Whenever I go about my day at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, I am greeted by the faces of hundreds of saints illustrated in dozens of statues, mosaics, and portraits. Certainly, the focus of the Shrine — and indeed, any Catholic church — is on Christ (in this case through the Blessed Mother), but invariably one notices the honoring of God’s holy ones as well in side chapels and oratories. While one can hardly wander into the Great Upper Church of the Basilica without gazing in awe at the dominating mosaic Christ in Majesty — one of the largest images of Jesus in the world — it’s also impossible to miss the mere fraction of the Communion of Saints honored throughout the space; those who were so moved in their encounters with the Lord that they devoted their lives to the pursuit of Him.
Why does this church (and the Universal Church) assign so much importance to these figures? While the act of adoration and worship is solely reserved for God, the saints (including Mary) are, by contrast, venerated. When properly done, veneration does not interfere with the worship due to God, but rather fosters it. As the Second Vatican Council noted: “Our communion with those in heaven, provided that it is understood in the fuller light of faith according to its genuine nature, in no way weakens, but conversely, more thoroughly enriches the latreutic [what is allowed to God alone] worship we give to God the Father, through Christ, in the Spirit” (Lumen Gentium 51).
Hailing from all walks of life, the saints represent the fervent love of God as he calls them to participate in and enrich the ministries of the Church, whether through charity, scholarship, prayer, catechesis, or apologetics. The saints rejected the status quo of society. They reformed society to be more like Christ’s ministry — sometimes at the cost of their own lives. They met people wherever they were in life in order to bring about a fruitful encounter with the Lord. If we have ever felt that we could not strive for the holiness God calls each of us to, we surely have countless role models to look to in the saints. We might think: “But I can’t possibly attain those standards — I’m a sinner!” But as the recently canonized Mother Teresa reportedly observed, “Saints are only sinners who keep trying.” Recognizing that their own shortcomings, however frequent, are infinitesimal compared to the love and mercy of God, the saints sought and found comfort in our perfect Lord, rather than wallowing in the imperfect condition of their lives.
In our own struggles for holiness, if we ever feel alone or without guidance, we have only to look to the saints for inspiration. The trials we face, whether they be doubts, abandonment, threats, or scorn were similarly faced by them. Yet the example of Christ’s experiences with these difficulties drove them forward, and so should also motivates us. We need not be intimidated with what is asked of us or the great witness of the saints. Again, in words attributed to Mother Teresa, we have only to concern ourselves with offering God “small things with great love.”
In the Basilica, the bas-relief of the Universal Call to Holiness rests directly opposite of Christ in Majesty, reflecting the theme of Lumen Gentium discussed above. Illustrated in the huge marble slab are people from all walks of life gazing upon and approaching God, the Holy Spirit. As Lumen Gentium, the bas-relief, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church all emphasize: “all are called to holiness” (CCC 2013). The saints have embraced this, and not necessarily early in their lives. St. Augustine, one of the Church’s greatest converts, admitted to God in his autobiography called Confessions, “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new.” God can turn our failures into moments of grace at any point in our lives (Romans 5:20)! The saints did not go about the great evangelical enterprise for their own sake or glory, but to share the Mystery of God’s unceasing love that so moved them to reject what the world offers in comforts and powers. Just as Christ initiated this work on earth during His ministry and the saints have sustained it throughout the millennia, it is now entrusted to us that the light of God’s truth may forever shine bright and call back to Him those who are lost in the world’s darkness.