Homily for the Solemnity of All Saints, 2022.
Over the past few decades, there may have been moments when we have been less than proud to be Roman Catholics. The sins and scandals of Church leaders, and fellow Catholics more generally, may have tested our faith. Even if we know that the brokenness of the Church’s members does not tarnish the truth and goodness of our faith, the sins and scandals can cause us, at times, to hang our heads in shame. Perhaps you’ve always had your head raised high over these past few decades, but I know that I myself have not. Most days I was very proud; some days I wasn’t.
Today is one of those days, however, when, despite the brokenness, we should lift our heads up high. Today is one of those days when we should be proud to be Roman Catholics, for it is the Solemnity of All Saints. In the final analysis, it is the saints who are the best argument for the truth of the Catholic faith; it is the saints who live that truth in an attractive and compelling way. We should be proud of the saints, both known and unknown, whom we celebrate today. We should be proud that these holy men and women were, and still are, members of the Church. In fact, it is the saints who are the members of the Church in the fullest sense: they are the ones who are perfectly united to Christ whose body is the Church. We are still on the way; they have already arrived.
The origin of today’s feast should make us especially proud to be Roman Catholics. As some of you may know, not all Catholics are Roman Catholics. About 98.6% of all Catholics are Roman Catholics, but remaining percentage, amounting to about 18 million Catholics, are made up of various Eastern Catholics churches who are in communion with the Pope. Although we profess the same faith, these Eastern Catholic churches, 23 in total, have distinct ways of praying and worshiping as a result of differences in culture, language, and history.
The first Christian communities which became the Church of Rome were founded by the Apostles Peter and Paul. They are our founding Apostles, as Roman Catholics. Other Eastern Catholics trace their origins to different Apostles. Syro-Malabar Catholics, for example, trace their origins to St. Thomas, who, instead of going to West to Rome, went East to evangelize India.
Although the veneration of the saints, especially the martyrs, can be traced back to the early Church and Sacred Scripture itself, the feast we are celebrating today wasn’t officially established as a universal feast of the Church until the mid-ninth century. It was established, in part, as a response to the heresy of iconoclasm. This was a false teaching which denigrated, and even prohibited, the use of sacred images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Had this false teaching won the day, there would be no statuary, paintings, or mosaics like we have in Catholic churches today. The veneration of the saints, which is inspired by these images, would be barely present or non-existent.
The Roman Church took the lead in resisting the heresy of iconoclasm. When iconoclastic bishops ordered that Christ could not be depicted as a lamb, the Pope St. Sergius I added the Lamb of God to the Mass. When iconoclastic bishops ordered the destruction of sacred images thirty years later, Pope St. Gregory III decreed that anyone who did so would be excommunicated. He made this decree on November 1, which his successor, Gregory IV would later establish as today’s feast day. In short, it was the Church of Rome, and its visible head, the Pope, who helped preserve the truth of the Catholic faith and defend it from the error of iconoclasm. We should be proud of this fact as Roman Catholics.
The whole controversy about Christ being depicted as a lamb is what is likely behind the choice for today’s first reading. In this text from the book of Revelation, Christ is identified as a lamb three times: “After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.’… Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me, “Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” I said to him, “My lord, you are the one who knows.” He said to me, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”
Lamb, Lamb, Lamb! Christ is the Lamb—there’s nothing wrong with depicting Him as such. There’s nothing wrong with depicting the saints as well. We do so, not to worship the saints, but to worship the one who made them: God. God, after all, is the great artist, and the saints are His masterpieces. Just as an earthly artist is not offended, but grateful, when his or her masterpieces are praised, even more so God. When we praise the artwork, we praise the artist.
And that is what we have come to do this evening: to praise the Artist who has made these great artworks who are the saints. We should be proud of these artworks, these masterpieces. We should be proud to be members of the same Church which they were, and still are, members of. And we should be proud of that same Church—the Roman Catholic Church—which Christ established to be the guardian and defender of the Truth, and which has proven to be so down through the centuries. Let us pray for that Church, that Christ may continue to bless her with many more saints who will inspire her, lead her, and intercede for her until the end of time. Amen.