Throughout the year, the Church celebrates one by one the feasts of various saints. On the solemnity of All Saints, it joins them all in one festival. In addition to those whose names the Church knows, it recalls in a magnificent vision all the others: “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. ... They cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation to our God!’” (Rv 7:9-10). It is this vision that Fra Angelico dramatically depicts in this altarpiece, “Christ Glorified in Heaven.”
The earliest known observance of a feast in honor of all the saints is a fourth-century commemoration of “all the martyrs.” In the early seventh century, after the catacombs were desecrated and robbed by successive waves of invaders, Pope Boniface IV gathered up several wagonloads of bones and buried them beneath the Pantheon, a Roman temple dedicated to all the gods. The pope then rededicated the pagan temple as a Christian church. According to Venerable Bede, the pope intended that the memory of all the saints in the future might be honored in the place that had formerly been dedicated to the worship of pagan gods.
In the first centuries of the Church’s life, martyrdom was seen as the normal way to sainthood. Once Christians were allowed to practice their faith without fear of persecution, martyrdom became increasingly more rare. So the Church acknowledged other paths to sanctity. This was the age of the great confessors and of the monastic saints who embraced the white martyrdom of the ascetic life.
The feast of All Saints should inspire us with tremendous hope. Among the saints in heaven are some whom we have known. All lived lives like our own. They were baptized, marked with the sign of faith and were faithful to Christ’s teaching in this life.
Speaking on the universal call to holiness, Pope Francis, during a 2014 general audience, said: “Holiness is ... truly the most beautiful face of the Church, it is rediscovering ourselves in communion with God, in the fullness of his life and his love. It is understandable, then, that holiness is not the prerogative of only a few: Holiness is a gift that is offered to all, without exception, so that it constitutes the distinctive character of every Christian.”
“Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her” (Eph 5:25-26).
FATHER VINCENT DE PAUL CROSBY, OSB, is a monk, priest and artist at St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. To see his work, visit fabricart.net.