According to the Catholic liturgical calendar, November begins with solemn feast of All Saints. It is the feast day of that “great multitude which no man could number” (Rev 7:9) gathered around the heavenly throne. The Catholic and other Christian traditions have thousands upon thousands of formally canonized saints, which is entirely fitting, as the purpose of being a Christian disciple in holiness in this world and the next. To be in Heaven is to be a saint, which means that the mission of every follower of the Lord Jesus is to be a saint, transformed by the marvelous workings of His grace.
The total number of those in Heaven – “of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues” – is far greater than the roll of those formally canonized. And thanks be to God for that, as both thee and me want to be in that number – as they sing in New Orleans and perhaps (!) in the Heavenly liturgy – when the saints go marching in.
Last month in Rome the patron of our Newman House at Queen’s University, where I have spent my entire priestly ministry, was declared a saint. It was a day of great joy, as I have long read his works, sung his hymns, prayed his prayers. So now St. John Henry Newman, the greatest intellectual of Victorian England and judged by some to be the greatest theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas seven centuries earlier, is one of those relatively few canonized saints. But his teaching encourages the rest of us who will never be canonized, but who are certainly called by the gift of baptism to be in that great multitude.
The universal call to be holy – in this world and the next – in the light of Newman’s canonization called to mind a (in)famous moment in the Canadian discussion of faith in our common life. In 2010, the late Christopher Hitchens debated a hapless Tony Blair in Toronto on the merits of religion. I attended that debate at Roy Thomson Hall and was rather surprised when Newman was invoked at the beginning, by Hitchens, not Blair.
Hitchens opened by saying that it was only fair to treat religion by its greatest exemplars, not its worst scoundrels. Thus, he began by quoting Newman, which he introduced as a model of religion at its best. It was the well-known passage on sin from the Difficulties of Anglicans:
The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.
There it is, Hitchens crowed. Newman – the great, refined, subtle, brilliant, gentle, incomparable Newman! – is a fanatic. For it is fanaticism to prefer the starvation of millions to one little sin. And if Newman is a fanatic, then all religion is fanaticism. It was a neat and arresting argument.