Lesson 3b: The Communion of Saints
We have seen that human nature is social and hence it is not to be expected that an individual can achieve a virtuous life in isolation. We need the communities of family and of state and even of international society to have all the resources to develop to be good persons that the Creator intended us to be. Therefore, it makes good sense that one of the basic articles of faith in the Apostles' Creed is "I believe in the communion of saints." To be a Christian, therefore, is not to live in isolation, but to fulfill one's human social nature and one's baptismal incorporation into the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ includes both the Pilgrim Church on earth (the Church Militant) and the Glorified Church with Christ (the Church Triumphant). In the latter we should also include those in Purgatory, since they have died in Christ and will certainly be glorified, although they have still to complete with our help their purification before entering into that glory.
One of the tragedies of Christian history occurred in late medieval times, when the philosophical system of Nominalism by its excessive emphasis on individual realities obscured the reality of the inter-relatedness and connectedness of things, especially of persons in society. This led to a spirituality and morality in which the individual stood utterly alone before God the Almighty Judge, crying out for his mercy. This fostered a legalistic morality of mere obedience to rules, rather than going deeper to the transformation of human character by the virtues promoted by living in a virtuous community. Thus in the fourteenth century an exaggerated emphasis was placed on inner spiritual experience rather than on communal life in Christ. Luther, who was raised in a Nominalist theology, and the Reformation that he initiated largely lost the sense of a visible Church and focused too exclusively on the justification of the individual. The sociologist Robert Bellah has recently argued that the modern individualism so prevalent in the culture of the United States originated in this Protestant individualistic spirituality. One might add that the Marxist and Nazi totalitarianism of the twentieth century was an extreme reaction to the social disorder resulting from extreme individualism. Christian morality rejects both these extremes by insisting on individual moral responsibility but also on the social solidarity necessary for individual flourishing.
Thus the Christian Way of Life is both the imitation of Jesus and of Mary and the saints and also a participation in their holy lives. That is why St. Paul loves the phrase "in Christ" (Rm 6: 3: 11;2 Cor 5:17; Phil 3:14, etc.) It is a communio, a communal life in the Church that is the organically and hierarchically organized Body of Christ, the Kingdom of God in hope. This is a fulfillment of the human nature given us in Creation. We are by nature social not only in the negative sense that we need others for our life, which of course we do, but also in the positive sense that we have gifts and indeed our very selves to give to the life of the community. That is why Vatican II stresses that the Church is a communio, a mutual self-giving like the Trinity.
In our individualistic culture whose chief value is "freedom" in the sense of my right to live my life with as little outside interference as possible, the true meaning of Christian freedom, the "perfect law of freedom," as St. James calls it (Jm 1:25) is little understood. Christian freedom is the ability to spontaneously follow what St. Paul calls "the law of my mind" that struggles against, "the law of the flesh" (Rm 7:1-6). Here "flesh" does not mean just our bodies but all the evil tendencies that are in each one of us from the effects of original sin and the secular society in which we live as well as our own personal sins. These sins and the effects of sin enslave and addict us to sin and are like the "law" of a slave's cruel master. By "mind" in this text St. Paul means our understanding through faith, but also through reason, of what is really good for us and for others. We see that to follow this "perfect law of freedom" would really set us free, but we find it very difficult to do so. We foolishly fall back again and again into slavery.
Jesus was perfectly free to do the will of his Father because he was without sin. What the Father asked of him was they he live not just for himself but for others, even at the sacrifice of his life. Mary, who was prepared to be Mother of God by being saved from any taint of sin, shared wonderfully in this freedom when she said, "Let it be done to me according to your word." All Christians are set free by baptism but to share perfectly in the freedom of Jesus we must be transformed by grace by walking the Gospel Way. But they cannot walk alone. We need the help of those who have gone before us as well as of our fellow travelers. As pilgrims we must share the resources given us all by God.
This is why Christian prayer begins with "Our Father" and Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them" (Mt 18:20). To love God, we must together with Him love our neighbor (Mt 22:34-40): that is "the perfect law of freedom" given by Jesus himself. But it is possible only by the grace of the Holy Spirit, who unites the Father and the Son, and in whose fellowship we are called to share (1 Jn 1:2). This means that even when we pray alone, as Jesus often did (Lk 9:18) and as he advises us to do (Mt 6:6) we do so in order with greater attention to enter into the prayer of the whole Church. We ought always to include the Church and all in need in our personal prayers. And we should ask the prayers of others. It is rather strange that Protestants pray for each other and ask others to pray for them, yet think that the ancient practice of the Church both in East and West of asking the intercession of Mary and the saints in heaven somehow detracts from the sovereignty of Christ. Actually, Christian prayer is to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Since the Church is the Body of Christ (Col 1:18), all its members, on earth, in purgatory, and in heaven pray only with and in him in the Holy Spirit. The prayers of those closest to Christ, however, have greater favor with him than those of others less closely united. "The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful" (Jm 516). This is why the ecumenical search for unity among all Christians is so urgent: by baptism we are parts of the torn Body of Christ. It must be healed.
Vatican II, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium), 1963
John Paul II, The Encyclical "That They May be One" (Ut Unum Sint), 1995
Why and how is the Church "the Body of Christ" (Eph 1:22-23)?
What is the relation of liturgical worship to private prayer?
What exactly does the term "ecumenism" mean?
Name some of the effects of "individualism" on morality and spirituality.
Explain Galatians 6:2, Bear one another's burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.