In the Divine Office in use before the reforms that followed Vatican II, the hour of Prime would end with a reading of the Martyrology that gave the names of the saints whose feast day was being celebrated that day. The reading always ended with these words: “Et alibi aliorum plurimorum sanctorum Martyrum et Confessorum atque sanctarum Virginum. And, elsewhere, very many other holy martyrs and confessors and holy virgins.”
This is the great feast we celebrate today, All Saints Day. It has always been one of my favorite feast days. I take it to celebrate the great fellowship of holy people who by virtue of their common share in the holy gifts of God lived the faith before us, whose faithful lives embodied the faith that was passed on until eventually it reached us. An image and an experience illustrate the great chain.
A ten-minute walk from the ecumenical monastery of Bose, about which see here, there is the tiny church of St. Secondo. Built in the first half of the eleventh century, the church originally had a single nave, which soon was expanded to the three naves common in popular Romanesque churches; at the end of the eleventh century a lovely bell-tower was erected, which is considered one of the finest of that period in northern Italy. One can catch a glimpse of the church from several approaches, from some of which it is the only sign of human activity and must look as it did nine hundred years ago. Originally, the church served the worship of the town of Magnano known at the time as a community of iron-workers. Some time in the thirteenth century, the town moved up onto a nearby hill, a new church was built there, and the old church fell into disrepair. The people did not want the memory of their first church to disappear, however, and in the seventeenth century a restoration included some additions in Baroque style. After it again was allowed to decay, a new restoration, begun after the monastery arose nearby, returned it to its medieval simplicity and artlessness.
This simple little church, in a little valley in the foothills of the Alps, witness to or participant in no great historical events, always reminds me of where the Church lives, where it comes to be every day, where it thrives or decays, in the hearts and minds of people anonymous to almost everyone else, who are born, marry, and die, who believe and hope and try to love. The one Church lives and works in the many, many, such Churches.
The experience occurred in another little church, St. Mary’s in Haverstraw, N.Y., a little town on the west shore of the Hudson River, about thirty miles north of New York City. A good number of Slovaks joined other immigrants there in the late nineteenth century to work in the many brickyards that grew up to exploit the abundant clay in the river. Many of them came from two little towns in far eastern Slovakia, and among them were first my grandfather and fifteen years later my grandmother. The family story is that when the Slovaks were not made to feel welcome in the largely Irish church of St. Peter in Haverstraw, they decided to build their own church. A precious possession of mine is the little notebook in which my grandfather recorded the names of people and their contributions of a nickle, a dime, a quarter, for the building of the church. Most of the tiny gifts came from Slovak immigrants in small communities in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. My grandfather also helped build the church with his own hands, and it was dedicated late in the nineteenth century. When my grandfather lost his first wife, he married my grandmother there; my father was baptized there, and so were all twelve of his children.
At the end of the last century, the church had fallen into a certain disrepair mostly because of neglect. When, finally, a dynamic new pastor, Fr. Mario Ziccarelli, was appointed to St. Mary’s, he took charge, had the roof repaired, and then undertook a complete restoration of the interior. The church had frescoes in a Byzantine style–the Slovaks who had built the church belonged some to the Roman Rite, some to the Ruthentian Rite. Fr. Ziccarelli had the frescoes removed and restored as if they were precious works of Giotto. And when everything was finished, he asked me, as a grandson of one of the builders, to celebrate and preach at a Mass of rededication.
The church looked as beautiful as it must have appeared when those people of faith first gathered to worship there–the Šimkos, the Pavlovs, the Komonchaks, the Kohuts, the Madars. I did not expect what happened next. We processed in (singing, of course!), and as we approached the sanctuary, with the beautiful frescoes glowing above the altar, I received the overwhelming sense that the founding generation were there with us also, not just Andrew Komančak and Mary Pavlova, not just their children and grandchildren who were buried from that church, but the others, too–the Madars, the Kohuts, the Šimkos. An infallible certainty that they had joined our company so affected me that I began to weep and I had to struggle to gain control of my voice to start the liturgy. Whenever I am tempted to pass quickly or unthinkingly over the words that end every Preface, I think of that moment and recall that even now we enjoy the common share in God’s holy gifts that enables us to sing in praise of the Thrice-Holy One the song now and eternally being sung by choirs of angels and by all the saints: Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord, God of hosts!
Et alibi aliorum plurimorum!