Reflection: November—and the Communion of Saints
by Father Don Thomas
At every Sunday Mass and on some special feast days, Catholics recite the Nicene Creed, which is a summary of doctrinal beliefs and somewhat longer than the Apostles' Creed they recite at the beginning of the Rosary. It is at the end of the Apostles' Creed that we come across these words: "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints…"
There are many different answers that are given when some Catholics are asked by others "What is meant by the communion of saints"? Answers like "I don't know, I just believe it" or others mention that maybe it means that the saints went to holy communion. It is nothing like that at all.
I am writing this in the middle of October, and it is timely because the month of November is dedicated to the souls of our departed, who may be suffering in Purgatory. We definitely pray for them all year round and at every Mass, but in a special way during the month of November. In fact, November 2nd is called "All Souls Day". Catholics do believe in Purgatory, while non-Catholics usually do not. Praying for the dead has a lot to do with what we mean by the "Communion of saints".
From the time I was a youngster in elementary school, I have felt lucky and blessed in understanding this doctrine because of an explanation one of the nuns gave in religion class. To help us understand this doctrine, I recall how she used the example of a pile of bricks that are dumped out in the back yard. Even though Dad mentioned that he was going to make a little shrine or a fireplace, the bricks just lay there, looking like a mess with grass growing around them and up through them like weeds.
But then, Dad comes through and finally begins to build the fireplace. What does he do? He takes a little mortar, laying one brick on another, and as the mortar begins to pull these bricks together. They take on a new and different appearance. All those bricks that individually looked like a mess now form an attractive shrine or fireplace. What a difference the mortar makes! And so it is with the Communion of Saints.
The Church or the Family of God is made up of three groups: the Church Militant, which means (and includes) all of us who are still alive here on earth, struggling and fighting to work out our salvation and get to heaven some day. Another group is called the Church Suffering, and it includes all those souls who were not bad enough to go to hell for all eternity. However because they are not good enough to go straight to heaven, they end up in Purgatory, a place of cleansing or purification. They are called the Church Suffering. The third and final group is made up of those who have won the battle, those who are eternally happy with God in the Kingdom of Heaven. They are called the Church Triumphant.
So we have the Three groups: the Church Militant, the Church Suffering, and the Church Triumphant. Like each individual brick, each group is very important. Just as the mortar made a big difference with the bricks in the building of the shrine or fireplace, it is the bond of love between each group that unites the Church Militant, Suffering and Triumphant.
Love is the greatest of all virtues; love of God and love of neighbor is the greatest of all the commandments. It is that love between the three groups that gives us the Catholic Doctrine that is called "the Communion of Saints".
To overcome doubts and questions about this doctrine, we have to keep in mind that it is the soul that makes a person a person. Then the body, with individuating characteristics like blond hair, blue eyes, 5-feet tall, and so forth. It is the body that makes one a particular person, distinguishable from the next person. We also believe that God is a pure spirit and that means He does not have a body. Yet, if we pray to Him, and we certainly do, there is nothing wrong or contradictory about praying for or praying to a person whose body is still in a cemetery but whose soul is either in Heaven or Purgatory.
Here on earth we can pray for ourselves, asking God to bless us, forgive us, cure us, and other requests. We do not pray for the saints or anyone in heaven because they are saved and have no need of prayers. We, along with those in heaven, can pray for the suffering souls in Purgatory, while they cannot pray for themselves. They can help us with their prayers but they cannot help themselves because they are in a state of cleansing or purgation.
The Bible even tells us in the Book of the Macabees that "it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be freed from their sins". That text could not be referring to souls in hell because they are dealing with eternal punishment. That text would not be referring to the dead that are now in heaven, because no soul stained by sin can enter the kingdom of God, and therefore they do not need our prayers.
The souls in purgatory are in need of our prayers, and it is the love that binds these three groups together that helps us understand what is meant by "the communion of saints". Presently, we find ourselves in the Church Militant, and hopefully we will be with the Church Suffering, and even more hopefully with the Church Triumphant in the Kingdom of Heaven that Christ has prepared for all of us by His life, His death and His resurrection.
Let us never forget our dead, and every year when the month of November rolls around, let us remember them in a most special manner in our prayers and Masses.
Eternal rest grant unto them, 0 Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. may they rest in peace, Amen, and may their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace Amen!
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