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The members of the Church may be divided into three classes: those who are still on the earth, “having not here a lasting city, but seeking the one that is to come” (Heb. xiii. 14); those who have reached their goal in heaven, the saints; and those who are expiating their sins in purgatory. All are “fellow citizens with the saints and domestics of God,” working together for the same object of union with God. The members of this great community are called “saints” because all are sanctified by Baptism (1 Cor. vi. 11), and are called to a holy life (1 Thess. iv. 3). Those in heaven have already attained to perfect holiness. Yet St. Paul calls the Christians still on earth “saints” (Eph. i. 1).
1. The communion of saints is the union and intercourse of Catholics on earth, of the souls in purgatory, and of the saints in heaven.
The Church on earth is called the Church Militant, because of its ceaseless struggle with its three enemies, the world, the flesh, and the devil. The souls in purgatory form the Church Suffering, because they are still expiating their sins in the cleansing fire. The blessed in heaven are called the Church Triumphant, because they have already secured their victory. These three divisions are one Church by the common bond of Baptism.
2. Catholics on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the blessed in heaven are united with Christ, just as are the members of a body with the head (Rom. xii. 4).
The Holy Spirit works in all the members (1 Cor. xii. 13). “The soul,” says St. Augustine, “animates all the organs of the body, and causes the eye to see, the ear to hear, etc;” just so does the Holy Spirit work in the members of Christ’s body; and as the Holy Spirit proceeds from Christ, Christ is the head of the Christian body (Col. i. 18). He is the vine carrying strength and nourishment to the branches (John xv. 5). Each member of the body has its own special functions, so each member of the Church has his own gifts (1 Cor. xii. 6-10, 28). Each member of the body works for the whole body; so every member of the Church works for the common good. All the members of the body share the pain or pleasure felt by one, and the same is true of the mutual sympathy of the communion of saints: “If one member suffer anything, all the members suffer with it; or, if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. xii. 26). Thus the saints in heaven are not indifferent to our condition. Catholics who have fallen into mortal sin are still members of this great body, though dead members; but they cease to be members if they are excommunicated.
3. All the members of the communion of saints have a share in the spiritual goods of the Catholic Church, and can help one an other by their prayers and other good works. The saints alone in heaven have no need of help.
In a similar manner all the people of a country have a share in the institutions supported by the country, such as hospitals, asylums, law courts, etc. So also, in the family circle, all the members have a claim to share in the common goods, such as riches or honors. Thus all the Masses, the means of grace, the prayers of the Church, and all the good works done by individuals, are for the benefit of all its members. In the Our Father we pray for others as well as for ourselves; holy Mass is offered for the dead as well as the living, and the same is true of the Office recited by the priest. Hence it is that one may have more hope of converting the greatest sinner who still belongs to the Church than a Freemason who outwardly leads a good life, yet who is cut off from it; and a Catholic may look forward to a quicker release from purgatory than others. St. Francis Xavier constantly cheered himself with the thought that the Church was praying for him, and supporting him with her good works. More over, all the members of the Church can give mutual help. There is the same sympathy as in the human body, where a sound member comes to the help of one that is weaker, and the possession of good lungs, a sound heart, or healthy stomach, may help the body to recover from what might otherwise have been a fatal illness. The eye does not act for itself alone; it guides the hands and feet. Sodom would have been saved had ten just men been found within its walls.
1. All Catholics can help each other by prayer and good works.
St. Peter was freed from prison by the prayers of the Christians. “The prayer of St. Stephen,” says St. Augustine, “procured the conversion of St. Paul.” The tears and prayers of St. Monica converted her son. Even in the Old Testament God promised that He would be merciful to the prayers of the priest (Lev. iv. 20). St. James bids us: “Pray one for another, that you may be saved” (Jas. v. 16), and St. Paul: “I beseech you . . . help me in your prayers for me to God” (Rom. xv. 30). Christ revealed to Marie Lataste that as Esther saved her people by her intercession with Assuerus, so the prayers of a single soul may save a whole nation from the avenging hand of God. Prayer is a work of mercy, and brings down a blessing on the one who prays and the one who is prayed for. Fasting and almsgiving are also means of help. As a man’s debts may be paid off by his neighbor, so the debt of sin may in some measure be paid off by the good works of others; and thus it was in the early Church that penances were often remitted or shortened at the intercession of the martyrs.
2. We can also help the holy souls in purgatory by prayers and other good works; they in turn can help us by their prayers, especially when they reach heaven.
The Jews even believed that help could be given to the souls of the departed; for we read (2 Mach. xii.) how Judas Machabeus caused sacrifices to be offered for those who had fallen in battle, and sent money to the Temple for that purpose. The passing-bell and the knell are signals to pray for the dying and the dead. In the Memento after the Consecration at Mass a special petition is made for the departed. “Prayer,” says St. Augustine, “is the key by which we open the gates of heaven to the suffering souls.” The prayers of the living, especially holy Mass, almsdeeds, and other works of piety are of great efficacy in lessening the sufferings of the holy souls (Council of Lyons, 1274). The souls in purgatory can also help us. Many saints held that we can call the holy souls to our help (Bellarmine; St. Alphonsus). St. Catherine of Bologna (1463), used often to call upon the holy souls when the saints seemed to fail in helping her, and she never asked them in vain.
3. The saints in heaven can help us by their prayers before the throne of God (Apoc. viii. 4), especially if we call upon them for help.
The saints must know much of what happens on earth, for their happiness consists in the complete satisfaction of all their desires. The devil knows all our weaknesses, as we know from the way in which he tempts us. The prophets of the Old Testament sometimes foretold future events, and knew the most hidden things; is it likely that the saints are less favored than they? They rejoice when a sinner is converted (Luke xv. 7). “What can escape those,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “who see Him Who sees all things?” And the Church teaches us that when we call upon the saints for their prayers, they join their prayers to ours. Their intercession has great efficacy, for the “continual prayer of a just man even on the earth availeth much” (Jas. v. 16). What power Abraham had when pleading for Sodom! (Gen. xviii.) “If,” says St. Jerome, “the saints had such power when in the flesh, what can they not obtain for us now that they have secured their victory?” St. John Chrysostom compares their intercession to the pleading of old soldiers who display their wounds. This power has often been demonstrated by miracles.
Our dead relatives and friends, who are in heaven, are always pleading for us at the throne of God, and often save us from danger.
“Charity never dies” (1 Cor. xiii. 8), and the ties which bind us to those we love remain unbroken by death. Even in hell the wretched Dives showed he had some affection still for his relatives on earth (Luke xvi. 27). The prophet Jeremias, and the holy high priest Onias, prayed in limbo for the Jewish nation (2 Mach. xv. 14); and Christ promised His apostles that He would pray for them (John xiv. 16; 1 John ii. 1). St. Augustine, after the death of his mother St. Monica, and St. Wenceslaus after the death of his grand mother St. Ludmilla rapidly advanced to greater heights of sanctity. So too the saints help the souls in purgatory. “Our Lady alone rescues daily some souls from purgatory by her prayers.” On the anniversary of the Assumption of Our Lady thousands of souls are delivered from their prison (St. Peter Damian; St. Alphonsus). On Saturdays, the day specially dedicated to Our Lady, she rescues many poor souls from purgatory (John XXII., Sabbatine Bull). Nor are the holy angels indifferent to their future companions; one of the Church’s prayers speaks of St. Michael leading souls into heaven. Our angel guardian, and the angels whom we have specially honored on earth, will take up our cause in purgatory.
This article, 10. THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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