In the Catholic tradition there are more than 10,000 named “Saints” in their pantheon. These are individuals from the past who lived exemplary lives, and who continue to inspire the church today. Per Catholic teaching, the saints can be called upon in time of need like calling on a friend, a friend who is in close proximity and communion with God.
And depending upon your station in life, some saints might be more “friendly” than others. Saint Sebastian is the patron saint of sports, for example. If you ride a Harley, pray to Saint Columbanus, the patron saint of motorcyclists. There is Florian for firefighters, Joseph for realtors, Catherine for teachers, Agatha for those with breast cancer, Saints Andrew and Peter for fisherman, Anthony to help you find lost items, and Saint Jude for lost causes.
Some lesser known saints have clever assignments: Saint Barbara for anything that explodes, Drogo is for coffee lovers, Isidore was made patron saint of the internet, and Saint Hedwig is for bald people. Then, in escalating order, Saint Arnulf is for beer-drinkers, Saint Bibiana for hangovers, and Saint Monica for alcoholics.
More prominent saints are openly celebrated by all: Patrick, Nicholas, and Valentine. But on November 1st of each year, “All Saints Day,” we remember them all. And it’s not just those who lived holy, exemplary lives. We remember all who have traveled the road of faith before us, and we thank God for their example, witness, and the influence they continue to have.
The biblical picture is painted by the writer of Hebrews where he offers the scene of a great race. Most likely it is the ancient Olympics in his mind. The runners are on the track sweating, striving, and persevering through the struggle They are surrounded by thousands of euphoric, crazed, spectators who cheer the competitors to victory.
We who are living are still running. Meanwhile, those who have completed their races, have joined the grandstands where now they pull for us. They shout and applaud, ringing the skies with encouragement. They know the struggle, you see, for they ran this race themselves.
“Retired” runners like the newly canonized Saint Teresa who labored in Calcutta. Saint John of the Cross, a medieval monk whose meditations continue to encourage thousands. Your grandmother, who will never have her own feast day, but whose faith lives on in you. An old, faithful friend who left this life far too soon. Your father, long gone, but always present in your life.
All of these are saints – all of them – for in the end I accept Thomas Merton’s definition of sainthood: “A saint is not someone who is good. It is someone who has experienced the goodness of God.” Maybe that is why they cheer us on, for at end of all things – whatever the end may be – is found complete love, understanding, and the goodness of God. That’s where they live, and it is that finish line to which they now call us home.