Homily for the Solemnity of All Saints, 2019
Today, we gather to honour the saints. They were part of our story. They were men and women like me and you, with their joys and sorrows, struggles and strengths. Some were just ordinary people, living ordinary lives but with heads raised up and their eyes longing to see the face of God. Some were extraordinary. They did extraordinary things and left the world wondering, where on earth did this fellow come from! Their lives were testimonies of the goodness of God.
These people are not only those on the Roman Martyrology. They include our parents, our children, our siblings, our friends and even some we might have considered enemies. The Scripture said, “There is vast array of saints.” All gathered for the festival; gathered around Our Father; gathered to sing His praises. They are gathered around the Father in heaven because they gathered around Him here on earth. They were part of His plan and His unfolding story.
Saints, to say the least, were not supernatural beings. They were not people from outer space. They were real humans. As Oscar Wilde puts it, “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” But the unique thing about the saints is that they did not allow their past to define them. They trusted their past unto God, who saw to it that their past became the manure that fertilised their lives and nourished their growth in becoming truly God-Image-Bearers on earth.
A few saints come to mind here. I remember great saints like Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, John Paul II, Mary of the Cross and also an elderly man I buried. While he is not officially declared a saint, one cannot but acknowledge his saintly virtues. He was a man with a dark and ugly past. Raised by an alcoholic father, molested and beaten up by some of his mother’s partners, and bullied by his peers. He had all the indicators of a broken and wounded person.
However, he turned out to be a very gentle and loving soul. He was a good father and godly husband. My encounter with him at his hospital bed was edifying. He was one of those souls you would leave their presence saying, “He is a good man”. He had his struggles, but he also had a way of dealing with them which was extraordinary. He was together. And it was so obvious that God was the centre of his life, and as such, he gave his life away for the good others.
They are millions of people like this elderly man whom the Church believes are with God. We gather to remember them too. We remember them because they were friends of God. They were those who in the words of Bishop Robert Barron “open up themselves consciously to God and kept a steady relationship with Him.” For the strength of friendship hinges on communication that allows oneself to be impacted by the other, which eventually leads to newness of life.
It is the newness that the elderly man I buried experienced. He shared with me that one day while he was in the paddock, he felt an unbearable darkness. He did not know what to do. However, he remembered his grandmother always told him to pray, pray and pray. So, he knelt and prayed. “God,” he said, “I am a mess. Can you help me out of it please?” He reckoned, as he repeated that prayer over and over, he saw a light that gave him hope. He also felt loved by God.
That was his turning point. And from that moment, he never stopped praying. For him prayer is healing. It is also a school where he learned how to be a good man, broke ranks with his past and lived a better life. But there is something more. It is what St. Teresa of Calcutta said about prayer. “The fruit of prayer is love, and the fruit of love is service.” This elderly man grew in prayer and bore the fruit of service to humanity. He grew to love those who hurt him badly.
Being friends of God, saints are also those who are honest with themselves as individuals, honest with others and honest with God. They are those who according to G. K. Chesterton know they are sinners. That is, they need the Saviour. Saints live their lives looking at God, to see themselves as they truly are and to let God be their God. This is something that is quite humbling about saints. They know their place; they accept it and cooperate with God’s grace.
This attitude of saints is countercultural. It is a sign of contradiction. For we live in a time when many of us are living in denial, rejecting who we are – creatures and assuming to ourselves the absolute prerogatives of God. Instead of becoming God-Image-Bearers, we are expecting God to fit into our own categories. This is arrogance. It is dishonesty. It is a deep-seated refusal to accept oneself and to accept the other, especially God. It is the root cause of sadness, despair.
So, we are called to be saints, called to swim against the tides of contemporary society. We may have to do what St. John Henry Newman said, “Change our hearts and enlarge our minds… for to live is to change, and to be perfect, that is to become a saint, is to change often.” Changing not to satisfy our whims and caprices but changing to answer to God’s summons. It is changing to be part of God’s plan; changing to participate in the unfolding of God’s story.
Soren Kierkegaard captures all this in one sentence, “A saint is one whose whole life is about one thing – God.” So, as we remember the saints today, we also remember we are called to be saints. We are called to be on about God. We are called to embrace the poverty of the Gospel reading (Matthew 5:1-12a). “How happy are the poor in spirit”, that is, happy are those who have need of God, poor of their own spirit, and open to the Spirit of God, “theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”
Happy All Saints Day!
Fr. Francis Afu