Feast of All Saints: Varied Paths

Anyone seeking directions on a website or application will discover many routes by different forms of transportation: bus, car, foot, rapid transit, etc. So too, the saints have found multiple ways to God—or perhaps with vast creative power, God finds multiplies ways to reach them.

Consider, for instance the dazzling diversity between Junipero Serra, who poured energies into building a string of churches, and Thomas Merton, who wrote of the same building: “The church was stifling with solemn, feudal and unbreathable fictions. … The spring outside seemed much more sacred. . . .  Easter afternoon I went to the lake and sat in silence looking at the green buds, the wind skimming the utterly silent surface of the water, a muskrat slowly paddling to the other side… One could breathe. The alleluias came back by themselves. “[1]

Unsung saints continue to pioneer wildly diverse roads today: in the research hospitals that seek a cure for Alzheimer’s, the labs that discover new ways to purify water or use solar power in Africa, the schools that encourage and educate neglected or traumatized children. They carve paths in subtler ways that are no less holy: the parents caring for the autistic child who try different ways each day to touch him, the artist or musician who gives audiences another way to see or hear, the mother trying a new recipe for the hungry kids, the spouse of the Alzheimer’s patient, the scientists who discover alternate forms of energy and innovations to preserve the planet’s resources.

The church’s shorthand often refers to a puzzling group. For instance, St. Isaac Jogues “and companions.” Did the unnamed ones not bleed as profusely, scream in as much pain, shake with as many convulsions when they were tortured? Or in more peaceful terms, did the initial six and many sisters who later accompanied Marianne Cope not work as hard in the leper colony of Molokai? When her energies flagged, she probably still got up in the morning because they were all counting on each other. Father Palou, Serra’s friend and biographer, shared the heartache and ordeals, but who’s ever heard of him? Fifteen unknown sisters helped Katharine Drexel found her first school for native Americans in 1893; by 1903, eleven Navajo women were nuns prepared to carry on her work.

And what about the Irish priests who defended Julia Greeley, or arranged for the early education of Augustine Tolton, who escaped slavery in Missouri as a child and became the first black priest? What of the Franciscans who, when Tolton was rejected by seminaries in the U.S., sent him to Rome for education and ordination, or who supported Cesar Chavez’ early efforts?  

Americans love heroes, but sometimes we overlook the people who support the star. As Carol Flinders points out in Enduring Grace, we must “see the incandescent superstar for what it is, but … see the constellation in which it has come into being, too, the reverent and loving care that has surrounded and nourished it.”[2]

Theologian Elizabeth Johnson names the feast of All Saints the one for “’anonymous,’ whom the world counts as nobodies and whom the church, too, has lost track of but who are held in the embrace of God who loses not one.”[3] The letters of Paul address all the early Christians as “saints,” even when he gets frustrated with their angry feuding.

In what arenas do we still need pioneer saints today? Surely, in health care, immigration, poverty, the environment, rightful places for women in church and society, education, an end to human trafficking; the list is endless. And in many other fields, needs are still undefined. There the saints of tomorrow will shine. If we’re alert, we might even notice them moving subtly among us now.

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In by Kathy Coffey, Liturgical Press, 800-858-5450, litpress.org


[1] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968), 295.

[2] Carol Flinders, Enduring Grace (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 219.

[3] Elizabeth Johnson, Friends of God and Prophets (New York: Continuum, 1999), 250.

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