As All Saints Day comes again, the beauty of the liturgical year presents itself with renewed vigor just before its close. We human beings are creatures of habit—one of the reasons why we benefit from having the liturgical cycle repeat every year. Each year we celebrate the same feasts, fast the same fasts; and yet each year may bring some old truth to light for new meditation. Therefore, do not let All Saints Day bring to mind only an amorphous crowd of white-robed-halo wearers. Each of the saints loves God with a matchless love borne from a unique life, even though each one of them became saintly by following the same rule: imitation of Christ. As C.S. Lewis phrases it in The Screwtape Letters, “when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever.” One particularly striking aspect to consider when trying to know individual saints better is the manner of their deaths, which is always an incredible witness to eternal life. The deaths of saints remind us of the true meaning of life, which is the call to eternal happiness through imitating Christ himself.
Every saint’s life and death bear the marks of repeated attempts at imitating Christ, though in their own particular circumstances. The question of how to imitate Christ in specific scenarios will always be a struggle. For example, at some point in the 90s the phrase WWJD (“What Would Jesus Do?”) became the hip new thing floating around in Christian circles, until, thankfully, it went the way of all hip phases and disappeared. I say “thankfully,” not because asking “what would Jesus do?” is foolish—anything but. Rather, because the implication was “do the right thing,” which ultimately boiled down to the comfortably vague “be nice.” Yet Jesus himself wasn’t saccharine sweet. He challenges his followers to pick up their crosses and follow him, to the Resurrection, yes, but first to Golgotha. The late, great Mother Angelica quipped, “Holiness is not for wimps and the cross is not negotiable, sweetheart—it’s a requirement.” Trying to apply “what would Jesus do?” without a readiness to embrace the cross will only lead to confusion. Nevertheless, there are a vast number of situations through which Jesus did not live during his time on earth. Make no mistake, he perfectly understands each and every temptation and every sorrow; every suffering, he suffers with us. However, it is not easy for us to comprehend this truth, because we can’t look to his life on earth and see every possible response to suffering or death.
This is where the saints come in, to fill a gap in our understanding. While Christ may not have lived every possible scenario, there is at least one saint who lived through any scenario imaginable. These saints can say, with St. Paul, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church” (Col 1:24). St. Paul does not by these words attempt to cheapen the infinite value of Christ’s suffering and death. On the contrary, St. Paul means that nothing is lacking in the sufferings of Christ…except you and me in our particular situations. Unless we unite our sufferings to the sufferings of Christ, we are lacking. Christ, the Head of the Church, led the way, for all the members of his Mystical Body to follow. Saints, through their lives, offer examples of how to imitate Christ in whatever circumstance one might face. But their deaths are, in a way, the most vivid example, providing a lens through which to understand their lives.
In death, the hope and happiness of Christians stands in sharpest contrast to the present world. In his encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI affirms, “Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well.” When that present moment happens to be death’s door, it is no wonder that the many remarkable deaths of saints have frequently brought about conversions in witnesses. Pope Benedict continues, “the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.” Indeed, the manner in which saints have died, including some astonishing last words, sheds light on the importance of their lives, their imitation of Christ in whatever situation they faced. In order to fully grasp how remarkable the deaths of saints have been, indulge in a brief study.
To the right is a picture of Blessed Father Martín Martínez Pascual, one or two minutes before he was shot by a firing squad. He is actually standing next to one of the men responsible for his death. Would you know it from looking at his peaceful—nay, joyful—expression? He was 25 years old, had been a priest for only 14 months, and was rounded up by the Spanish militia in 1936, a victim of the anti-clerical and anti-Catholic forces at work in his civil-war-torn country. When the gunmen suggested he face away from them, he declined. When they asked if he had anything to say before he died, he blessed them—his executioners! Then he added: “I only give you my blessing that God does not take into account the madness that you commit.” Then he raised his voice, shouting out his last words before death: “Viva Cristo Rey!”
Blessed Chiara Luce Badano, who died in 1990 at the age of 18, provides another astonishing witness to hope in the face of death. She was 16, athletic and beautiful, when she was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma, a bone cancer which would cause her excruciating pain, and eventually take her life. Although Chiara definitely struggled to accept her suffering, she found peace and joy in continually trying to unite her pain to the redemptive suffering of Jesus. So much so that she was a comfort to many around her—including not only her own parents, but also a depressed, drug-addicted girl with whom Chiara would walk and talk during her time in the hospital. After one particularly painful night Chiara said,“I suffered a lot, but my soul was singing.” As her death’s approach became very evident, Chiara requested that she be buried in a wedding gown, and said to her mother: “When you’re getting me ready, Mum, you have to keep saying to yourself, ‘Chiara Luce is now seeing Jesus.’” Her final words were, “Goodbye. Be happy because I’m happy.”
St. José Luis Sánchez del Rio, canonized just this past October 16, died before his 15th birthday, in 1928 in Mexico, during a period of fierce anti-Catholic persecution. José joined the Cristero rebellion against the Mexican government, but was captured by federal soldiers while providing cover for retreating Cristero soldiers at the end of a battle. When a federal general offered José an easy path, by way of abandoning his Catholic faith, José retorted, “You have captured me because I ran out of ammo, but I have not given up!”
The boy was thrown into prison, from which he wrote his mother: “My dear mother: I was made a prisoner in battle today. I think I will die soon, but I do not care, mother. Resign yourself to the will of God. I will die happy because I die on the side of our God.” He endured mockery and torture, including having his feet stabbed with a knife and then being made to walk 10 blocks to the place of his execution. Once there, his executioners stabbed him in the neck, back, and chest, but at each wound he shouted as loud as he could:“Viva Cristo Rey!” His very last words were in response to one of the federal officers asking him:“What should we tell your father?”José answered: “That we will see each other in Heaven! Viva Cristo Rey, and the Virgin of Guadalupe.” Then one of the officers shot him in the head. José’s death is incredibly inspiring, but it is the natural fruition of a life, which, though so young, was shaped by a longing for God, and a firm purpose to get to heaven. Before he left to join the Cristeros, José told his mother, “For Jesus Christ, I will do everything.”
Saint Augustine bares his heart to the Lord in his Confessions, saying “You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.” God alone can fulfill the deepest longings of the human heart. And until one realizes that truth, one will not live happily in the present, nor die with hope in the future. In order to die as the saints have done, one must begin to live in imitation of Christ right here, right now, no matter the situation. As St. Ignatius of Loyola advised: “Those who carry God in their hearts bear heaven with them wherever they go.” In order to die with heaven in our sight, we must be striving to always be in love with God.
If one would die as the saints have, with joy, then look to how they lived, for their deaths are only a culmination of their cooperation with God’s grace during life. The deaths of the saints remind us of why they lived, and how we ought to live—in imitation of Christ in whatever unique circumstances we face. As Mother Angelica used to say, “We are all called to be great saints. Don’t miss the opportunity.” So rejoice on this coming All Saints Day for all the souls who have entered eternal life, victorious over death. And rejoice also that such honor and such perfect happiness is meant for the likes of you and me as well. Let us, then, get to know some of these incredible people who already love us, longing for us to join them in eternal friendship.
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