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[REFLECTION] Communion of saints?

[REFLECTION] Communion of saints?

Statues of saints on the colonade of St. Peter’s Square in Rome. VATICAN MEDIA

By Msgr. Euly B. Belizar, Jr., SThD

October 28, 2022

“He whom we have seen and heard, we announce to you, so that you, too, may have fellowship with us, and so that our fellowship may be with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 Jn 1:3)

“I believe in the Communion of Saints” — Apostles’ Creed

On Sunday or solemnities we confess with the Apostles our faith in the Communion of Saints. Vaguely we remember our Catechism explaining it as a “communion of persons” and “a communion of holy things”. We offen wonder what those things mean concretely. Without pretending to have the last say on this ancient truth of faith, allow me some space in your (November) reflections. To me Communion of Saints means:

1. That a disciple is in Jesus Christ a member of his Body and shares a common life with the Master and his other disciples like branches of a common trunk. “I am vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says, in fact in Jn 15:5. Before we are a “communion of goods” we are first a “communion of persons”. It is first of all to him that we have a union and, in consequence, with the other branches of himself the vine. Pope St. John Paul II calls the former “the vertical aspect”; the latter, “the horizontal aspect” of Communion. Therefore someone who claims to follow Christ but lives for himself and in the service of his own interests is a living contradiction. Christians in business, politics, economics etc. who operate by self-serving and self-centered goals must re-examine themselves in the light of their identity. In the Church any form of self-promotion or self-fulfilment that is not ultimately linked to Jesus Christ—and through him to the Father and the Holy Spirit—as well as to other believers as brothers and sisters in the one Family of Faith is an exercise of vanity.

2. That this union in Christ Jesus and with Christ Jesus of his followers goes beyond death and is by no means ended or hindered by it. Paul the Apostle makes it clear “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39). This explains why the Catholic Church speaks of an unbreakable union between the “Church Militant” (that is, the living who on earth struggle against evil and sin) and the “Church Trumphant” (that is, believers who now share the victory of Christ’s resurrection in heaven), and also the “Church Suffering” (namely, the spirits of believers who undergo the cleansing and purifying phase of purgatory in preparation for a complete union with God and the other members of the Church Triumphant in heaven). When Christians, therefore, attach too much importance to the finality of death and treat deceased Christians as though they no longer live nor are relevant to those they had left behind err against God’s nature as the “God of the living, not of the dead for all are alive in him” (Lk 20:38).

3. That the union of the living and departed members of the Body of Christ entails a sharing in spiritual goods or “communion of holy things”. This involves the sharing with one another of the blessings of the common faith, such as the sacraments especially the Eucharist “for we are all partakers of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17), intercessory prayer “for us and from others, truly assisting us” (2 Cor 1:11), exhortation by those “not forsaking the assembly…but exhorting one another” (Heb 10:25). After the fashion of a family that does not only bear a common name but shows it by also sharing joys and pains, burdens as well as triumphs, the Church as a “Communion of Saints” continues to live as one family, no matter that the members do not share the same residence. A good illustration is a Filipino family whose members in the US support financially needy members in the Philippines who also support them morally and spiritually. In a somewhat similar way, members of Christ’s Body who are still on earth are also supported by other members of the same Body who are in heaven (the saints) by their prayers and intercessions. On the other hand, members of the Body of Christ who are on earth venerate their brethren in heaven and strive to imitate their heroic lives.

4. That it challenges you and me to have no part with untruth, injustice or anything that contradicts the Gospel and the values of the saints in the Kingdom of heaven. In his second letter to the Corinthian Christians Paul the Apostle has this to say to them: “Do not choose to bear the yoke with unbelievers. For how can justice be a participant with iniquity? Or how can the fellowship of light be a participant with darkness?” (2 Cor 6:14). The Communion of Saints is “a fellowship of light” and “justice” to which we are members, Paul says clearly. To be a perpetrator or a silent witness to situations and acts of injustice or the proliferation of untruth and fake news is to betray our identity as members of the Communio Sanctorum. In fact, St, Paul has this advice for all: “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness. Rather you should refute them” (Eph 5:11).

5. That followers of Jesus Christ are not only enjoined to be seekers and instruments of unity. They are also constantly reminded to seek it first and last in him. St. Thomas Aquinas, quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, points out the real source and motive of mutual sharing of goods among disciples: “We must therefore believe that there exists a communion of goods in the Church. But the most important member is Christ, since he is the head…. Therefore, the riches of Christ are communicated to all the members, through the sacraments” (CCC 947). When Christians therefore talk of unity and aim at unity even in the fields of politics, economics, culture and all facets of society, but ignore Jesus Christ and his saving grace, they do a disservice to the cause of authentic unity. Not that they must aim to impose their Christian faith on others. Rather we his disciples must allow Jesus Christ to make use of us as his instruments of and living witnesses to true unity.

6. That to be truly members of the Communion of Saints requires in those who form the Church Militant (believers who are still on earth) constant, life-long conversion. Communion is not a finished product. Nor is being Saintly. Both are projects and intended destinations. That is why the letter to the Hebrews exhorts all Christians: “Furthermore, since we also have so great a cloud of witnesses over us, let us set aside every burden and sin which may surround us, and advance, through patience, to the struggle offered to us” (Heb 12:1-2). Here the letter refers us to the first moment of conversion—setting “aside every burden and sin which may surround us”. Unless we live lives that say no to sin in its diverse faces, there is no way communion among us could be established. Holiness or saintliness requires this as its first essential step. But that is not the end-all and be-all of conversion. There must be a graced movement to the second moment. “Let us gaze upon Jesus, as the Author and the completion of our faith, who, having joy laid out before him, endured the cross, disregarding the shame, and who now sits at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2). It is only when Jesus Christ becomes the common center of our faith’s “gaze”, of our words and deeds, of our hearts and minds, of our attitudes and decisions that conversion becomes real and complete.

When these two moments come about, Jesus truly becomes our Vine; we truly become his branches.

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