The Communion of Saints
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"Exactly as Christian communion between men on their earthly pilgrimage brings us closer to Christ, so our community with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom, as from its fountain and head, issues all grace and the life of the People of God itself" (Lumen Gentium, 50).
We have seen that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ with Christ at its head and Mary as its Mother. We who have been baptized in Christ are the members. Membership in the Mystical Body is not limited to those living on earth. Since Baptism leaves us with a permanent character that can never be taken away, those who die faithful to their baptismal promises are still part of the Mystical Body. We use the term Communion of Saints to refer to the Church in this sense - as including her members both living and dead.
The term saints is used in various ways. In the widest sense, it means "holy ones"; all those who have been baptized share in the holiness of Christ. More specifically, saints means those who have died and are with God in Heaven. In the strictest sense the term refers to those who have been officially declared by the Church to be in Heaven - those we call the canonized saints. The union of these saints is based on our common possession of the life of grace and is expressed through the exchange of spiritual goods. Thus the Communion of Saints includes all of the faithful who are united in Christ - the faithful on earth, the souls in Purgatory, and the blessed, or saints, in Heaven.
The Pilgrim/Militant Church
The first part of the communion of Saints is the faithful on earth. We are known as the Pilgrim Church since we are journeying (on a pilgrimage) to Heaven. Sometimes we also refer to this group as the Church Militant. This indicates the "fight", or "struggle", that we on earth must constantly wage against sin and temptation.
Our unity is one of love. We are asked by Christ to carry one another's burdens, to serve each other, to help especially the least among us by the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. This is also done in a special way through prayers for each other. We frequently ask others to pray for us, or we join with them in praying for a particular need.
Intercessory prayer, prayer on behalf of another person, has long been a part of our religious heritage. In the Old Testament we often see the leaders and prophets of Israel pray to God for their people. When Our Lord was on earth we heard him pray to his Father for his disciples at the Last Supper. He also encouraged them to pray for one another and for those who would persecute them. In his letters, St. Paul often asks the people to pray for him and mentions his own prayers for them. For example, in his letter to the Christian community in Rome he says ". . .without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers" (Rom 1:9). The Fathers and Doctors of the Church also frequently exhort us to pray for one another. In the Liturgy today the Church encourages us as well. In the Prayer of the Faithful at the end of the Liturgy of the Word, we pray expressly for the Church and the needs of its members.
The Church Suffering
Prayer for one another does not end with death. While those in Heaven do not need our prayers, those in Purgatory do, and we, the Pilgrim/Militant Church, and should pray for them as well. These souls in Purgatory represent the second part of the communion of Saints and are known as the Church Penitent or Church Suffering.
When we die, we do not all necessarily go straight to Heaven. Those who do go directly to Heaven love God perfectly and have no trace of sin left on their souls. Most of us, however, who die in the state of grace, still have some venial sins on our souls, or may not have sufficiently atoned for past sins, and some punishment due to sin may still be necessary.
The souls in this imperfect state not only need to be cleansed, but they want to be cleansed as well. They know that they are not yet prepared to be in the presence of God. Recalling one of Our Lord's parables may help us understand this:
The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, . . . when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment: and he said to him, "Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?" And he was speechless (Mr 22:2-12).
Just as the man who came to the wedding feast was required to have the proper garment, so we must be spotlessly clothed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. If we are not we will, like the guest at the wedding, be "speechless" before our Heavenly King.
Those souls who need to be cleansed and purified before seeing God go the Purgatory. Purgatory is a place of temporary suffering that cleanses the soul and makes it worthy to see God. The Church's teaching on Purgatory is very consoling. Though we are sinful, God in his mercy gives us a chance to make up for these venial sins, and for the punishment still due for our confessed mortal sins. The principal suffering in Purgatory is not seeing God. Even though the souls in Purgatory really do suffer they are filled with peace because they are assured that they will be with God soon. They no longer fear for their salvation. They know that they are being made ready for Heaven.
The souls in Purgatory, however, are unable to do anything for themselves to shorten their time there. They depend on us, the Pilgrim/Militant Church, to help them. We can do this by offering prayers for them, particularly the Mass, as well as offering other charitable acts. We can also offer our own sufferings here on earth for these souls.
Our Catholic practice of praying for those who have died is rooted in God's revelation to the Jews. In the Old Testament, the book of Maccabees tells the story of Judas Maccabeus, who lived in the second century before Christ. After a battle, it was discovered that some of his dead soldiers who were good men had sinned before their deaths. Judas Maccabeus then had prayers and sacrifices offered to God for these men: ". . . It was a holy and pious thought . . . he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin" (2 Macc 12:45).
In this passage God reveals to us that our prayers can help those who have died. It was also the belief of the early Christians and is part of Tradition. In many ancient Christian tombs we find inscriptions which encourage prayers for those who are buried there.
Because prayer for those who have died is so important, the Church sets aside one day each year on which the whole Church prays for the souls in Purgatory. This is All Souls' Day and is celebrated on November 2. The month of November is dedicated to prayers for those who have died, particularly our own family members and friends.
We should not forget the souls in Purgatory during the remainder of the year, particularly at Mass, during the Eucharistic prayer when we pray for the dead. But we should try to do this at other times as well. For example, many Catholics add the following short prayer to their prayer before or after meals:
"May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen."
There are other things as well that can help us remember to pray for those who have died. Often holy cards are distributed at funerals. The purpose of these cards is to remind us to pray for the person who has died. As pictures in our homes remind us to think of our family members who have died, so, too, these holy cards remind us of them. We should keep them some place where they can remind us to pray for the faithful departed.
The Church Triumphant
The blessed in Heaven can also pray for the souls in Purgatory, as well as for us on earth. They are the third part of the Communion of Saints - the Church Triumphant. They are triumphant because they have completely conquered sin and now share in eternal glory, even before the resurrection of their bodies.
Among the blessed in Heaven are the canonized saints, whom the Church has officially declared to be in Heaven. As we have seen, the most important among these is Our Lady, But there are also many others who have reached Heaven - perhaps some of our own relatives and friends - and deserve to be called saints as well. We do not know for certain who they are, but the Church honors them with a feast each year - the feast of All Saints on November 1.
All these are saints in glory with Christ, who, shining like stars in the firmament, are "in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb" (Rev 7:9). We are ultimately united with them in our love and union in Christ, and in the grace he gives us. In our prayers, especially in the Liturgy of the Church, we join their heavenly chorus in the glorification of God, saying:
Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever. Amen (Rev 7:12).
We are not just praying alone, each member of the Church by himself. We are united in a community of incomparable grandeur, in a victorious union of love. This great community lifts us up and generates fruits of grace in us.
We partake in this communion of Saints, and we can turn to the saints for help, just as we turn to others members of the Church on earth. We ask them to intercede with God us us, just as we might ask a friend here to do the same.
We should remember that we are worshipping the saints, but praying to God through them. The saints are truly united with us through Christ and want to help us. St. Terese of Lisieux remarked before her death that she would "spend her Heaven doing good upon earth". And this is what the saints do when we turn to them.
We are also honoring God when we venerate the saints. The saints are masterpieces of God's grace. Grace has triumphed in them and the devil has been conquered. In venerating them we honor God, whole life shines forth in them.
Devotion to the saints goes back to the early days of the Church. The early Christians began to honor the apostles after their deaths, and later the martyrs were included as well. Gradually, the practice was extended to other holy men and women. The Church recognized their holiness and saw that they could be examples to the faithful. The saints show us that we can reach Heaven, and they show us the way.
The saints came from all walks of life - some were married with families, some were priests or Religious Sisters or Brothers, some were kings or queens, some were rich and others poor. Yet, they all had their complete devotion to God in common. Since their lives were so different, it is not surprising that we might find the life of one saint more interesting or helpful to us than another. People, in fact, often develop a devotion to particular saints.
For example, the people of one country may have a devotion to a particular saints whose life was intimately connected with their nation. St. Patrick spread the Catholic faith throughout Ireland, and because of this he is the patron saint of Ireland. St. Thomas More was a great lawyer and statesman in England. He is the patron saint of all lawyers and also the patron saint of all laypeople because he served God as a layman. We might also have a special devotion to the saint for whom we were named.
Because the lives of the saints are such important examples for us, the study of their lives and times in which they lived gives us a chance to see something of the history of the Church.
Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534
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