Yesterday (July 23d) was the 3 year anniversary of my sister Celeste’s death (for more about Celeste, check out my mom’s blog). While it’s a very difficult day for me personally, I feel that it really leads me to think about a topic that often comes up whenever I mention her to my non-Catholic friends. That topic is the Communion of Saints.
We all mention it in the Apostle’s creed: “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting”. It’s kinda tacked on there at the end, but considering it made it into the creed it has to be pretty important. New Advent has a great article in their Catholic encyclopedia that includes some of the history, just in case you want to check it out.
The communion of saints is made up of three parts (and I’m quoting from memory here, third/fourth grade Baltimore catechism memory to be exact): the Church militant, the Church suffering and the Church triumphant. Let’s take a look at each of these remarkable parts (remarkable because they are made up of souls!).
First, because it’s the most familiar to us, is the Church Militant. As the name implies it’s a bit of an army of sorts, specifically Christ’s army of souls here on earth. In case you haven’t figured it out, that means us! Yep, we’re part of the communion of saints. As Christians we are part of the Body of Christ as soon as we are inducted into the Church (traditionally through baptism). When we are confirmed we are given the exhortation to go out as soldiers of Christ and help bring other souls to this wonderful family. This is a pretty simple category and one that’s easy to see. We’re “saints” because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our souls and we’re militant by virtue of the commission Christ gave us to win the world for him.
Next, the Church suffering. This is not all the sick people in the world, rather it’s those who have died, yet have not passed through the Pearly Gates. This is a distinctly Catholic part of the body of Christ due to the debate raging about the existence of Purgatory, aka home to the Church Suffering. Why are they “suffering”? Well, it may or may not be because of actual pain (while there couldn’t necessarily be pain since these are souls and not bodies) but rather because of the suffering due to their separation from God while they are being cleansed and prepared to enter Heaven. Keep in mind, there’s a lot of mystery surrounding Purgatory and what actually goes on there, how it’s set up, etc. And that’s a whole other debate worthy of a book, not just a blog post. Suffice it to say that these members of the Body are suffering there in order to perfect their souls so they are fit to meet God face to face (which they will do at some point, praise God!).
Finally, we have the Church Triumphant! This is the club that we all want to belong to some day. These are the members of the body who are enjoying the Beatific Vision, those who have suffered, died and are now living eternal life. These are the souls we long to emulate, the people who we often call “Saint”. I can’t wait to share that title, can you? Again, this seems a simple distinction, Christians, Catholics or others who lived their lives well and became holy enough to see God’s face.
Now, while most Christians can agree on these various parts of the body (the Church suffering being an exception) there arises a debate when you start discussing whether or not the different parts can communicate with each other. The way I was taught back in grade school is this: the Militant can speak to the Suffering and Triumphant (through prayer), the Suffering can pray for the Militant but can not communicate with anyone (although connected through their prayers) and the Triumphant can pray for the Militant and the Suffering, and if given a special order from God could communicate to the Militant directly (be it through visions, apparitions, etc). What’s more important for us on a daily level though is that communication between us and the Triumphant.
First, what is that communication? How does it work? For me and my sister (who I know is in heaven due to her being baptized, confirmed and sinless and then dying at the age of four months) it is simply me speaking to her at various points in much the same way that I speak to God. Often, I’ll ask her to pray for me if I’m facing a tough situation or a rush at work or just in general. Sometimes I’ll tell her I miss her. Sometimes I just say “Hi”. She doesn’t talk back to me, sometimes the quandy I face is not so hard anymore, but all in all, I communicate things to her that are often the same things I might tell my other sister Lauren (who is alive and well, currently flying home from World Youth Day in Australia). In effect, we the Militant communicate with the Triumphant in a similar fashion to the way we communicate with others in the church Militant. We share things about ourselves and we ask for their intercession with God.
So what is the problem? There are two key points that often come up in debate, which I’ll outline here.
- There is no way to communicate with the dead, they can’t hear you, and, in fact, this is forbidden as necromancy.
- There is only one mediator between God and man and that is Christ (you can’t ask the saints to intercede for you).
Let’s tackle these, shall we?
First, no, we don’t know for sure if the Triumphant can hear us. We certainly have sufficient hope to believe they do, there are accounts of various saints appearing to the living and whatnot (in fact Jesus used that as a main part in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man). But what really points to us being able to communicate is the fact that we’re all part of the body of Christ. Just as one part of your body is able to communicate with another part, so one part of Christ’s body can speak to the other. What you have to remember is that Christ is the head. We’re his hands, his feet, his organs that keep things going and we all have our parts to play. And through him, we’re able to all stay on the same page. (Remember this image of the body, it’s important for the next point.)
As for the second point, we must follow some if then statements. Our premise: we can, in fact, communicate with all members of the Body of Christ living or deceased. If we can’t ask those who are dead to pray for us because we are “asking them to mediate between us and God”, then we can not ask those who are living because that would be asking them to “mediate between us and God” not Christ. If we are all equal in Christ’s body, then we all either can or can not intercede for each other. Yes, Christ is the mediator between us and God. He is the one who opened up the lines of communication that were cut off by sin. But remember the body of Christ? We’re all connected through Christ our Head. If I ask my mom, my sister Lauren, the stranger on the street to pray for me, I am going through other part of the body. If another part of the body is my sister Celeste, or my grandfather Norman or Mary Magdalene, we are still part of the same body. We all have the same abilities to pray for one another and to come together before the Lord to ask Him to intercede for us.
This has only been a little bit of this argument. It can go on for quite some time as evidenced by the many debates I’ve had about it.
For me this is a very personal and touchy subject. I have a deep connection with my sister Celeste and one that I feel is very real, not just me “coping” with her death by pretending that I can communicate with her. There are many things that could be said about this, many things that I’d love to delve into, but frankly, my fingers are aching and this has taken quite some time to write (I went through a whole wine cooler!).
So αποχαιρετισμός friends. Until next time.