Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Pray thee, do tell…….
Although my parents weren't particularly religious, my early childhood was directly influenced by the variety of Protestant religions prevalent in the Southern States. As such, my understanding of the "saints" was grounded in those doctrinal beliefs. The various different Protestant belief systems identify saints with all sorts of definitions. Who a Baptist defines as a saint is somewhat different to the Methodist and, likewise, to the Presbyterian. When I came to Catholicism, I had to consider ideas that were completely contrary to my upbringing. It was confusing then, but over the years I have had the wherewithal to understand it.
I would like to tell you that I came to understand the Communion of Saints and intercessory prayer upon my conversion to modern Catholicism. I would like to tell you that, but it would be a lie. Oh, sure we talked about the Communion of Saints, there was the acknowledgement that certain people are saints, but that was about the limit. I never heard a priest give a sermon about a saint, or why it is important to read about the saints, or why we should ask the saints to pray for us. Never. Until I became a Traditional Catholic.
When I was a bouncing around from one Protestant church to another, the "communion of saints" was, for the most part, a foreign concept. As a Baptist, which is how my mother still identifies herself, a "saint" is merely another Jesus believing Christian who is currently living. For a Methodist, the same definition applies, but they would surely include the Apostles or other people they consider who lived a holy life. So, a "communion" of saints would refer to several holy, Christian people currently alive, and perhaps those who have passed on. There is nothing really unusual or controversial about that definition. In general terms, yes, as Christians we are saints. But this is not a complete understanding of the Communion of Saints.
The incomplete picture of the Communion of Saints that the Protestants have comes from the distorted understanding the Protestant sects have of the Church. The Church is not simply a body of believers. It is composed of three separate and distinct groups. Together, these three groups make up the entire Church—the Communion of Saints. The Church Militant is all the Christians living on earth who, as the name implies, are fighting against the sins of this world and the devil who is wandering around seeking the ruin of souls. The Church Triumphant refers to all those souls who have ended their suffering on earth and have been assured the gift and joy of Heaven. The Church Suffering or the Church Penitent is all the souls who have completed their suffering on earth but are suffering the cleansing fires in Purgatory.
These three groups make up the entire Church, who are separated only by death. The members of the Church help each other through good works, good example, and prayer. The members of Church Militant, those of us here on earth, help each other through our charity, counsel, and prayer. We also pray for the members of the Church Penitent for their time in Purgatory to be shortened. Those in Purgatory, who are one step closer to attaining Heaven, offer their sufferings for the Church on earth. And the Church Triumphant, those who have finally attained Heaven, assist those on earth through their own prayers to the Lord. Reflecting on the Church in this manner, leaves one with a deeper understanding of what Jesus meant when he said that we would never be alone. The whole Church, whether living on this earth or living with Our Lord in Heaven, works together as one, helping each other. How incredibly beautiful and powerful!
Why the Protestant churches reject this long held understanding of the Church and the Communion of Saints, I cannot answer in this post, but all of them do. As for the modern CathoIic Church, I can only assume, since the New Catechism fails to mention the Church and the Communion of Saints in the traditional manner, that they have developed a more Protestant pleasing approach to sainthood. And as a result, they have lost an immense treasure left to us by our Lord—the intercession of the Saints—asking those who have already attained their eternal reward to carry our prayers to Our Lord's ears.
Since the beginning, the Church has not been afraid to declare that a person on earth, due to their most holy and exemplary life, has surely attained a seat in Heaven. The Church doesn't arbitrarily decide who should be in Heaven, but examines the life, works, and words of the person, and determines based on this evidence that this person is certainly with the Lord. As such, we, as members of the Church Militant, can and should follow the example of these persons and we should certainly ask them to assist us in acquiring virtue and to pray for us to the Lord.
Sainthood has long been an honored tradition among Catholics. Catholics, for centuries, have named their children after some saint they had particular recourse to or some saint with virtues that they hoped for their children to possess. Churches have been named after saints and no shortage of images of that person has graced the walls and windows. Many saints have been called upon because of the miracles Our Lord permitted them to perform. The saints have left us with prayers, meditations, miracles, insight into virtuous living, and ways to defend ourselves against the devil.
Long ago, the Catholic Church compiled a list of many of the saints in recorded history. Thousands of them are recorded in the Roman Martyrology. The Church has assigned a day, usually the day they entered Heaven, for that saint to be honored and remembered. That calendar, the Liturgical Calendar, remained unchanged for centuries. It was modified in the 50s and the 60s to add some saints and move some to different days. After Vatican II, many saints were completely removed from the calendar. In recent years, Pope John Paul II modified the criteria for declaring a person a "saint." During his papacy, he declared 482 persons saints and beatified more than 2000. He believed, much like the Protestants, that "all people" were saints. Many of these saints have been added to the calendar, but unless otherwise noted, I will not be writing about them here. Why I have made that decision will also be left to another post.
I often feel incredibly alone in a world filled with distractions. It is unusually difficult to be a Christian in a modern world. Even Sunday, the Lord's Day, is no longer a day of rest. It is just another "business-as-usual" day. Long held Christian principles have been abandoned by modern Christians. As our President declared recently, the U.S. is no longer a Christian nation. Since this is so, to whom to we seek for advice, guidance, and direction? Whose example can we follow? The Protestants will simply say, "Jesus." Modern Catholics will probably say this as well, but they will have overlooked an important point—Jesus was and is Divine.
Jesus, because He is God become Flesh, could never sin. We, as human beings, sons of Adam, have inherited Original Sin. We are sinners, and try as we might, we continue to struggle with sin. And while, as Christians, we are all striving to live like Christ, we often fall short and sometimes become frustrated or adopt the opinion that we are not capable of virtuous living. The Lord, of course, knew this would happen. As such, He has left the Church exactly what we need—real men, women, and children who overcame their sinful nature and lived exemplary lives. They have become for us the assistance and encouragement we need as Christians living in our world.
Is it possible to suffer patiently with cancer? Ask St. Peregrine. Is it possible to love the world and yet reject it for the Lord? Ask St. Augustine. Is it possible to remain faithful to the Catholic Church in a Protestant world? Ask St. Margaret of Clitherow. All the saints have a story to tell. They offer to us the very real possibility that we, as fully human and sinful, can overcome our nature only through the true love of Our Lord and the Sacraments.
These days, a whole treasury of amazing people, Saints of the Church, has been opened to me. I hope to share them with you here.
All the Saints in Heaven, pray for us that we may follow your example in hopes of meriting our own reward.
All the Souls in Purgatory, it is for you we pray, that you may soon see the Face of Our Lord.