November saints — 'We've got friends in high places'
Rev. John Roche, SDB
My grandmother died when I was 9 years old. I was very close to her. She was, in many ways, like a second mother for me and for my siblings. She lived in our house and I slept in the double bed with her. She was always so interested in everything happening in our lives and would listen with such pleasure to our daily adventures each time we came home from school.
For the key moments in my life, she was there: first communion, summer-time fireworks and watermelon, back-to-school uniforms, Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays.
On that March day when she felt weak and dizzy and went to bed in the middle of the day, none of us realized it would be her last moments with us. A heart attack took her from our home and family that late afternoon before my father, her son, could get home from work. The house was never the same after that.
In those innocent days, I had many dreams about my grandmother and for some reason I never shared those dreams until I was much older. Something in me intuited that they were almost secret messages sent to bring me hope. From one dream to the next, her messages seemed clearer and clearer that she was very happy and at peace and that she continued to be a part of our lives. For me, then, it was not hard to understand the communion of saints nor to believe in their intercession in our lives.
The familiarity and intimacy I felt for my grandmother remained and still remains to this day. Along the journey of my own life, I have felt her presence and her prayers. To that company, I have added my father, many aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. It has always remained with me that we have friends in heaven. They are not merely fond memories, but active and living members in the House of God interceding for each one of us.
The Feast of All Saints is a special feast that stands at the head of a month in which we pray for the deceased among our family and friends. We celebrate the triumph of the cross of Christ and his victory over death. Each of these named and unnamed men and women who live in the glory of God's presence because of their lives of holiness are, for us, much more than role models. They are the living stones of the household of God. They stand before God praying for us and interceding for us. They are the Church triumphant accompanying the Church in pilgrimage. Their celebration is our hope. They become for us the expectation of our own pilgrimage. By imitating their virtues and their self-less giving, we become better followers of Christ — the Intercessor and the Mediator before God our Father.
Growing up, it was hard to defend these traditions and this belief to people who did not share this understanding of the Church. In fact, many saw all of this in some sort of superstitious slant wondering about the authenticity of us wacky Catholics. Many, today, still do not embrace our desire to remember and pray for the dead. Many see our appeal to the saints almost as idolatry. But this has always been hard for me to understand. Surely "Gram" and St. Martin de Pores, and St. John Bosco and our Lady are all our friends. They all want me, and all of us, to come to know the eternal life that has been won for us in Christ. They want us to know that God is a God of the living, not of the dead. They await our entrance into new life and urge us by their witness and by their prayers to cling to lives of holiness.
In my own tradition as a Salesian priest, I have always felt so completely at home with the style of holiness held out to young people as fashioned by St. John Bosco. It was his earnest desire to bring young people into the family of God. He urged them to "make Jesus and Mary best friends." He prepared his young people daily for a worthy death. He witnessed the passage of many of his young people into eternity reporting their ecstasy and encounter with the divine. Even his own dying words were comforting and familiar: "Tell my boys I will be waiting for them in heaven."
I make no apology for our strong tradition of prayer for the dead. I celebrate the Feast of All Saints and carry that feast as a personal invitation into that Kingdom of God. Let us celebrate this month in a profound and meaningful way remembering that our God desires our salvation; his Son prayed that none of us be lost. He prayed that each of us would be one with him and the Father sharing in the oneness the Trinity shares. What hope! What expectation! What a Family we have! We've got friends in high places!
(Rev. John Roche, SDB, is director of the Institute of Salesian Studies at Don Bosco Hall in the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley.)
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