The communion of saints includes both living and dead
by Woodeene Koenig-Bricker
Special to The Leaven
As the church year begins to wind down, the focus of the readings and holy days turns toward endings: death, the Last Judgment, the return of Jesus at the end of time. Inherent in all of this is a central reality of our Catholic faith: There is life after death.
It is precisely because we believe that life continues after our mortal demise that we also believe in the communion of saints. In fact, each time we say the Apostles’ Creed we profess: “I believe in . . . the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints.”
What do we mean when we say these words? In one sense, we are expressing our belief in those men and women who have been named saints with a capital “S” — like St. Kateri Tekakwitha, who was canonized in October. But the communion of saints is more than those select whose lives are so remarkable that the world acknowledges their holiness. It also encompasses what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “the three states of the church.”
Based on 1 Cor 12:12, where St. Paul writes that “all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body,” the teaching says that those of us on earth, those in purgatory and those in heaven are all united under Christ.
As the catechism puts it: “When the Lord comes in glory, and all his angels with him, death will be no more and all things will be subject to him. But at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is’” (CCC, No. 954).
The first state — “pilgrims on earth” — is sometimes called the Church Militant because the living are engaged in the daily battle against sin and evil. The second state, those who are “being purified,” is called the Church Suffering, because those souls, while assured of final salvation, are undergoing a period of suffering and cleansing in purgatory.
Finally, the last state, the Church Triumphant, refers to those men and women who are in heaven, including not just the saints with a capital “S” but all who now see the “full light” of God, the proverbial saints who come marching in.
The way these three states of the church are united in Christ is through what is called the “communion of spiritual goods,” a theological way of saying that we can, and should, pray for each other.
It’s easy to see how those on earth can pray for one another — the prayers of the faithful at Mass are a prime example of the way we can pray for one another here on earth.
Asking for the prayers of those in heaven — especially the saints — is also easy to understand. In fact, a miracle in answer to intercessory prayer is a prerequisite for canonization. We believe that the prayers of those in heaven are particularly effective: “They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus. . . . So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped” (CCC, No. 956).
The relationship with the Church Suffering, however, is a bit different. From the earliest days of the church, prayers have been offered for the dead so that they might be loosed from their sins and have their time in purgatory shortened.
Since those in this state are not yet fully in the presence of God, they cannot pray for us in the same way that those in heaven can, but, as the catechism explains: “Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective” (CCC, No. 958).
We believe that as we can help them with our prayers, so, too, they can help us in some way. This time of year, particularly on All Souls Day, we are asked to remember the souls in purgatory in a special way.
One thing to remember about the communion of saints: Even though we commonly say that we are praying “to” a person, particularly a canonized saint, we can’t pray to a person. We can only pray to God. What we do when we pray “to” a saint, is to ask his or her aid and intercession in praying with us to God.
In doing so, however, we affirm two fundamental truths of our faith — that there is life after death and that all believers are somehow mysteriously united in the communion of saints through Christ.
As Pope Paul VI said, “[We] all together [form] one Church; and we believe that in this communion, the merciful love of God and his saints is always [attentive] to our prayers” (Paul VI, “Credo of the People of God,” No. 30).