The Communion of Saints

In the Catholic Church, November is especially set aside to emphasize the Communion of Saints, the Church spread throughout all generations, past, present and the future. Thus, the month began with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day and continues to be a time of prayer with those who have gone before us. And praying with the Saints in heaven. The idea is that we can pray and intercede for the dead, and the faithful departed pray for us and join with us in the liturgies and the efforts of the Church. And we will likewise be joined together with future generations in our prayers and efforts for all ages on this earth.

These teachings about the Communion of Saints are important for our lives, and also for the presentation of the faith to others. In our own lives, we know that we can still show our gratitude for our deceased friends and family members. The church especially encourages dedicating good acts, sacrifices, prayers, and especially the Mass for those who have died. In the other direction, the Church teaches that the faithful departed pray for us and with us, especially in the liturgy; and they rejoice at our advancement towards the greater kingdom.

Thus, the Letter to the Hebrews declares that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness,” who encourage us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us with our eyes of Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Heb. 12:1-2. As then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, said in his 1977 book Eschatology, which means the study of the last things, the faithful departed would not, even if they could, enter into their full glory until the full complement of people are there with them to enjoy it. And so, as Jesus says in the parable of the lost sheep, there is such great joy in heaven over every repentant sinner. See Luke 15:7.

The Communion of Saints is also a very helpful point to make when presenting the faith to others. For there is a natural desire for union with those who have died. And there is a natural desire that, when time comes, we will not be separated from our friends, family, countrymen or the Church on earth. It is true that this desire for union with the dead has sometimes been expressed in human history in bizarre and superstitious ways. However, the desire that love, as the Song of Songs says,” is stronger than death,” is a rightful one. And Jesus Christ, through His Church, describes how this holy desire is rightfully exercised in anticipation of the joining of all nations in everlasting glory.

FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES

Last week’s article described the need for Purgatory in order for most people to reach perfection, and our calling to assist those undergoing this purification.  This article will describe a complementary teaching, namely, that the saints in heaven assist us in our pilgrimage to the final homeland.

The Bible describes the Faithful departed interceding for their loved ones on earth. For example the Second Book of Maccabees recorded a vision of Judas Maccabeus, the Jewish leader in their war of independence.  In that vision, he saw the recently murdered high priest Onias and the long-deceased prophet Jeremiah praying for their people.  See 2 Macc. 15:12-16.  During His public ministry, Jesus said the hour had come when the dead would hear His voice and be called, if they are willing to everlasting life.  See John 5:35. Right after His death, many deceased Israelites arose and appeared to the living as Christ was leading them to heaven.  See Matthew 27:51-52.  The saints continue throughout history to care and pray for the Church and their people on earth.  As Jesus said, there is great joy in heaven over every repentant sinner.  See Luke 15:3-7.  And, as the Letter to the Hebrew said, after describing the great figures of Jewish history, we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” as we “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us.”  Heb. 12:1-2.

And so the Church has ever venerated the saints as models of faith who inspire us to imitate them and as friends who pray for us and encourage us from their glorious realms.  When we hear of news in the world, the situation may often seem to be confused and often discouraging.  And the entertainment industry and popular culture frequently promote as celebrities people whose lives are hardly exemplary.  But when we look upwards to the saints in the greater kingdom, we see a realm where human sin and failures are barriers that have been conquered, in which those who suffered innocently on earth are now at peace, in which all the humble service and prayers unrecognized on earth receive their rightful reward.  This vision fills us with hope and desire to join their company.  And when we know that these pure souls care deeply for us, we realize that we are not alone in our efforts, but rather have so many friends whom we will see one day and who will celebrate with us the victory of grace.

PURGATORY AND PERFECTION

When I was in law school, the professors would often make available copies of former exams they had given so that students could know the type of questions to expect. One of the professors Saul Levmore, said that he was also providing what he considered to be an A+ answer to the questions. At that point, one student asked whether he could also make available what he considered to be a B answer. Professor Levmore responded in a disappointed voice, “You mean for students who are not so ambitious?” His point was that all students should strive for the heights of academic excellence, nothing less. Only with such effort will they reach their full potential. Of course, in academics, as in other fields such as sports, art, music, and the like, there are only so many who can reach the very heights. And teachers and coaches can only provide so much help to a particular student.

But such is not the case with God and His ambition for us. All of us are called to the very heights of friendship with God through Jesus Christ and His Church. And God is willing to do what it takes to give each person an A+ soul, or even better, to the point where His Son died on Calvary for this goal. We may be satisfied with a middling level of heroic joy, glory and friendship with God, but our calling is higher. The saints are not merely figures whom we admire; they are examples of the sort of people who we can be.

This confidence that God will, if we cooperate, make of us great and glorious sons and daughters of heaven is at the core of the Church’s teachings regarding Purgatory. If a person dies in friendship with God, but still not at the level he can obtain, the time for achieving perfection continues onward. God could, if He wanted, simply make each of us perfect without any further effort or sacrifice of ours. But that would be too cheap and easy, like a teacher giving full credit for imperfect work. Instead, if needed, God has the soul struggle to undergo this purification and improvement after death. And, as we can help each other become better on this earth, so we can help souls in Purgatory advance toward glory by our prayers, sacrifices, and good works. Next week’s article will discuss a complementary teaching, how the saints in heaven assist us on earth.

NOVEMBER AND THE UNITY OF ALL AGES

The Church sets aside November in particular to reflect upon the unity of the Church here, in heaven and in purgatory. For the Church is not only on this earth, but spans from heaven to earth, and includes the souls who are being brought to perfection after death. And so, on November 1, the Church celebrates All Saints Day, a holy day of obligation, during which we recognize all the saints together, what the letter to the Hebrews calls a “great cloud of witnesses” urging us onto victory. And then, November 2 is All Souls Day, a remembrance of all the souls that have gone before us in the grace of God, but still needing purification. While the Church certainly venerates the saints and prays for the dead during the entire year, November is a consecrated time of reflection upon this communion that joins the people of God throughout time and space, and beyond time and space. And this communion spurs us onto a life worthy to join in the great company of the elect.

For, the veneration of saints, not only gives them rightful honor, but also gives us inspiration from their example. The Church teaches that the saints are not simply the rare few from some distant era or faraway place. They are people who became what we can also become, heroes and heroines of the faith. It is a central theme of Catholic moral theology that all people are called to a life of holiness, a life of heroic joy. That is why St. Paul began most of his letters by describing the recipients of his letters as holy, or those called to be holy.
In addition, the saints are not only examples, but also our friends who encourage us and pray for us here and now. All struggles are easier when borne with friends. And our friends in the greater kingdom assist us greatly in the contest of earthly life and the pilgrimage to the greater kingdom. Developing a sense of their presence thus helps us fulfill our different callings and become worthy of our share in those glorious realms. Of course, this training is difficult, and often must be completed after death. After discussing the connection between the universal call to holiness and democracy, next week this article will turn to our ability to help those people who are completing this training for their final glory.

SAINT JOHN PAUL II

The last article described the life of Karol Wojtyla up to his election as Pope John Paul II.  This article will outline a few ways in which his pontificate demonstrates that orthodoxy and fidelity to the Church is not a static or unchanging phenomenon, but rather grows with the light and grace of heaven.

St. John Paul II certainly emphasized the teachings of the ancient faith, with for example the publication in 1992 of the first universal catechism of the Church since the sixteenth century.  He also emphasized what he called in the title of a 1993 encyclical “the splendor of truth.”  Likewise, he appointed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) to be the Prefect of the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith; and he in turn in such documents as the 1990 instruction on the role of theologians emphasized that Catholic theologians work in union with the historic teachings of the Church.  But in that document, as well as such encyclicals as Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) and Ut Unum Sint (on ecumenism) Pope John Paul II and the Vatican emphasized that there is a continual growth in the riches of the faith as the truth leads us deeper into mystery and, precisely by clarifying our tradition, helps us to dialogue with the world and with other faiths.  Thus, for example, in the series of 129 short talks, now joined together in the text Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II clarified how the Church’s teachings on purity, marriage and family are not impositions on human nature but rather help the human person be free to live in truth and love.

This notion of freedom and love also led Pope John Paul II to support religious liberty and the freedom of peoples.  And with his travels to 129 countries, he was able to bring a unity and purpose to the world like no one else on earth.  He supported the attempts to reform the Latin American dictatorships and Cardinal Jaime Sin’s opposition to the Marcos regime in the Philippines; but he emphasized a peaceful transition of power as opposed to violence.  And, of course in his native Poland and throughout Eastern Europe he supported the national movements to end the Communist oppression of those lands.  His influence was so crucial that Mikhail Gorbachev once said “The collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II.”   As George Weigel said in the title of his biography of St. John Paul II, he was the 20th century’s greatest witness to hope.

THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS

During the next week, we have two great days that show forth the glory and expansiveness of the Catholic faith: All Saints Day on Tuesday and All Souls Day on Wednesday, November 1 and 2. On these two days, and then continuing throughout the month of November, we especially celebrate the Communion of Saints, the Church throughout this world, in heaven and in purgatory. For the Church unites not only nations throughout time and space on earth, but in fact the souls of all people in purgatory and in heaven. This article will describe briefly the idea of celebrating the saints in heaven. After a discussion of vocations next week, the article for the weekend of November 12- 13 will then focus on prayers for the dead.

After describing the heroes of Jewish history, the Letter to the Hebrews describes the fact that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” who encourage us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us with our eyes of Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith.” Heb. 12:1-2. This cloud of witnesses includes not only angels, but also the saints who have gone before us and now desire passionately that we also join their ranks. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, said in his 1977 book on eschatology, the study of the last things, the faithful departed would not, even if they could, enter into their full glory until the full complement of people are there with them to enjoy it. Thus, as Jesus says in the parable of the lost sheep, there is such great joy in heaven over every repentant sinner. See Luke 15:7.

And so, the Church canonizes certain saints, whom she knows are in heaven, are worthy of veneration, and are powerful intercessors for us. However, as the Book of Revelation says, there are countless hosts of saints from every land who worship God and pray for us. See Rev. 7:9-17. Each one of us, for example, probably knows people who have gone before us and whom we wish to ask for help. The good news is that, as they wished to assist us on earth, that time has not ended with death, but only continues in a different form. And so, the Church encourages her children to sense our union with the saints in heaven and their prayers for us as we journey together toward the greater realms.

POPE SAINT JOHN PAUL II

pope-john-paul-iiThis weekend, we celebrate the memorial of St. Pope John Paul II, who led the Church on earth for over a quarter century from turmoil and division to her triumph over the Soviet Empire and renewal in teaching and missionary zeal.  His most read book is Crossing the Threshold of Hope and the most famous English biography of his life is George Weigel’s Witness to Hope.  The common term of hope in these works is not a coincidence.  For the life and ministry of St. Pope John Paul II exemplified the Christian virtue of hope.

Christian hope is not a simplistic confidence that the future will be better than the past.  Part of Christian heroism is precisely that we do not know exactly what the future will bring.  Each day and each year is a new adventure sent by God.  Rather, Christian hope means that we trust in the grace of God, friendship with Jesus Christ and the intercession of the saints and angels to guide us through whatever will come.  Jesus promised that the jaws of death could never overcome the Church and assured His Apostles at the Last Supper, “In the world, you will have tribulations, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  John 16:33.

The life of St. John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyla, was a glorious example to this Christian hope.   His family suffered tragedies early on as his mother and older brother died when he was young.  But his mother gave him the Catholic faith and an image of the Blessed Mother; and his brother was a wonderful witness of courageous charity as he ministered to patients with scarlet fever before dying from that disease.  Although his nation regained independence in 1918, Poland was overrun by the Nazis in 1939 and then taken over by the Soviet Union in 1945-46; Karol’s father died in 1941 under that occupation.  But in the midst of this darkness, Karol Wojtlya’s faith shone through as a young man, then priest, archbishop and finally as Pope John Paul II.  He never gave into despair nor showed hatred of his enemies.  Rather, he ever tried to see how God was working through his struggles, including the assassination attempt in 1981 and the Parkinson’s disease that afflicted him later in life.  He gave to the world a living example of what Saint John said, “The light shines on in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”  John 1:5

THE APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION

As we prepare for the transition from Bishop Paul Loverde to Bishop Michael Burbidge to lead this diocese, it is perhaps helpful to reflect upon the role of the bishops as successors to the Apostles. During His public ministry, Jesus chose twelve special disciples who came to be known as the Apostles to guide His people who would become the Church. After His ascension, the Apostles understood that their office could be shared by others; and so they ordained the likes of Saints Matthias (who replaced Judas Iscariot), Paul and Barnabas. The Acts of the Apostles in turn describes St. Paul as ordaining other men to lead the church in the communities he evangelized; the letters to Timothy and Titus are addressed to two of these leaders.

By the end of the first century all of the original Apostles had died, but their ordained successors, who were known as eposcopi in Latin (and much later bishops in English) guided the Church and in turn appointed other men to succeed them and to lead the church in new lands. As the Apostles had one leader, St. Peter, so likewise when he died, the bishops would continue to have one leader, the Bishop of Rome, now called the Pope. The Apostles discerned early on that they could appoint other clerics to assist these leaders; and those clerics would come to be called priests and deacons. Every bishop, priest or deacon has been ordained by a bishop, who was in turned ordained by a bishop in unbroken succession back to the Twelve Apostles. And thus the bishops are the successors to the Apostles; priests share in much of the ministry of bishops and act with them in the person of Christ; and deacons are ordained assistants to the bishops and the priests. And thus, through the bishops, we have an unbroken connection to the early Church and will in the future be connected to the Church until the end of all ages on earth. And because these same bishops guide the Church in every land, we are also united to every nation that has ever been or will ever be a part of the Church. And so continues the commissioning of Jesus Christ who told His Apostles just before ascending into heaven, ““Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. . . . And lo I am with you always to the close of the age.”  Matt. 28:20.

THE APOSTLES AND THE PEACE OF GOD

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles all recount Jesus’ final commissioning to the eleven faithful Apostles. He told them to bring the Gospel to all nations, to preach repentance from sins and to offer the sacraments beginning with baptism. As Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit would give them the ability to unite all the peoples in this common desire for the truth of God, the freedom from sins, and the sacramental grace from heaven that leads to everlasting life.

At that time, the Roman Empire was trying to unite the world by means of force and wealth. In Rome itself, there was, or recently had been, a power struggle underway between the Emperor Tiberius and the Prefect Sejanus, which resulted in murder and mayhem, as other power struggles in Rome and other empires often did. By contrast, the Acts of the Apostles describes a Church united in the worship of God and mutual charity, even as she was often persecuted by the outside world. St. Paul and other missionaries traveled to cities throughout the Empire to bring that uniting message of the Gospel there. Certainly, in Church history, there have been unfortunate instances of ambition leading to unseemly conflict and the desire for power causing violence. But those instances are the exception. For the most part, the Church has promoted the common pursuit of truth, grace and the pilgrimage to heaven that unite the peoples of the world together.

And now Jesus’ commissioning to the Apostles is as important as ever. We see a world torn by wars, tyranny and civil strife, and an increasing anxiety in the West about dealings with other nations and different cultures. In the midst of such conflict, the Church unites nations together in mutual cooperation, telling all peoples that, as sons and daughters of God, they are brothers and sisters. For example, the religious orders unite brothers and sisters of different nationalities, bishops of all nations join together in promoting family life and concern for the oppressed, and the Pope is our champion of peace and human rights respected across the globe. When we so cooperate together to promote the Gospel by word and deed, we build up His kingdom on earth and become more worthy of being princes and princesses in heaven. For, as Jesus said elsewhere, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Matt. 5:9.