The Communion of Saints
We mention it every time we say the Apostles Creed. "I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the Forgiveness of Sins…" But what exactly is the Communion of Saints? One thing it is not: It is not the saints receiving communion at the Mass. That is another use of the word "communion" which does not apply in the phrase, the Communion of Saints. Rather, it is the unity of all believers, here on Earth, in Purgatory, and in Heaven, in Christ. It is our membership in His Body, the Church, and that of all saints. It is our investment in each other.
It is helpful to meditate on the Mystical Body of Christ of which we are members, in order that we may gain a deeper appreciation of our fellow members the saints (those in Heaven and those on their way to Heaven while still here on Earth or else in Purgatory, who are really our best friends.
Let us start with the basic doctrines of the Church, for all must be understood in that context. The Church teaches that there are three basic portions of the Church, distinguished by the locations of the members therein. We here on Earth comprise the Church Militant, which is to say the fighting Church. We fight the world, the flesh, and the Devil, and labor to save our own souls and the souls of those around us, and to establish the Kingdom of God in the Earth, as we always pray, "Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven." Only when we die is the grand fight over, and we pass on to one of the other portions of the Church.
The next portion of the Church is Purgatory, where those of us who die in God, but with some sins unremitted, must pay for our share of them with our sufferings. Therefore this portion of the Church is called the Church Suffering. Redeemed, those in Purgatory are assured of Heaven, but presently still in the process of being "cleaned up" or made able and worthy to enter Heaven, where they will all be when time ends.
Finally, the saints already glorified in Heaven comprise the third portion of the Church, namely the Church Triumphant. These holy saints have triumphed over evil, paid for every sin of theirs, and are worthy to stand in the presense of God, and see as they are seen. There are several well-established manners in which all of us relate to each other in the Mystical Body of Christ. The most important is that we all have Christ as our Head, and that we are members of Him first and foremost, and secondarily to each other. In our relationship to each other, there are several basic transactions which take place between the members of the various portions of the Church.
Towards the saints in Heaven we pray to them with our requests and give praise to them as we honor them here on Earth. They in turn intercede for us with their prayers for us (as we requested of them), and obtain for us Graces and sometimes other things as well. Towards the saints in Purgatory, we offer prayers for them, our sufferings, and indulgences to deliver them from Purgatory into Heaven. They in turn pray for us, and have gratitude to us, for what we do for them, and especially when they enter Heaven. Finally, between Heaven and Purgatory those in Purgatory offer prayers and praise to the saints in Heaven, and those in Heaven intercede also for those in Purgatory, and provide them with relief from their sufferings.
There is finally the Communion of us Saints here on Earth. This enables us to pray for each other, exhort and encourage each other, and help each other in practical ways. What interactions are possible between Saints in Purgatory or between Saints in Heaven one can only speculate about, if indeed there are any interactions at all.
These are all the most important and basic ways that the Saints from the various portions of the Church can relate to each other, but I believe that there are other ways. The most important that comes to mind is the holy example of the saints. As members of Christ, our peers are not those in the world around us, but our fellow members of Christ. This constitutes a kind of Divine peer pressure to be like those we associate with. It is said that we become like those we associate with, so if we get mixed up in a bad crowd we become bad ourselves, but if in a good crowd we become good. The finest crowd to run around with is of course the holy Saints.
But how can we associate with them? By the time they are canonized, they are already in Heaven, and therefore not here on Earth. We can of course pray to them, and request their prayers and intercession for us and our needs and for God's Grace, but another thing we have is the account of their lives, and in some cases their writings. I cannot think of any better reading than the lives and writings of the Saints, since reading about them is like being around them, as is reading their works, those who left works anyway. It is their merits which give power to their prayers on our behalf, the "merit of the Saints," as it is doctrinally called. But it was their actions, as recorded in the accounts of their lives, which originally earned their merit, and can earn merit for us.
I cannot think of anything better we can do to than keep their holy example before us, by reading of their lives, and by attending Mass on the days of their feasts where they are honored. This is why it is that Mass is done every day, that each day we may be exposed to the holy influence of some particular holy Saint, and put us in a spiritual frame of mind for the day, as well as be edified by whatever homily may also be offered. By imitating them we most directly apply their merits to our lives.
The Bible, in Hebrews chapter eleven, lists many of the Old Testament saints, those who inhabited the Limbo of the Fathers until the redemption provided by Christ. It is said that in the three days that our Lord was dead he visited the Fathers in Limbo and enabled them to enter Heaven at last. Of those, Jesus had once spoken of John the Baptist as being the last and greatest, but that (as of the time He spoke of it) even he had not as yet entered Heaven. As the book of Hebrews was written afterwords, the Old Testament Saints have finally entered Heaven, and in the New Testament era were the first recognized Saints in Heaven. Let us read about them:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear. By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh. By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God. But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith. By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised. Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable. These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city. By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure. By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come. By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff. By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones. By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid three months of his parents, because they saw he was a proper child; and they were not afraid of the king's commandment. By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward. By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible. Through faith he kept the passover, and the sprinkling of blood, lest he that destroyed the firstborn should touch them. By faith they passed through the Red sea as by dry land: which the Egyptians assaying to do were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they were compassed about seven days. By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace. And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions. Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
As we can see from this early Scriptural martyrology, the holy example of the Saints is important indeed as an encouragement for all of us to follow their example. Since those days, many other Saints have been canonized by the Church, of whom their accounts can be read in any volume of the lives of the Saints. I know of no surer path to sanctity than their holy examples as they each lived the life of Christ in the life of a bricklayer, of a housewife, a child, a hermit, a priest, a pope, a mystic, a bridge-builder or whatever vocation God gave to each one, and to each of us.
Because we are all of one Body, we have a stake in each other's spiritual welfare. Even those who are dead in sin as fallen away Catholics, or those with unconfessed mortal sin, and united with us and the lawful object of prayers on their behalf. When one member suffers, all members suffer, and no one can say to another "I don't need you," just as the head cannot say that to the foot of a person, as seen in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.
For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked. That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret? But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.
Finally, the holy saints are the one piece of hard information we have about Heaven. No one really has any idea what Heaven will be like, but in the saints we have good idea of the sort of people who will be with us there. The desire to be with them is a powerful incentive for holiness. Perhaps there are other ways we can interact with the fellow member of Christ, and that is what I hope the discussion following will attempt to focus on. Thank you.
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