsmen who are with God; and that is the basic definition of “saint”. Father Jean-Jacques Olier, founder of the Sulpician Fathers, even ventured the opinion that “All Saints Day”, which celebrated all holy human beings in heaven, canonized or not, is perhaps even greater than the feast of Easter since it honors God as perfectly united to his own human “members”. Through His Holy Spirit dwelling in them, those about His throne become his radiance.
In early Eastern Christianity, there were already liturgical feasts in honor of “all martyrs” by the fourth and fifth centuries. In the West, a feast of All Saints was observed by the ninth century and it was already set on November 1. In England, “All Saints” was called “All Hallows”. The vigil before, consequently, was called “Hallow Even”, or “Hallowe’en”. The liturgical vigil was abolished in 1955.
Remember, then, not only to pray on each All Souls Day for the souls in purgatory of relatives and friends, but also to address your prayers on All Saints’ Day to your own saints, the baptized infants of your own families and acquaintances, and all your friends in heaven. Without telling you, of course, God has already swept hundreds of these up to Himself to share with them the eternal glory that He has promised to all the faithful. They will hear you in Him.
–Father Robert F. McNamara