Sisters and brothers in Christ,
As I write this, we are fast approaching our annual celebrations of All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2). These feasts are important reminders to us that this life is not all that there is. We are called to dwell in eternal happiness with God in heaven. It is there that our Lord has gone to prepare a place for us. We are called, we are challenged to be saints. From my days in seminary in New Orleans, I remember the oft-repeated story of the naming of the new expansion NFL franchise awarded to the city. Taken from the famous song that accompanies a second line, the city leadership asked the Archbishop of New Orleans if it would be sacrilegious to call the new team the “Saints.” Archbishop Philip Hannan told the organizers that he saw no problem with the name, but he added, “I should warn you that most of the saints were martyrs.” For more than a few years, as many of us can remember, Archbishop Hannan’s prediction came true.
It is that double-edged sword of joy and sorrow, of suffering and eternal happiness, that seems even more poignant this year in the midst of this pandemic, in the aftermath of hurricanes. Our entire way of life has been disrupted. Some among us are repairing damaged homes – or looking for new ones. We have adjusted to living much more “virtually” than we ever did before. We have friends and family who have caught the virus and recovered, and many of us know more than one person who has perished from COVID-19. We are separated from our loved ones, hesitant to travel, and anxious about our older and vulnerable neighbors, friends and family. The tension of this time has been increased by economic uncertainties and by a hostile – and mean-spirited – political climate. Yes, in large ways and in small, we are suffering.
Archbishop Hannan’s words echo in our hearts – “most of the saints were martyrs.” They suffered for their faith to the point of death. Suffering it seems is the crucible of sainthood. It is here – when our world has disappointed us and when everything else seems so fraught with peril – it is here in the midst of suffering that perhaps we are finally willing to listen to God. Oh, we pray often, we tell ourselves – but sometimes we do so quickly, without much thought. In those times, we may have had no major cares or worries pressing on our heart. Now, it seems, we have so much that weighs us down. We may be finally ready to ask God for help – in a sincere way, in our own humble recognition that we cannot work our way, or laugh our way, or ignore our way out of this. The troubles that surround us defy a human solution. We not only want God – this time we actually need God.
As we gather to celebrate All Saints Day, may we do so with a recognition that most of the company of heaven lived through difficulties and challenges that make our tremendous burdens seem ordinary and unimportant. The saints understand our weaknesses, our fear, our profound recognition that the world is out of our control. It was always out of our control, of course, but now we are forced to admit it. The saints are anxious to intercede for us, to help support us in our weakness and strengthen us in our frailty. By the example of the saints, God can guide us through this time of trouble just as he guided them through the persecutions, wars, plagues, and hostilities of their times. This year, we not only celebrate the saints, we beg their intercession.
Our celebration of All Souls Day, when we pray for the Church in Purgatory, also takes on new meaning this year. It is often difficult for us to imagine what Purgatory is like – how can we be assured of eternal happiness and yet still undergo purification? Brothers and sisters, I suggest that we are living through a mini-Purgatory now. We can throw up our hands and give up, weighed down by the problems that confront us, or we can look forward in hope, accepting the suffering we are enduring as a school of humility and an opportunity to expand our hearts. The souls in Purgatory are enrolled in this school of purification – but they have the promise of an eventual graduation. We can use this time of difficulty as a chance to get a little “extra credit,” as a chance to read ahead in the lessons all of us must face before we can be ready to take in the beatific vision. May our prayers for the Church in Purgatory this year be ones of solidarity and of sincere gratitude for the opportunities God gives us to grow in faith.
At the end of the month, of course, we celebrate Thanksgiving. Ordinarily we do so with large family gatherings and plenty of food. This year, our celebrations will be more distant, more subdued. We will be tempted to let the difficulties of our time dampen our sense of gratitude for God’s many blessings. Seeking the intercession of the saints and praying in solidarity for the souls in Purgatory, I suggest, we should increase our gratitude to God for his presence in the midst of our suffering, for his divine providence that will guide us through this perilous time, and for his love that sustains us even when we cannot see or feel his presence.
May God fill our hearts with his love now and always. Live, Jesus, in our hearts. Forever.