For football fans, life doesn't get much better
than this. Just before the Sunday game at Soldier Field, the
Chicago Bears held a memorial service. Fans were invited to
honor Walter Payton, the retired Chicago star running back
who had died the previous week.
Now as the November game entered its final seconds,
the Bears were clinging to a three-point lead against their
arch rival Green Bay Packers. The Packers prepared to kick
a game-tying field goal.
As the last few seconds ticked off the clock, the kick was blocked
by a leaping Chicago Bear player. Interviewed afterward about
his spectacular play, the player admitted that he'd never
jumped that high before. He credited Payton for the extra
Did Walter Payton contribute to the Bears' success
that day in 1999? Probably, he served only as a great inspiration!
Still, this story illustrates well what we mean when we Catholics
speak of the Communion of Saints.
The holy women and men who have gone before us continue
to be with us. Their prayers and presence can give us that
extra boost we need to make the leap of faith into the arms
You've Got Connections
The new Catechism of the Catholic Church
expresses the idea simply: "The Communion of Saints is the
Church" (#946). You've often seen or heard about ads that
offer "lifetime membership" to a particular organization or
club for a fee. The Church offers an even better deal, called
If our destiny and purpose in life are to become more and more
deeply united with God and one another, then it doesn't make
sense that this process would stop at the time of our deaths.
Jesus' Resurrection shows us that this life is only the entryway
into an even fuller kind of living. Because it's our relationships
with one another that give our lives meaning, a fuller experience
of life must bring us into even closer relationships with
This is the concept of the "body of Christ,"
first described by St. Paul in the New Testament (Romans 12:4-8).
The Church has often used the word mystical before
the word body, meaning spiritual or invisible.
(It doesn't mean magical!) St. Paul wanted us to understand
that we are intimately related to one another and to Jesus.
He explained that the Church functions as a human body does.
Every Christian is a member of this body. We
all depend on one another like parts of the body do. (For
instance, try leaving your heart at home for a few days.)
All the parts of your body (its members) unite
toward the purpose of keeping the body alive and healthy.
All the parts of our body are connected: All the parts of
the body of Christ are connected as well. This Youth Update
hopes that you'll realizeeven experiencethis connection.
Three P's of Church
Our connectedness begins with Baptism and continues
into eternity. The community of the faithful we call the Church
always lives in three distinct dimensions, described by Vatican
Council II in Lumen Gentium (#49-51). This Latin title
means Light to the Nations and refers to an important
document about the Church.
1. The Church in Perfection.
are those who have completed their earthly lives and now
are fully in the presence of God. We are speaking of the
saints who are enjoying what St. Paul describes as "gazing
with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord" (2 Corinthians
3:18). We sometimes call it the "beatific (BEE-uh-TIF-ik)
vision"a direct, one-on-one experience of God rather
than our present human experience of faith.
2. The Church in Purgation.
is the act of cleansing something of all its impurities.
It is the source of the word purgatory.) Some people
die having done the best that they could to be disciples
of Jesus. They are in line for the Kingdom of God.
For one reason or another, however, they never
attained the wholeness and fullness of life that God intends
for them and that they need to experience the beatific vision.
They depend on our prayersthe expressions of our love
for themin order to complete their spiritual journey
3. The Church on Pilgrimage.
Those of us making up the Church in the here and now are
still on our life journey as disciples of Jesus. As we walk
along the paths in life to which God calls us, we journey
in union not only with one another but also with our brothers
and sisters no longer living within the limiting boundaries
of time and space.
As we pray for those souls in purgatorythe
more commonly used name for that second dimensionwe
pray with those saints whose holiness provides us with a spiritual
strength that we can draw on as we make our way individually
and as a community.
The vision of Church that the Communion of Saints
opens up before us broadens our understanding. The Church
we see is only a small part of the whole Churchall the
P's added together. Those saints who have gone before us make
up our cheering section.
Saints & Mini-saints
All sorts of saints sit in this cheering section. Throughout our
history, the Catholic Church has formally canonized or declared
as saints many men and women whose way of living clearly showed
their commitment to gospel values and to Jesus. Many such
saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi or St. Catherine of
Siena, are especially remembered on their designated feast
days in the Church calendar.
A good place to start in your exploration of this
rich heritage is with your own patron saint. Also, consider
your own interests and cultural background. There's a saint
for just about all occasions. (If all else fails, don't forget
about the patron saint of lost causesSt. Jude!)
Canonized saints are only a small minority of those
celebrating the direct vision of God. All Saints Day on November
1 is set aside to remember that vast array of uncanonized
saintsthose individuals whose holiness was known only
by a few.
As you reflect on the good people in your life who
have really loved you, you might very well discover a saint
or two among their ranksperhaps a beloved grandparent
who has entered into eternal glory. These uncanonized saints
gave you strength and comfort through their prayers and their
loving support all the time that they were physically with
you. Why would they stop now?
This is the unbelievably good news about saints.
Through his Resurrection, Jesus revealed to us that death
is only a checkpoint to be passed. Those who were close to
us in life continue to share a spiritual bond with us after
death. While the absence we experience is real, this spiritual
connection is just as real.
When we pray for those who have died and pray with
the saints, we are strengthening and deepening these spiritual
relationships. This is just the way our time and efforts spent
with those we care about here and now strengthen our human
Going Too Far
Some people get so carried away with this good news about saints
that they make mistakes. A common one is to confuse honoring
a saint (veneration) with worship.
For Christmas, my little girl received a Lite-Brite,
a great toy that contains a lot of colorful, translucent pegs
that she places into holes in a black screen. Behind the screen
is a small light bulb. When the machine is turned on and the
pegs are inserted, they light up as if they were so many tiny
colorful light bulbs.
The source of the light is really the bulb behind
the screen. The pegs merely reflect the light.
Lite-Brite can help us understand the relationship
between the saints and God. All the good that any saint accomplished
and the holiness which characterized that person's life came
from his or her total cooperation with God, the light bulb
or source of all that is good.
Thinking about the life of a saint is just another
way to focus on the limitless love and goodness of God. Read
the writings of any of the canonized saints. Try St. Th—r—se
of Lisieux, for example. The more holy she becomes the more
she is aware of her dependence on God.
Only God deserves worship. The saints, by their
prayers and life example, help us develop and deepen our relationship
If we begin to look at the saints as mini-gods or
goddesses or to see them as good-luck charms, then we stop
being in communion with them and begin to drift into a form
of idolatry (eye-DOLL-uh-tree). Idolatry is making anything
or anyone more important than God in our lives.
Another possible stray path linked to the Communion
of Saints is spiritism or spiritualism. Spiritism refers
to any attempt to contact the spirits of the dead directly
through such means as s—ances, Ouija boards or the use of
mediums (individuals who claim to have the power to speak
directly with the dead). Psychics sometimes fall into this
category as well. These practices are very ancient, and interest
in them increases and decreases from age to age. But the Church
has always warned against such practices.
Why, you might well ask. If the communion between
those who make up the Church on Pilgrimage (us on earth) and
those who celebrate the Church in Perfection (not on earth)
is real, then why shouldn't we be talking to each other?
One reason should be obvious, and is more a question
of caution and good judgment than religion. The history of
spiritism in this country and elsewhere demonstrates that
most mediums and psychics are frauds who swindle people out
of their money. (A good source for learning how to spot such
frauds is the book Why People Believe Weird Things,
by Michael Shermer.)
The Church has a spiritual concern as well. It's
one thing to unite our prayers with those of the saints in
order to worship God or to offer our prayers for the sake
of those souls who are in need of them. But it's something
very different to try to manipulate this connection for our
own purposes, even if those purposes seem harmless. The Catechism
of the Catholic Church explains it this way: "[Practices
of spiritism] conceal a desire for power over...other human
beings....They contradict the honor, respect and loving fear
that we owe to God alone"(#2116).
A couple of stories from the Bible help us understand
what the catechism means. In the story of the Tower of Babel
(BAY-bul) from Genesis 11, we are asked to imagine that all
the people of the world have come together to build the highest
tower ever constructed. Why? They want to explore the spiritual
heights where God liveswithout God's help. This dogged
attempt by human beings to find some kind of a shortcut or
end run around God is similar to the intentions of some who
engage in various practices of spiritism.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus found
in Luke's Gospel (16:19-31), Jesus tells the story of a man
who turns his back on the poor and thus on God. After he dies
and sees what a big mistake he made, he asks Abraham, the
father of all the Jewish people, if he might return to the
world as a spirit to warn his brothers not to make the same
Abraham's answer expresses the heart of the Catholic
Church's objection to spiritism: "If they will not listen
to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded
if someone should rise from the dead." Genuine insight into
God and spiritual matters, in other words, comes through the
Bible and the Church. Any attempts to prove the existence
of an afterlife through spiritismor other occult meanswill
Love Without Limits
The more we think about the Communion of Saints
the more we will become aware of how much love surrounds us
from those we can see and those we can't. Our prayer becomes
even more meaningful and wonderful when we realize that through
prayer we are participating in a relationship with God and
the other members of our Christian family. This link goes
beyond our own lifetimes and connects us with good and holy
men and women of all ages.
In the end, the teaching (doctrine) of the Communion of Saints
expresses the fundamental Christian belief that we are loved
by the God who created us beyond our ability to imagine. This
love reaches beyond the limits of our earthly lives. Truly,
this is the team for which we're all drafted.
Molly Burns (16), Mike Hopkins (15), Gail
Kramer (15), Randi Kramer (17) and Michael W. McSorley (15),
from Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Trenton, Ohio, met
at church to review this issue and ask questions. They brainstormed
new titles and asked important questions. Their youth minister
is Jean Schaefer, who also joined in the discussion.