In the world of sports this past week, baseball fans were treated to the Fall Classic known as the World Series. I hope your chosen team won! As in other major sports, the quest for a championship is the ultimate sign of success for a team in any given sport. Even if the winner didn’t have the perfect season record, they are recognized as the best team because of their triumph when the stakes are the highest.
As far as individual success goes, the ultimate honor for an athlete is to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, a distinction which recognizes a career marked by excellence and achievement. Being inducted is an opportunity for the individual to celebrate, and to provide an opportunity for family, friends, and fans to join in that celebration.
This past week, the Church turned her attention to her own version of the Hall of Fame, as we celebrated the Solemnity of All Saints. We recognize all of those members of the Body of Christ who have entered into that place of great honor in the glory of Heaven. The concept of the Hall of Fame offers parallels that can help us to see the significance of the Feast honoring all the saints in the life of the Church. At the same time, there are differences which highlight the unique nature of this concept known as the Communion of the Saints.
The saints who are in Heaven are those who have excelled in their career as disciples of Jesus Christ. They are those who have used the gifts given to them for the benefit of the Church and the world, just as the skill of athletes benefit the teams of which they are a member. As with the Hall of Fame, there is a process involved in recognizing certain individuals for their heroic virtue and witness to the faith. The Church’s recognition, similar in a way to a Hall of Fame induction, takes place at the canonization, during which the Church confirms that the saint is indeed in Heaven. These celebrations are a cause for great rejoicing for the entire Church, and they often draw tens of thousands of the faithful who join in that celebration.
Even though there is a formal process for recognizing that a saint is truly in Heaven, the process is not like the Hall of Fame where the person is voted in by a committee. It is Christ, and He alone, who elects to welcome one of His servants to be in Heaven with Him. As a result, there are saints in Heaven of whom we are unaware. In the vision of Heaven recorded by St. John, he speaks of a “great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue” (Rev. 7:9). Those saints whom the Church has recognized formally are but a part of those who have been elected by Christ to share in the victory of eternal life in Heaven.
This is at the heart of our celebration of All Saints Day. We give honor to all of the saints whom God has admitted, in His great generosity, to stand “before the throne and before the Lamb” in glory. It gives us great hope that it is God and not man who will be our judge, for His great love and mercy far exceed that which our humanity, wounded by Original Sin, could ever express. To those who submit themselves to His mercy and don’t reject His offer for eternal life, the Lord, is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in mercy” (Ps.145:8).
There is another difference that exists in the analogy of the Hall of Fame and Heaven. The Hall of Fame is limited in whom it would consider for acceptance. For example, children aren’t really candidates for many versions of the Hall of Fame, usually because they haven’t developed the skills or had the experience to make a significant impact. But in Heaven, there’s a multitude of children who, though only on earth for a short time, have been found worthy to be among the great saints who did remarkable things.
Those in the Hall of Fame are usually recognized for their success in their field or sport. While this is true with many saints whom we recognize by name, there are many saints whom the world might consider a failure. There are those who toiled day-in and day-out without any tangible signs of success. Many of these saints were despised or rejected by those around them, but in God’s eyes, they were faithful to Him and His will, despite a supposed lack of results.
Jesus makes this point clearly in the Sermon on the Mount. He blessed those who go through life in a way that seems opposed to earthly success and happiness. What seems to be undesirable and unattractive to the world can be precious in the eyes of the Lord. As a result, so many saints who pass by our sight seem insignificant, while, in truth, they have lived lives of the greatest sanctity in the world and have found rest and peace in the Kingdom of Heaven.
This should give us hope and encouragement that we don’t necessarily have to do great things to be recognized by others. Our sole aim should be to remain faithful to what the Lord has given us, desiring to please Him alone. It also reminds us that even if we suffer, are persecuted, ignored or forgotten by the world around us, we will never escape the loving gaze of our Father in Heaven who has a great love for the humble, and those who the world considers to be of little importance. So many have achieved Heaven in this simple, hidden way, and their joy, like those whose name we know, is complete (cf. John 15:11), for they do not need the praise of man, but are totally content with gazing upon the Lord for all of eternity. That should be our ultimate desire as well.
There is another significant difference, however, and that is our understanding of the Communion of Saints. Unlike athletes who are no longer able to do great things in their sport after their retirement, those who have left this earthly life for Heaven do not suffer the same fate. In fact, once they are in Heaven, they are able to be far more effective after that so-called retirement from this life than ever. In Heaven, the saints are not limited by their bodies, or even by space or time, thus giving them the freedom to do remarkable things for us who remain here on earth and those who have left this earth but still await Heaven
As one of the prefaces for the funeral Masses for the Dead reminds us: “Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended.” Our relationship with those who have passed away endures past death, and our bond with those who are in Heaven is stronger than ever. Their great love for us and their desire to have us join them in Heaven prompts them to intercede daily before God.
At Mass, we come to the altar which unites us to the Church throughout the world. We are also united through the Eucharistic sacrifice with those who have gone before us and are already in Heaven. Also, we are united with those in Purgatory who await their entrance into Heaven after their purification. While we pray for them in a special way on All Souls Day, and remember them at each Mass, our prayers for them are our greatest gift to them.
May we now desire to receive the Eucharist with greater love and fervor so that we may be strengthened by that gift (along with the prayers of the saints in Heaven), so that at the end of our life, we may be welcomed by the Lord into their company in Heaven to rejoice for the rest of eternity.