Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help (13 September 2014)
As we gather to bring petitions and notes of thanks to our Blessed Mother, we also remember the two important days that start the month of November, All Saints and All Souls. And as always, it’s good to ask why. Why do we venerate the saints? Why commemorate the faithful departed? And given that we’re here, what does our Blessed Mother have to teach us about this?
My answer comes with a short sharing about people I’ve met. I remember meeting an Italian missionary priest in a remote border town in Northern Thailand many years ago. His name escapes me but his memory doesn’t. I remember how he single handedly built a parish church and and student hostel in the town that helped not just Catholics but everyone in the community. Students who not have had the chance for secondary education had access to it because of the hostel. He joyfully celebrated mass there in Akha, one of the local tribal languages. This was my first contact with a missionary in a ‘mission’ area and I was struck by his energy and zeal, perhaps sowing the seed that would later grow into my own desire to join a missionary order.
The other example is more recent. My thesis supervisor, Fr James O’Donnell, SJ, is American Jesuit but has been in the Philippines for over 60 years. He too is full of energy and passion for his subject and yet always ready to listen and share his life with others. He’s still professor of Education at the Ateneo de Manila University at the age of 83. He walks slowly but does so full of joy.
These two examples show how the people around us can affect us and bring us closer to God. The stories of saints can feel quite distant and hard to relate to. Kenneth Woodward in his book Making Saints writes that “A saint is always someone through whom we catch a glimpse of what God is like—and of what we are called to be… A saint is someone whose story God tells.”
And often, these stories are told to each of us, individually. These stories are different according to the individual and we’re led to glimpse God in different ways, in different people. The Church recognises a small fraction of those who reflect God’s love, mercy and glory. In a way that’s why the celebration of All Souls comes after All Saints, to remember our loved ones who have given us so much, including our faith. Can we not see God’s work in them too? I’d like to see both these days as Celebrations of Life, of the precious gift of life so freely given to us that so many who have gone before us have freely shared with us to allow us to see what God is like.
Saints are people we see God in. We should look to our history of holy men and women as examples, but we should definitely not stop there. We should not just look up at these men and women but look left and right as well. (We remember St Paul referring to the early Christians as ‘Saints’ in many of his letters.) We look at parents loving their families, at people working hard to serve others, at those who go out of their way to help. We need to remember to see God in our neighbours as we love them. The Saints in heaven give us a final complete model – saints around us give us real examples of how to follow the Lord.
What of our Blessed Mother? ‘Blessed’ means to make holy, to praise and is also related to the word ‘bliss’ which is to be happy. I’d like to add another definition – the saints are those who do not forget their purpose or call. They were close with God in their lives and kept to their calling to whatever they were to do. We hear of many amazing things that the Saints did and some seem almost superhuman. But our Blessed Mother gives another example of simple faith and love. And she never forgot it, from the Annunciation to the foot of the cross and beyond. Her quiet yet immensely strong presence bolstered by her faith and love are aspects that we should seek to follow. She was the mother of our Lord and remained completely faithful to her call, praying always.
Blessed also means happy. In some translations of the bible – the Beatitudes are sometimes translated as ‘Happy are the…’. Have you seen an image of an angry or sad Saint? If we take blessedness to be closeness to God, one would also surmise that that person would experience happiness or joy – not the laughing-all-the-time kind of happiness but a steady joy, even in suffering. We’re reminded not to forget to be happy in our striving to faith and love. I’m sure our Blessed Mother was happy in her life, especially with her family. Pope Francis reminds us that smiles spread the gospel better than just talking about it. Be happy in our faith, in our love of others. And everything else will follow.
I’d like to end with prayer adapted from the Collect at the mass of All Saints:
Lord, as we venerate and celebrate our saints, and our Blessed Mother, who bestow on us the multitude of prayers and an abundance of reconciliation, draw us closer to you with faith and joy, that we will always follow the examples of this great cloud of witnesses in our lives of loving and serving you and each other. Amen.