In 2014, a few months after I had found my way back to the Faith, my parish priest delivered a homily that I’ve never forgotten. In fact, his words were incredibly comforting to me then and have been ever since. On the occasion of All Saints’ Day (November 1), he explained one of the most wonderful things about the Church: its belief about who makes up the Church.
The Church, he said, includes both the living and the dead. What he was describing is called, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church of Heaven and Earth. More specifically, the Church is composed of three groups: those who are still “pilgrims on earth” (the living), those who have “died and are being purified,” and those who have died and “are in glory, contemplating in full light, God himself” (954). According to the article “What is the Communion of Saints?”, the souls in all three of these groups are referred to as “saints” because all are people of God.
My priest then went on to say that we can still communicate with the dead. Now, he wasn’t talking about necromancy, or conducting séances, or conjuring up spirits via a medium, or hunting for ghosts. He was referring to what the Church calls the “communion of the saints.” Death, he said, does not completely separate us from our loved ones. Those we have lost are not gone from us, sent to a far distant place called Heaven where we can’t interact with them again until we ourselves pass from this life. No, he said, we can still communicate with them. Of course, it’s a different kind of interaction. We can’t be in each other’s physical presence as we were here in this life, but we can continue being in each other’s spiritual presence. The Catechism’s explanation is the most eloquent: “So it is that the union of the wayfarers with the brethren who sleep in the peace of Christ is in no way interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the constant faith of the Church, this union is reinforced by an exchange of spiritual goods” (955). We the living pray for those we have lost, and they pray for us, too. In fact, they even intercede on our behalf to God when we ask for their help. We remain connected.
This way of thinking about the living and the dead comforts me because the worst part of losing our loved ones is missing them. We grieve because we no longer have them with us for conversations, laughter, advice, support, and so on. Although people of many different faiths console themselves with the thought that, one day, they will be reunited, they believe they must find a way, in the meantime, to accept that the dead are inaccessible.
For those of us who have lost someone too young, it’s even worse. Not only is it awful to have to go on without that person, but also it’s painful to feel that the one who died was robbed of the joys of life and the chance to fulfill his or her potential in this world.
According to the Catechism, though, those who have died don’t stop fulfilling their potential; they just do it in a different way — by becoming saints who pray for those they’ve left behind.
Losing my stepfather to cancer was devastating, but my pain did not arise from any worry I had about him. He was one of the kindest, most patient, most generous people I’ve ever known, and I had no doubt that he had gone to be with the God he had loved and worshipped all of his life. So, I wasn’t sad for him. I was sad for myself because I would no longer see him and talk to him. Now, I think of the communion of saints. Anytime I open my mind and heart, I feel his spiritual light surround me. I know that he’s praying for me, and I can tell that he is still close. I can talk to him, and he hears me and reassures me.
Understanding the Church of Heaven and Earth has also decreased my fear of my own death. One of my main worries about dying has always been leaving behind my family members who need me, but if I live according to Christ’s teachings while I’m still here, I’ll be able to continue to help them in another important way after I depart this life.