Below is the text of the homily Archbishop J. Peter Sartain delivered at the “Celebration of Our Saints” Mass November 3 at St. James Cathedral:
A long time ago, St. Martin de Porres decided to watch over our family.
My father was born and reared in small-town east Tennessee, where the Catholic population was sparse, to say the least. Paulist priests on Signal Mountain traveled a circuit by horseback to offer Mass for Catholics spread across a large area.
On January 7, 1912, Father J. Duffy, C.S.P., rode from Winchester to South Pittsburg to baptize our father, Joseph Martin Sartain, born December 30, 1911. Son of Luther Benton Sartain Sr. and Josephine Marie Reilly, his godparents were Thomas and Margaret Johnson. I have a photocopy of the page in the makeshift sacramental book which records the baptism in Latin.
My father received little in the way of religious education, since his mother died when he was a toddler; his father, by then a Catholic, had been reared in the Methodist church. It was not until after he married my mother and moved to Memphis in the mid-1940s that my father received instructions in the Catholic faith.
It was apparently during those instructions that the subject of patron saints arose, and my father learned of St. Martin de Porres. Martin was born in Lima, Peru, on December 9, 1579, the son of a Spanish nobleman and a Panamanian ex-slave. He grew up in poverty, and as a boy he spent time with a surgeon-barber, from whom he learned the rudiments of medicine. At age 11 he became a servant at a Dominican priory, eventually took vows as a Dominican lay brother, and spent the rest of his life caring for the sick and poor of Lima as distributer of alms for the Dominicans, infirmarian and surgeon. He died in 1639.
My father was named after his grandfather, Joseph Martin, whom he never met; but in his mid-30s he adopted Martin de Porres as his patron. There was always a statue of Martin in our home, we learned about him growing up, and one of my nephews now bears the name. When I was in the fourth grade, I read Lad of Lima by Mary Fabian Windeatt. For our book reports, each of us was to dress like the main character of our book. I wore a Dominican habit Mom fashioned out of a sheet, with her large rosary beads around my belt, as St. Martin.
A priest friend once said to me that he thinks our patron saints choose us, and I agree completely. They want to help us come close to Jesus. When we speak of the “communion of saints,” it is important to reflect on the meaning of “communion.” The saints in heaven are one with each other and with us precisely because we are all one in Jesus, and they pray for us that we might grow as disciples and friends of the Lord. They are aware of us before we are aware of them, and just as friends are attracted to one another by similar backgrounds or shared interests, it seems to me that we and the saints have a lot in common. Communion implies relationship, and their relationship with us is an active one, a two-way street.
I imagine St. Martin de Porres chose my father because he was a pharmacist and cared for the sick and downtrodden as Martin had done. Perhaps my father’s difficult childhood attracted Martin’s attention, for he, too, struggled as a child. Whatever his reasons for choosing him, Martin has been with my family ever since, interceding and watching over us.
As with my dad, through the years, I have also been chosen by saints who wanted to help me grow closer to Jesus: St. Peter, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Thomas More, St. Catherine of Siena, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Blessed Karl Leisner, St. Maximillian Kolbe, St. Faustina Kowalksa, Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, and St. Juan Diego, St. Kateri, St. Frances Cabrini, among other saints and blesseds. Friends and guides, they know just how I need to grow closer to the Lord. They pray for me and offer inspiration through their writings and example.
This Celebration of All Our Saints reminds us that we are part of an eternal communion in Jesus Christ, and in him we are one with friends seen and unseen. We have more Christian guides and protectors than we imagine, and they are cheering us along the path to life eternal, a path we never travel alone. Yes, we have individual patron saints; but our countries and cultures also have patron saints, who are instruments of God’s love and inspire us to follow Jesus, who pray for us, who give us hope when times are tough. Many of them are represented in today’s liturgy. God has sent them to us as his emissaries and his ambassadors, and as we can see from the devotion of everyone present today, we do not forget their patronage — we cannot forget their patronage.
But let’s not forget: We are devoted to them because they lead us to God. We love them because they lived their lives just as St. Paul taught the Philippians to live: to them, life was Christ. And they desired above all, by living their lives with and in Christ, to be instruments of Christ in serving the poor, the downtrodden, the lost, the sad, the misplaced. They could do all of that because they were one with God in prayer. One of St. Martin de Porres’ biographers said of him, having seen him work untiringly for others, he did everything “with great generosity, promptness, and attention to detail. … It made me realize that, in that he clung to God in his soul, all these things were effects of divine grace.”
Sisters and brothers, may it be the same with us: let us cling to God with all our soul, to his Son Jesus as faithful disciples, and to the Holy Spirit, who keeps us faithful to Jesus and leads us always to the truth. Amen.