The Church: the Communion of Saints               (E.J.Tyler)

   One of the distinctive characteristics of a Catholic attitude is an appreciation of the reality and the importance of the Church in the saving plan of God. The Protestant tends to put little emphasis on the Church. For him, the important thing is our direct relationship with Christ (as it is also for the Catholic), and this relationship tends to be seen as a matter simply between Christ himself and me, which I nourish especially by my personal meditation on his word in the Scriptures. Hence the important thing about the Protestant Sunday service is the hearing of the word and not the Eucharistic memorial. The important thing for the Protestant is not what the Church states but what I come to see from my reading from the word of God in the Scriptures. Nor is there any essential difference between the priesthood of the laity and that of the ordained, for I have my own access to Jesus. Much of the difference between the Catholic and the non-Catholic hinges on the attitude to the Church. It was significant that the first long series of Wednesday Audience talks begun by Pope Benedict XVI was on the relationship between Christ and the Church.

   The Catholic does indeed put a lot of importance on the Church, seeing the Church as the means whereby Christ comes to us and we come to Christ. Our relationship with Christ is direct and immediate, but it is within the context of the Church. Christ is directly encountered but within the Church, for the Church is his body. We are in communion with Christ within the Church. 

   How then, should we understand the Church? To understand the Church we ought begin by considering our relationship with our Lord himself. Our Lord speaks of us as being in him just as he is in the Father and the Father is in him. By our baptism we are in Christ. St Paul too speaks of us as being in Christ. When we speak of something being in another thing we probably tend to think of it spatially. For instance, we put money in a wallet, or we live in a house, or we are driving along in a car. We think of something being inside another thing. Just as when we say that someone is in a car we know that there is no distance between that person and the car, so in using the phrase, the Christian is in Christ, it is also being stated that there is no distance between the one who is baptised and Christ. Christ unites the Christian so much to himself that he is spoken of as being in him. And of course, if he is in Christ, he shares his life. Our Lord said that he is the vine and that we are the branches. Where is a branch? Well, of course it is part of the vine, or we could say that it is in the vine. St Paul speaks of us as members of Christ’s body. Where is the heart? It is in the body. Where are the blood vessels? They are in the body. They share in the life of the body. St Paul says that the Church is the body of Christ. We are members of Christ’s body, the Church, and Christ is its head. It would be hard to think of a more expressive and simpler way of describing all this together with the intimate union between us who are baptised and Christ, than to say that we are in Christ. That is the way our Lord describes his relationship with his Father, and his relationship with us. He is in his Father and his Father is in him. Just so, he is in us and we are in him, and because this is made possible by the gift and the power of the Holy Spirit, the Blessed Trinity dwells in us and we in the Trinity, provided we are in the state of grace. What a glorious revelation of our situation before God! Due to the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit and by our baptism we are in God.

  The problem is that we do not reflect on all this and remember it. It requires that we live by faith and remember the realities that we believe in on the word and revelation of our Lord. He has told us these things, the Church repeats them and instructs us in them, but we do not keep it in mind. We forget. There is an old saying, out of sight, and out of mind. If we do not see something, it tends to go out of our minds. We can completely forget things we don’t often see. I know one lady who has had a stroke and who easily forgets things. She has a mobile phone and to make sure she remembers how to use it she practises at it every day. She knows that if she doesn’t, she will forget how to use it, because, out of sight, out of mind. The same thing can and does apply to things of faith. Because we don’t actually see the things God has revealed, if we don’t take steps to live in the thought of them, and in what the Church’s doctrine teaches, then we shall forget the realities they express. We do not see or feel our being in Christ, and so the danger will be that we shall not remember it from day to day, and we shall live as if it is not a fact. We need to read the passages in Scripture about it as well as the Church’s doctrine on it, and take steps to keep it actively in mind. And on God’s part, just as we can keep something constantly in mind, so our Lord keeps us constantly in mind. More than that, in some mysterious way, we are not only constantly in his mind but so united to him that he describes us as being in him and he in us, if we are in the state of grace. This is a wonderful truth about our situation.

  Now, we are all together part of this reality. Being in Christ does not just apply to me alone. We are all, all of us who are baptised and in the state of grace, in Christ together. We are all like the blood cells coursing together through the veins of the body. That is to say, all of us are members of the body of Christ which is the Church. There is a deep union between each of us and Christ because of the gift to each of us of the Holy Spirit, and because we all share in the same kind of union with Christ and all live in him there is a deep communion between us. The Church is not only a communion of her members with the person of Christ, it is a communion of her members with one another. We all have a tremendous thing in common that unites us and sets up a community of life between us, whether we are on earth, in heaven or in purgatory, and that common thing is the person of Christ to whom we are all united and in whom we all live. We live our share in his divine life and this we share together. This common share in the divine life of Christ is a more momentous thing than our common share in our own human life. We are all children of God. Now, that communion of God’s children is the Church.

 The Church is being described more and more now in her teaching as a communion. A communion is a sharing of life between persons that unites them and enables them to share their riches with one another so that all benefit. The Church is a great communion of persons, a vast body of persons who hold in common a profound share in the life of God which has its source in their all being in Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit he is in us and we are in him. Just as during his life on earth he lived in the midst of his disciples and there was a certain communion of life between them, so too now in a far greater way he dwells in our midst as the head of the Church which is his body. Just before he ascended into heaven he said to his disciples that in respect to the mission he had just given them he would be with them to the end of the world, so now this presence of our Lord in our midst in the life of the Church is being played out day by day, and he will be with us to the end of time. He continues his saving work through the years of history, and he does it through his presence in the life of the Church as the Church’s head. He acts within the Church primarily through the preaching of his word and the administration and reception of the sacraments.

   The word ‘communion’ comes from two Latin words which together refer to persons being in union with one another. Every human family ought be a communion of persons and not just a daily juxtaposition of persons. They have so much in common, sharing a common home, they share a common set of values, common interests, common concern for one another, and the children share common parents and the parents share the children. They normally have more in common than they have with other groups - at least this is how it should be. A family is the most obvious example of a communion of persons in the experience of most people. It is a communion. The Church is the great family of God. It too is a communion but inasmuch as it shares in the life of God himself, who is a triune communion of persons, it is a far greater communion than any earthly family. But because we do not see the spiritual and heavenly goods, especially the life in Christ which is the basis of the Church’s common life, we tend not to be particularly aware of it as a communion. We tend to look on it just as an institution that we are part of or that we have joined, like some other visible organisation. But no, it is a family, or rather it is a share in the family life of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. As members of the Church we share in the communion of life of the Blessed Trinity which is the primary communion of all reality. Holy Communion refers to the union between the Eucharistic Jesus and the one who receives him at Mass. Inasmuch as we all receive the Eucharistic Jesus at Mass it is the Eucharist which above all creates and fosters the communion of life in the Church.

 So, just as there is a profound communion in the family between a mother and her children, so too, inasmuch as the Church is our Mother, there is a profound communion between the Church and each of us. From her we receive our life in Christ. For this reason the Catholic loves the Church and because of this love desires to serve her as one would one’s own family. St Paul describes the Church as the spouse of Christ, and our Lord referred to himself as the bridegroom. Just as our Lord loved the Church and gave his life for her, so to do the Church’s members ought love the Church and give their lives for her as being the spouse and body of Christ. Part and parcel of this love for the Church is love for the Church’s saints, especially the greatest of the saints, Mary our Mother. She is our Lord’s mother, the Church’s mother, and she is our mother. A person who loves Christ and the Church also loves the Pope. Pope St Pius X once said that a Catholic who does not love the Pope will not attain holiness. It is all part of loving the Church, and that love for the Church springs from the communion that prevails in the Church, and of which we have a share. We also love the Church by living our Christian lives faithfully and bearing witness to Christ and the Church before others. One very important way by which we love and serve the Church is by knowing and loving her teaching, and by faithfully bearing witness to it before others, doing our best to teach it and spread it. A person who rejects the Church’s teaching is no longer in communion with her. A public person who teaches things that are openly contrary to the Church’s teaching is liable, for the sake of the faithful, to be excluded from communion with the Church - we call it excommunication. This is a particularly important point. People casually dissent from the Church’s teaching, declaring themselves to be of a different opinion. I remember years ago I was in a discussion with a group of Catholic doctors. They were discussing aspects of Catholic belief, and one of them said he simply did not believe in the doctrine of Hell. He had no idea of the seriousness of dissenting as he did from the Church’s doctrine. One is placing oneself outside the family, outside communion with Christ and the Church.

   One of the most important features of the communion of life in the Church is our common call to holiness. We all share that in common. Because we all share in the communion of the Church due to our all being in Christ, we all share in that common call to holiness. It is a universal call directed to all of Christ’s faithful, whatever be one’s particular vocation in the Church. The vocation of the priest who himself is called to holiness is to assist the lay person to be holy. The priest's service is to provide the word of God and the sacraments to enable this gradually to happen. That common call ought be a great source of communion of life among us. We ought all be helping one another to achieve that goal. We need the help of one another for this, and generally we need to be in some association that has this as its common goal. By our example of punctual and regular participation we will be helping one another towards personal holiness and that in turn will deepen our communion in Christ. If we are slack we will be giving bad example to other members, and will be failing in the communion of life we all share in.

  We ought love the Church and play our part in increasing its common life by supporting and praying for the Church’s pastors. We ought pray for all the faithful departed. They too are members of the Church. They have been saved, but can do nothing to increase their merit and hasten their purification before being received into the most holy presence of God. We can help them by our prayers, our penances, our Masses. The Church consists of the communion of saints, all those who are in Christ. Let us then resolve to grow in the sense of the Church as a great and mighty communion of all those who are in Christ, in whom is every heavenly blessing.