Wednesday 15 November 2023

The Communion of Saints

The Church often speaks of the totality of God’s People, as the Communion of Saints. The word “saint” simply means “holy” — a saint is a holy person. But holiness doesn’t refer to a moral state. It doesn’t mean “good” or “virtuous”. A saint is not someone who behaved better than other people. Holy, saintly, means belonging to God. A saint is someone who belongs to God. So when St Paul refers to the Saints in his Letters, he means you and me, those of us who belong to God because he has claimed us for his own. The Communion of Saints is, therefore, what we otherwise call the Church (a word which, incidentally, comes from the Greek meaning “belonging to the Lord”).

As we remember from our Catechism, the Church, this great Communion of Saints, is formed of three parts. The first is those who can properly be called “saints”: that is, those who have died and are now enjoying the vision of God, and reigning with Christ in glory. Those countless men and women throughout the ages whom God was able to mould and shape and form by his grace into the image of his Son. Those millions of known and unknown people celebrated at the beginning of this month on the feast of All Saints. We do not pray for them — rather we ask them to pray for us and for all God’s people. We feebly struggle; they in glory shine.

The second part of the Church is made up of those who are alive today, the People of God which is still very much on its way to ultimate union with him. That’s all of us who are working out our salvation in fear and trembling, who are stumbling and falling and getting up again and moving forward — hopefully — with God’s grace. We call this part of the Church the Church Militant, because we are still fighting — fighting against ourselves, fighting against everything that keeps us from God, fighting the good fight, and running the race. We are saints too, because we belong to the Lord, and we fight as the saints who nobly fought of old.

The third group is that which the Church remembers especially during November, the Holy Souls. They are those who have died but are not quite ready to meet God face to face. Most of us would probably acknowledge that we are far from perfect. Our hearts are divided, we seek after things which can only give us temporary happiness, we become attached to all sorts of rubbish, we have to live with the consequences of our actions. Nothing which is imperfect can enter heaven, so if through prayer and penance in this life, we haven’t yet been purified of all that debris of sin and selfishness, then we still need to go through some purifying process before entering the eternal presence of God. What that process is like it is not for us to speculate, but we call it Purgatory.

It is our Christian faith that just as we can pray for each other here on earth, and just as we can ask the saints in heaven to pray for us, so too we can pray for those who are undergoing this purification after death. Those souls still have parts of themselves which they tried to hide from God, areas in their lives and in their hearts which were dead, which were far from where they ought to be, far from where God is, where God’s love was taken for granted. God’s grace will penetrate all those parts, it will purify and restore and bring back to life. And our prayers express our Christian faith and hope that after that process it is God’s will that our loved ones will indeed be with him in paradise. They are the “Holy Souls” because they too belong to God.

There is a great tendency today to speak about someone who has died as if they have gone immediately to heaven, a sort of instant canonisation. It is true that Christ has conquered death, and opened the gates of heaven to all who believe in him. We have a God who is a loving Father and who has created all his children to live with him forever. We can have faith and trust in the mercy of God. But we must never presume on that mercy. And we cannot deny the weakness and pride and self-centredness that is a part of the humanity we all share. The great danger of instant canonisations is that we might in all the celebrating of life forget to offer up our prayers and our good works and our love on behalf of the dead.

And so, although it is a “good and religious thing to pray for the dead” every day and at every Mass, it is especially appropriate this month set aside by the Church, when the whole Church Militant, the saints on earth, join their prayers with those of the Saints in heaven for the Holy Souls. Naturally, we will remember especially family members and good friends but we should also think of those who may not have anyone to remember them and pray for them. When our time comes to leave this world, it is on the prayers of those people that you and I will depend.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.