“What bad dude ‘from subterranean levels’ changed the ‘saints’ from ‘All Saints Eve’ to goblins, spooks, and devils?”
So asked one of cartoonist Johnny Hart’s characters in his “B.C.” strip about eight years ago. At the time, I was master of novices for the Dominican friars in Oakland, California, and decided that I would break with tradition and not have the novices put on the annual Halloween party. The Church celebrates all its holy ones with the rank of “solemnity” and rightfully so. These after all, are the heroes and heroines of humanity, the people who knew what humanity is about—that we are more about God than about us, and that we owe him the worship and love of our lives.
When one begins to investigate the lives of these remarkable men and women who are the saints, it is impossible to ignore the extent of their diversity. While the categories of martyrs, confessors, virgins, and holy men and women have their liturgical uses, they become irrelevant in the light of personal histories that are so spiritually exalted and at the same time so humanly identifiable.
“We were overwhelmed with grief, but she held her gaze steadily upon us and spoke further: ‘Here you shall bury your mother.’ I remained silent as I held back my tears. However, my brother haltingly expressed his hope that she might not die in a strange country but in her own land” (from the Liturgy of the Hours for August 27, Memorial of St. Monica.) Would you have expected such tender words from the great doctor of the Church, Augustine?
“At this I rubbed my eyes, thinking I was seeing things, and I put my hands into the fold of my dress where my rosary was. I wanted to make the sign of the cross, but for the life of me I couldn’t manage it, and my hand just fell down. Then the lady made the sign of the cross herself and at the second attempt I managed to do the same, though my hands were trembling” (from the Liturgy of the Hours for February 11, Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes.) Who of us would not have had the same difficulty, as did Marie Bernadette Soubirous at the sight of the Mother of God?
“Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted your prayer to serve the poor. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out.” It may sound like Mother Teresa, but these are the words of Vincent de Paul (from the Liturgy of the Hours for September 27, Memorial of St. Vincent de Paul). Mother Teresa, though not yet canonized, is known for her holiness and love for the poor. But she was rather adamant about the necessity of not missing prayer time. Even the holy ones who ministered to the poor are not carbon copies of each other—how delightful to encounter such holy diversity!
“I will not mistrust Him, Meg, though I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear. I shall remember how Saint Peter at a blast of wind began to sink because of his lack of faith, and I shall do as he did: call upon Christ and pray to him for help. And then I trust he shall place his holy hand on me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning” (from the Liturgy of the Hours for June 22, Memorial of St. Thomas More). Here we have one saint, Thomas More, looking to the example of another, Peter. What is so gratifying here is that we begin to recognize our affinity with them. They are a part of us, and we are a part of them.
Reading the actual words of the saints brings their personalities alive for us, and their stories become our own. When we begin to appreciate the rich heritage we have in the communion of saints, the idea of reducing our yearly celebration of them to a matter of black-and-orange candy and spooks and goblins is intolerable. This is why I said no to the Halloween party for the novices who had been in the novitiate for only two months. The novitiate year provides a unique opportunity, not only for investigating the vows and ways or religious life but also for delving into the spiritual riches that comprise our heritage as Catholics. It wasn’t that I wanted to do away with the Halloween traditions—I only wanted to appreciate the saints.
After some experimentation, we decided on a vigil service of light. We put the Paschal candle next to the ambo or lectern and began with an evening hymn (“O Radiant Light”) as I dropped incense onto live charcoal. With the completion of our singing, the lights were dimmed except for a reading light. The first of three readers stepped forward to the ambo and began to read. By withholding the name of the saints until the end, those listening could try to identify the saints by their words. Each reading ended with, “The words of Saint (name).” We sat in silence for a whole minute, and then I would say, “Pray for us, Saint (name).” All would respond, “That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”
After the words of three or four saints, we brought the lights up, knelt down, and chanted a litany of favorite saints, composed by the community the week before, as more incense wafted up and around the Paschal candle. We then dimmed the lights again for three more readings. For the conclusion, we all stood as the lights late came on again. I then offered the collect of All Saints (the opening prayer for the Mass of All Saints), and we all sang the “Te Deum.” Refreshments followed in the novitiate community room.
This kind of celebration can be adapted for the parish church, the classroom, the auditorium, the conference room, or the living room. If a family or a group of families chooses to celebrate in this way at home, perhaps the actual evening of All Saints would be better to (allow for trick-or-treaters the night before). We found it preferable to orchestrate the readings so that each reading contrasted with the one preceding for variety and interest, alternating men and women, martyrs and mystics, and so forth.
The week before, we posted a litany sign-up sheet for favorite saints and blesseds. We called it our “Do-It-Yourself Litany.” Each year the litany reflected the changes in community membership. This of course would not be possible to do with a large number of people. We chanted the litany, but it could easily be recited. Each person in a family celebration could take turns announcing a saint while the rest answered, “Pray for us.” It is not difficult to find many options for including the children and keeping them interested.
For the readings, we used the second lessons from the various saints days in the Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours. The following are some of the ones I found most appropriate: Saints Anthony of Lisbon-Padua; Augustine (on his feast and also on the feast of his mother, Saint Monica); Catherine of Siena; Elizabeth Ann Seton; Ignatius of Loyola; Jane Francis de Chantel; John Neuman; Louis, King of France; Marie Bernadette Soubirous; Paul Miki; Peter Claver; Thomas Aquinas; Vincent de Paul; and Vincent Ferrer.
All of these readings consist of the actual words of the saints, with the exception of the martyrs, where we have to rely on firsthand accounts. One may find other suitable readings in other places. (Some recently published books on the saints may offer some additional choices.) Unfortunately, some of our favorite saints left no writings. For instance, I would love to read what Joseph might have had to say. We almost always concluded with Augustine: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you.” Although we alternated the various readings each year, I could never leave him out.
We closed with the “Te Deum,” the Church’s traditional solemn canticle of praise, but “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” would also be appropriate and much easier to sing. Ending with benediction of the Blessed Sacrament might be possible and appropriate in church celebrations. Time, of course, is always an important factor determined by each situation.
How fortunate we are to have these holy lives as examples of what human existence can be. But they are not only exemplars to be imitated, they are fellow Christians who desire our holiness as well. Through divine grace, their prayers and our effort, we pray that one day we join them in their eternal vigil as the words of the Book of Revelation express:
“Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’
“And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, ‘To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!’
“And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ and the elders fell down and worshiped” (Rev. 5:11–14).