Next Sunday is All Saints’ Day, and the day after is All Souls’. So I want to use these two weeks’ columns to write about the Communion of Saints.
Let’s start with the goal of our existence: those old enough to remember the Baltimore Catechism will recall, “God made us to know, love, and serve Him in this life and so to be happy with Him in the next.” The shortcut-word for that phrase is sanctification – being made “holy,” as God is holy. (The Eastern churches have a similar word in Greek: theosis, which means “becoming Godlike.”) Either way, the point is clear.
We become sanctified by God’s gift of grace and our response to it. God helps us fulfill our vocation in life with all its challenges through His grace; God helps us to overcome difficulties and setbacks that come from within and without through His grace; and God helps us in the sacramental graces that come from participation in the life of the church.
When that process is completed we call the person a saint; but I suspect that for most of us it takes more than a lifetime to complete it. That’s why the Body of Christ, the communion of the baptized, is imagined as having three groups: one living in the body on earth (you and me), one with God in heaven (the saints), and one no longer in the body but not yet fully sanctified: those in Purgatory.
I admit that Purgatory isn’t a fashionable topic these days, but I think that’s partially due to a misunderstanding of the doctrine (and yes, it is still a doctrine of the church). Maybe because of a common misreading of Dante’s Divine Comedy or maybe because of sloppy religious education, too many people miss the point of Purgatory. It’s not punishment (although in Dante the souls in Purgatory indeed suffer); it’s the hard work of self-change. (If you’ve ever struggled to break a bad habit, you know what this means….) Those in Purgatory are undistractedly devoted to the work of self-change, of their sanctification. Today, I’ll mention only that we help them toward sanctification by our prayers.
I’ll have more to say about the work of Purgatory next week; I want to focus our attention now on the communion of saints and the interconnectedness we share not only with all the living but also with all who have died, whether they have reached full sanctification or have not yet done so. The key thing to keep in mind is, we are connected to one another as conduits for God’s grace. We pray to the saints for their help (and rely on it); and we pray for one another and for the souls in purgatory because God works through us for the sake of others, and through others for our sakes. That’s the point of the two feasts we’ll celebrate next weekend.
On All Saints’ day we remember and ask for the help of – well, all the saints. That means not only the famous ones like St. Francis and St. Theresa, but also of those people known to you but probably to only a few others who have completed the work of sanctification. We can’t know for sure, but I’d be willing to suspect that a few of my teachers in elementary- and high-school are saints, as are some parishioners I’ve known over the years. They gave me good example and practical help while we shared this planet, and I’m confident that they haven’t lost track of me now. So it’s natural and appropriate to ask for their help and guidance; they continue to be conduits for God’s grace to come to me as I face the challenges of my vocation and my life. There are no doubt similar people in your life.
So it might be a useful exercise to get ready for next weekend (in addition to reading the Scriptures before coming to Mass) to make a list of the people who have shaped and helped you along the way, and what you’ve received from God through them. It’s likely that they weren’t perfect, or well-known, or perhaps particularly pious: but they (so far as any outsider can know) learned to respond wholeheartedly to God’s grace and put it into action in love, generosity, forgiveness, and compassion. What do you still need to learn from them? What sort of help might you ask them for? Is All Saints’ Day a time to renew a vital connection? Until next week, peace.