One of the saddest revisions that occurred after the Second Vatican Council was the elimination of saints from the calendar, from sanctuaries and from prayers. Sts. Christopher and Philomena, Saints John and Paul, among many other of the blessed, were dropped from the church’s list of feast days.
While many of these elect had little historical basis, many had caught the popular imagination and had endeared themselves to the venerating public. Every worshiper can recall entering a parish church in the latter half of the last century only to find that a saint’s familiar plaster (and sometimes marble) image had been relegated to the church basement. Sanctuaries became bereft of Mary, Joseph, Theresa, Anthony, even Peter and Paul. Prayers, too, lost some of their treasured references to the heavenly world. Catholics used to confess to “…Almighty God, to blessed Mary ever Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy apostles Peter and Paul, to all the saints. …” Sin was understood in a cosmic dimension - the entire balance of the universe was upset by the infractions of the solitary sinner. Nowadays the sinner acknowledges his faults solely before God and his worshipping brothers and sisters.
Saints are not simply decorative elements within the Christian life. Saints are canonically, that is officially, residents of heaven. The heavenly assembly of saints, and the several choirs of angels as well, and the souls in purgatory for that matter, remind the earthly believer that the Christian life has extraterrestrial ramifications as well as earthly consequences. The Christian life is certainly intended to lead the individual to repentance, to conversion and then on to virtue. But the Christian life is also expected to open the believer’s heart to thoughts of eternity, to a longing for heaven, to a hope for loving reunions, and indeed to a fear of hell. The celestial elements of Christianity – “the life of the world to come” – are made more real by the symbolized presence of the saints.
The inclusion of saints in our prayers and in our liturgies recalls that the believing faithful are surrounded by “clouds of witnesses,” to use St. Paul’s prayerful phrase. The mention of the saints and the memory of the saints recall all those virtuous deeds and noble struggles that directed them to holiness. The perseverance of St. Monica, the determination of St. Patrick, the mortifications of St. Bruno, the detachment of St. Francis, the zeal of St. Teresa of Avila, the social concern of St. John Bosco, the martyrdom of St. Maximillian Kolbe – all this good example and encouragement are afforded the faithful when they worship God surrounded by the replicas and relics and remembrances of the heavenly court. The successes of the saints place holiness within the reach of every worshiper as the faithful come to realize that our own brothers and sisters in the Lord overcame temptation, sin, misunderstanding and persecution on their personal odyssey to heaven. The saints are our models in the spiritual life.
The saints in fact are more than models. They are practical teachers who have left behind a wealth of spiritual guidance that successive generations of believers have adapted to their own religious benefit. To this day The Confessions of St. Augustine, the Rule of St. Benedict, the arguments of St. Thomas Aquinas, The Introduction to a Devout Life of St. Francis de Sales, the spiritualities of St. Ignatius, St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, the autobiography of St. Theresa of Lisieux and many other pious works continue to inspire and motivate the faithful. Their paths to holiness direct us on our pilgrim way to heaven.
These pious men and women, of course, are master intercessors. Already enthroned with the apostles and the Son of God, the saints indeed have access to the king’s ear. Their prayers are powerful instruments which God allows to sway his will graciously heeding the needs of all who call upon him through the intervention of the saints.