November is a month when many people like to reflect, pause and remember beloved family members and friends who have died. The month begins with the Feast of All Saints. It was instituted to honour all of the saints, both known and unknown, and, according to Pope Urban IV, to supply any deficiencies in the faithful’s celebration of saints’ feasts during the year. The Feast of All the Saints of Ireland was instituted in 1921, by Pope Benedict XV.
In the early days of the Church, the Christians were accustomed to remember the anniversary of a martyr’s death for Christ at the place of martyrdom. In the fourth century, neighbouring dioceses began to interchange feasts, to transfer relics, to divide them, and to join in a common feast; as is shown by the invitation of Saint Basil of Caesarea (397) to the bishops of the province of Pontus. Frequently groups of martyrs suffered on the same day, which naturally led to a joint commemoration.
In the persecution of Diocletian, the number of martyrs became so great that a separate day could not be assigned to each, but the Church, feeling that every martyr should be venerated, appointed a common day for all. The first trace of this we find is in Antioch on the Sunday after Pentecost. We also find mention of a common day in a sermon of Saint Ephrem the Syrian (373), and in the 74th homily of Saint John Chrysostom (407).
At first only martyrs and Saint John the Baptist were honoured by a special day in the Liturgical Calendar. Other saints were added gradually, and increased in number when a regular process of canonization was established.
“Canonisation” as a process of declaration of a saint begun when the name of a martyr was included in the dyptichs (or prayer lists) proclaimed by the deacon during Mass. This process would have been supervised by the authorities in the local Church, especially the bishop. Later the names of holy people who were not martyrs, such as Saints Hilarion and Ephrem the Syrian in the East, and Saints Martin of Tours and Hilary of Poitiers in the West, were included in the list of the saints. It was only in 1170 that Pope Alexander III issued a decree arrogating to the Pope alone the right to declare a person a saint as regards the Church of the West. This was confirmed in 1200 by a bull of Pope Innocent III.
Curiously only four individual saints have been officially canonised. These are Saint Malachy (1094-1148), Saint Lawrence O’Toole (1128-80) and Saint Oliver Plunkett (1625-81) and Saint Charles of Mount Argus (1821-93). All the other Irish saints who are known to us, such as Saints Patrick, Brigid, and Colmcille, became saints by the acclamation of the people in the local Church.
This special feast, All Saints of Ireland, while it includes canonised saints, it also has a wider reach. It includes those who had a reputation for holiness and whose canonisation process is in process. These individuals include Blessed Thaddeus MacCarthy (1455-92), the seventeen Irish martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries, Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice (1762-1844), Blessed Columba Marmion (1858-1923) and the Servant of God Matt Talbot (1856-1925) and people like Legion of Mary envoys Edel Quinn and Alfie Lamb, whose causes have already been introduced. I think that it’s also nice to think that this list also encompasses people those whose lives of sanctity were known only to their families, friends or members of their parish diocese or religious community.
Saints are sometimes called a friend of God. Pope Benedict asked the question ‘But how can we become holy, friends of God?’ We can first give a negative answer to this question: to be a Saint requires neither extraordinary actions or works nor the possession of exceptional charisms. Then comes the positive reply: it is necessary first of all to listen to Jesus and then to follow him without losing heart when faced by difficulties.
Ireland is often referred to as the Isle of Saints and Scholars. And for many reasons we can be proud of this statement. As we remember our beloved dead the invitation is for us what it means to be a saint and scholar in modern society. You might decide to volunteer with the Irish Chaplaincy in a capacity that you feel your talents, expertise and experience might be put to good use to help Irish prisoners, Travellers, Seniors or maybe in the general administration of the charity. In this way you will be following the example of many Irish people and indeed people from many nations who have helped the Irish Chaplaincy since its foundation in 1957.
As we celebrate this special feast and remember all our loved ones who have died we hope that we will always hold their memory close to our hearts.