"A lay Catholic perspective"

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The Communion of Saints

by Mark Fetherston


The family of God


By this I do not mean just that a lot of people belong to the Catholic Church. Although, this certainly is true. I am talking bigger than that. I mean our Church is really, really huge, bigger than we can imagine.

The Church is the Body of Christ. Our membership exists as a deep communion. Those still on earth, those who have died and are being purified and the saints in heaven, collectively make up the Church. Together, we are the family of God.

This is one meaning of "communion of saints." Another, perhaps more profound, is the holy things we share, particularly the Eucharist, which sanctify us and make us one body in Christ. So by "communion of saints" the Church means "communion 'in holy things (sancta)' and 'among holy persons (sancti)'" (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 946-962).

As the family of God we share in God's mercy. Not one of us deserves to be a part of this wonderful fellowship destined for eternal life. As scripture tells us: All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God (Rm 3:23). None of us merits a place in the Body of Christ, nor can we earn a place. However, by the mercy of God, we have been given a place among the holy elect:

Though our Lord Jesus Christ, by faith we are judged righteous and at peace with God, since it is by faith and through Jesus that we have entered this state of grace in which we can boast about looking forward to God's glory (cf. Rm 5:1-2).

God loves us so much that he has caused mercy to triumph over judgement. He cares for us so deeply he sent his own dear Son into the world to "break the chains of death and rise triumphant from the grave," so that we might have salvation from what we truly deserve and, instead, be given heaven.

The Easter Exsultet puts it:

Father, how wonderful your care for us!
How boundless your merciful love!
To ransom a slave you gave away your Son.

The magnificence of the treasure we share is accentuated by the fact that none of us deserve it. Having been made brothers and sisters by an act of divine grace, it is important that we treasure what we have been given.

Once we have aquired the grace of God through Baptism, we need to respond faithfully to that grace with lives of service to God and others. As Saint James said: Faith without works is as dead as a body without breath (Jas 2:26).

Mercy: given and received

In the sacrament of Baptism each of us is given the gift of eternal life and adopted into God's family. The fundamental importance of this gift makes it vital that we live in faithfulness to the mercy God has given us.

Think about the greatness of God's gift. My sin and your sin is a serious matter, so serious that it would separate us from God forever. God's gift of reconciliation is both unimaginably costly for him and given freely to us. Whether or not we accept God's free gift of mercy is the central question of our lives.

Any encounter with mercy must always be a shared experience. If someone does something against me and I forgive him/her, this is good, but it is not yet an experience of mercy. Mercy occurs only when forgiveness becomes reciprocal, when I am able to seek and receive forgiveness from the one who came to me for forgiveness. Forgiveness flowing only one way is incomplete, because the one who asks forgiveness is like a beggar, and the one granting it a benevolent lord. This may be just, gracious, or whatever, but it is not mercy.

Consider the way God treats us when we approach him for mercy. In the sacrament of Penance, we are brought face-to-face with Jesus on the cross. As we are confessing our sin, the contemplation of our lack of love for God in the face of his infinite love for us is more than a little disconcerting. However, as we surrender without reservation to the presence of Jesus crucified, we can sense his words coming to us from the cross: "I thirst" (Jn 19:28).

With these words, "I thirst" Jesus is actually asking us to have mercy on him! Not only has almighty God never done the slightest wrong against any of us, his ever-attentive love holds each of us in existence. This same God has reduced himself to such a state that he became as all men are, and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross. (Phil 2:7,8)

The thirst that Jesus expresses is very real. It is this thirst that drove him to the cross; the thirst for our souls. This is the thirst that drove the great apostles. As Saint Paul proclaimed: We are ambassadors for Christ; God as it were appealing through us. We implore you, in Christ's name: be reconciled to God! (2 Cor 5:20)

God humbled himself to the Cross to bring us his forgiveness. In the divine economy, this humbling also makes it possible for almighty God to call out to us for mercy. And so, in the sacrament of Penance, we can experience going from the wretched state of facing our lack of love for God, in the face of his infinite love, to the most elevated position in the universe: that of being able to give mercy to our Creator. And each of us can say, I am truly the only one who can give that particular gift to God, for it is for me that he longs.

And so, by God's condescension he makes it possible for us to experience mercy with him; not just by his wonderful forgiveness, but by so emptying himself that his creatures can minister in a real way to him.

More mercy

Jesus was not satisfied with even this. Jesus longs for his people to live entirely in his mercy, and so, outdoing even himself, Jesus gives us many more opportunities to enter the flowing stream of his merciful love. He does this by identifying himself completely with his followers.

St. Matthew records Jesus showing us the path he wanted us to follow by revealing to us what to expect at the Last Judgement (Mt 25:31-46). To the saved, Jesus will say that whenever they did an act of mercy "for one of my least brothers, you did it for me." To the damned he says "I assure you, as often as you neglected to do it to one of these least ones, you neglected to do it to me."

By extending mercy to others we are saved; by withholding it we are damned. As we forgive all who have harmed us, we enter the fullness of God's own forgiveness. On the other hand, if we refuse to forgive, we are refusing to enter mercy. To say that we want to be forgiven by God while refusing to forgive another, we are fooling ourselves. To be forgiven by God means to forgive everyone, because in reality the offenses of anyone against us are trivial when compared with our own offense against God.

We enter mercy through faith in the Son of God. If we truly believe in God's mercy, then we will practise it in all our affairs. It would be ludicrous to say that God forgives me, who in no way deserves it, and yet refuse to forgive another. So, if we believe in God's mercy we must be faithful witnesses in thought, word and deed.


When we first discover the great power of God's mercy, we also encounter its potential to transform us and all of our relationships. Forgiveness changes from something we grudgingly give to others, into a marvellous tool for entering into God's love and building God's kingdom. Instead of fearing the lack of control over the actions of others that giving and receiving forgiveness implies, we look forward to the joy of surrendering all things into the hands of God who cares so deeply for each of us.

Along with the happiness of this newfound faith in God, comes an unexpected, surprise: Peace.

Peace is extraordinary, utterly unlike the everyday concept of it. We are used to thinking of peace more in terms of what it is not, rather than what it is. For example, peace as absence of war, or absence of noise. This is fine, but the peace Jesus promised us is God's own peace, a peace the world can neither give us nor understand. Jesus's peace comes to dwell with us and it is powerful and dynamic, wonderful beyond anything we could have anticipated.

Peace initially establishes herself in our lives in two ways. The first is to free us from our fears, and the second is to confirm us in the fellowship of our faith.

Freedom from fear often comes as a revelation, because we are so accustomed to dealing with fear as a matter of course that we do not see it as something apart from ourselves oppressing us.

For example, fear of economic insecurity usually has very little to do with financial realities. Jesus told us that it is impossible to serve God and money. We must love one and hate the other. If we have chosen to serve money, the result in our life has to be economic insecurity. Serving the enemy always results in fear. Consider the people who, although very well-off financially, are always striving for more. Why? They are terrified of losing what they have. When we are embraced by God's mercy we come to know that Providence is real and rightly to be relied on. We learn not to be fearful about tomorrow.

Mercy lets us be confident of our heavenly destiny, and this in turn causes all dread to disappear. Shame gives way to contrition for past sins as our fear of them withdraws before God's merciful dealings with us. Waking up with a knot in our gut becomes a distant memory.

The fellowship of peace

In God's peace relationships take on a new dynamic of love. We see ourselves and others as possessing the God-given dignity which makes authentic friendship possible. While we were living in fear, friendship could exist only in a severely restrictive sense. But, in God's kingdom the harmony of peace promotes the true fellowship of the communion of saints.

Shared experiences of mercy open us to love the saints of heaven. They, too, are our brothers and sisters. "As Christian communion among our fellow pilgrims brings us closer to Christ, so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ." (Lumen Gentium, 50)

The Virgin Mary comes very close to us. She is the mother Jesus himself gave us. Drawing from the storehouse of her Son Jesus, Mary leads the Church in bringing out things both old and new to help us be formed in the true worship of the New Covenant. Mary is an "image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come. Likewise she shines forth on earth,... a sign of certain hope and comfort to the pilgrim People of God." (L.G., 68)

The sign of Mary is so effective that, as we pray the Rosary, we are brought to an awareness of heaven. The Archangel Gabriel said the first Rosary at the Annunciation: "Hail full grace the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women"(Lk 1:28). So it is very natural that our Guardian Angel would be praying the Rosary with us whenever we pray it.

(As I was writing this, Monsignor - not Msgr.(!) - Chartrand pointed out to me that, in fact, the first Rosary was prayed by Saint Dominic in the 13th century. I do not think this destroys my point.)

Sent forth in peace and mercy

Convinced of the truth of God's mercy, we are called as ambassadors for Christ to go out to announce Jesus's intense desire to extend salvation to everyone.

Blessed Pope John Paul II said as he departed from Stapleton International Airport following the youth rally in Denver:

Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places like the first apostles who preached Christ and the Good News of salvation in the squares of cities, towns and villages. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. It is a time to preach it from the rooftops. Do not be afraid to speak, to break out of routine and comfortable modes of living in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern metropolis.... The Gospel must not be kept hidden because of fear or indifference. It has to be put on a stand so that people can see its light and give praise to our Heavenly Father.