Saints in the making

Catholic schools celebrate All Saints’ Day in style

At other schools, Nov. 1 was likely just another Friday for students. At Denver’s Catholic schools, however, it wasn’t just Friday – it was All Saints’ Day.

On this special feast day, Catholic schools invite their students and teachers to participate in the communion of saints by dressing up as their favorite saints. The occasion is usually marked by class parties, fun activities and even parades around the school.

During his Angelus address at the Vatican, Pope Francis said on All Saints’ Day that “the saints of all times, which we celebrate together today, are not simply symbols, distant human beings, unreachable. On the contrary, they are people who have lived with their feet on the ground. They have experienced the daily toil of existence with its successes and its failures, finding in the Lord the strength to always get up and continue the journey.”

More than just a fun day for students, All Saints’ Day is an opportunity to remind them that they, too, are capable of holiness, and is another way in which Catholic schools live up to their name.

Students at various Catholic schools dressed up as saints for All Saints’ Day. (Photo by Vladimir Mauricio-Perez)

At St. Rose of Lima in Denver, celebrating All Saints’ Day perfectly complements the goal of preparing its students not only academically, but also spiritually.

“We believe all students are called to sainthood, and as we prepare them academically for success in Catholic high schools and college, we also prepare them for heaven,” said Tomas Gallegos, principal at St. Rose of Lima. “It’s seeing themselves as saints, praying to the saints and using that for guidance on how they should live their lives.”

Teachers and staff are also encouraged to join in the fun. Gallegos was dressed as St. Francis of Assisi, a saint that’s had a particularly special impact on his life.

“I had the opportunity to visit Assisi and go see the chapel that [St. Francis] helped rebuild and see where he’s laid to rest,” Gallegos told the Denver Catholic. “He’s someone that I pray to in a very special way, but I also think it’s a good connection for our students who already innately have a love of animals to see somebody who really embodied that.”

At St. John the Baptist School in Longmont, the preschool classes had their own celebration complete with fun activities themed after particular saints. Students sprinkled roses over an image of St. Theresa at her station, searched for lost items at the St. Anthony station, and shot a toy bow and arrow at a target at the St. Kateri station — “target practice,” as some of the students said.

Criscelda Mortimore (left), a parent and volunteer at St. John the Baptist school in Longmont, assists a preschool student during the preschool class’ All Saints Day celebration. (Photo by Aaron Lambert)

Criscelda Mortimore, whose son Ambrose dressed up as St. Mark the Evangelist and is in his second year of preschool at St. John the Baptist, volunteered to help run one of the stations for the children. She likes the All Saints’ Day celebration not only because it’s fun for the kids, but also because it presents an important learning opportunity for students and parents alike.

“I really like how it opens up the opportunity for me to discuss things like [the saints],” Mortimore said. “Although I am one who considers myself to take Catholicism seriously, it can be hard to bring that stuff up in everyday activities.

“I probably would’ve never been able to discuss with him the idea of the symbol of St. Mark the Evangelist being a winged lion and that’s something that I actually learned myself too, were it not for our participation in All Saints’ Day.”

As part of their All Saints’ Day activities, students at Assumption Catholic School in Denver created a prayer chain with the names of deceased loved ones to tie with the celebration of All Souls’ Day the following day. (Photo by Rocio Madera)

More than just the practical application of learning about the saints, Catholic schools’ participation in All Saints’ Day activities also gives students the chance to find new role models in the saints in an interactive way.

“It’s a beautiful thing for kids to have these spiritual role models that they can look to for guidance, individuals who walked the earth and had professions and families, but also chose to devote their lives to Christ,” said Sarah Grey, principal at Assumption Catholic School in Denver. “Our kids are being exposed to so many people — celebrities, athletes, individuals that are maybe not the best role models for them, so it’s a beautiful thing for them to learn about individuals who have died for their faith that they can hopefully try to exemplify.”

Rocio Madera and Vladimir Mauricio-Perez contributed to this report.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.