What is the role of saints in the Catholic church?
By Fr. Tirso Villaverde
St. Thomas of Canterbury, Chicago
The month of November in the Catholic calendar is traditionally focused on saints and souls. The celebration of All Saints’ Day always falls on November 1st and is a Holy Day of Obligation (a day apart from Sunday when Catholics are to attend Mass). The day after, November 2nd, is always the feast of All Souls’ Day when Catholics remember and give honor to the souls of all the faithful departed. These two celebrations turn the hearts of the faithful to several truths.
For one, with the celebration of All Saints’, one of the first issues that will come up especially in the minds of non-Catholics is, “Why do Catholics put too much emphasis on the saints?” First of all, it should be made clear once again that Catholicism does not consider the saints to be gods or even demigods. This includes the Virgin Mary, preeminent among the saints. Catholics reverence the saints not because they deserve any honor. By the mere fact that the saints are already in heaven sharing in eternal life, they no longer need any honor nor do they look for it. They are already privileged with the greatest honor any Christian can hope to receive, that is, life with God in His eternal home. So why is there the need to reverence the saints and adorn churches with their images?
Catholics honor the saints not for the benefit of the saints but for the benefit of those who are still here on earth. The Christian life is very demanding. Without exemplary role models to inspire and follow, the task of being a follower of Christ can be daunting. For this reason, the lives of the saints inspires the faithful that not only is being a disciple of Christ a very real possibility but it also is a reminder of the promise of eternal life that awaits those who are faithful to Christ.
The custom of adorning churches with images of saints is not idolatry because the images are not adored as being divine in and of themselves. Instead, the images of saints are “windows into heaven” where those who are on earth get a glimpse of those in heaven and those in heaven are able to communicate to those who are still on the earthly pilgrimage.
In simpler terms, let us consider the custom of having pictures of family and friends displayed in our homes. Why do we do that? We display photos of our family and friends first of all to remember our connection to them even when we live distances away from them. When we look at those photos of past memories with loved ones, those people become closer to us even despite the physical distance that may separate us. Similarly, when Catholics enter churches, those places of worship are literally considered to be the “house of God.” If the faithful are entering into God’s house, it would only be normal to expect to see images of those who are among God’s family—the woman who became the Mother of the Son of God, the Apostles who were the closest friends of Jesus, and many other men and women who are God’s sons and daughters. When we see the faces of those whom God considers to be His family and friends, we are reminded of our connection with them and with one another. We are reminded as well that we are the family of God. As Jesus himself said, he no longer considers us as slaves but as friends because he has made known to us everything he received from the Father (John 15:15).
In regards to the souls who are not counted among the list of canonized saints for public and universal veneration, they are also given a special day in the Catholic calendar. Remembering the lives of all the faithful departed is a powerful statement of one essential truth common to all Christians. Namely, it is a recognition and admission that by Jesus’ own death and resurrection, death no longer has any power over those who believe in God. Death no longer is something to fear or be considered as a final separation. Rather, death can be embraced because it is now considered a continuation of one’s journey as a Christian. It also leads to the culmination of what it means to be a Christian, that is, life with God in heaven.
Honoring the faithful departed also is a powerful statement that “all the ties of affection and friendship which knit as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death” (from the Catholic vigil service for the deceased). Death no longer has any power over us because not even death can separate us from the ones we love. There may be a distance between us but, again, that distance is not one that keeps us apart but, in Christ, virtually does not exist. In that way, we know that our deceased loved ones remain a part of our lives even as much as we remain a part of their lives. Just because we are no longer physically present to each other, this does not mean that we are spiritually divided from them.
November is a month that fills all of Christ’s followers with hope and inspiration. May the prayers of the saints and the memory of our deceased loved ones motivate us on earth to continue on our Christian spiritual journey focused always on the life that is still to come.