Christian Friendship and the Communion of Saints

The Communion of Saints tapestry (one section shown here) by John Nava,
for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, CA, 2001.

Not too long ago, the rector of the local Cathedral died after a battle with cancer. Though not entirely unexpected, his departure from this life affected me deeply. At his funeral, his usual chair next to the choir stalls remained empty, an absence that spoke louder than any words spoken by the Archbishop during the homily, more profound than any of the moving music. After eleven years, no longer would he ever sit in his usual place for Holy Mass. And so I cried. These tears were not so much for him for I knew he had suffered greatly, particularly in the final months of his earthly life. Moreover, I knew that his fellow priests had ministered to his soul with utmost care in his illness. Rather, I mourned for myself, for the loss of one who had cared for me and who meant so much to me.

For weeks, whenever I would return to the Cathedral, I would sense him walking down the marble aisles as he typically did. Only he was not there. I would see things he had used,  and realize he would not wear that particular vestment, or hold that particular book again. I would be filled again with the same grief. Those experiences of remembering, and reminders of one who has passed, is not unusual.

What did take me by surprise was the same sadness would also emerge when I was at Masses elsewhere, most profoundly during the consecration and elevation of the Eucharist. It didn’t particularly make sense to me that the same overwhelming grief would wash over me when I was away from the Cathedral.

Despite this almost consuming grief, it struck me that these feelings speak to a beauty of the Catholic Church, and of the faith. It is only through the Church, and the gift of the priesthood, that I ever even met this priest. Of the millions who live in my Archdiocese, much less in our country, the chances of even meeting him otherwise would have been highly unlikely. Even if I had met him, the likelihood that his life would have had such an impact on mine is doubtful, absent the grace of his priesthood, and his spiritual fatherhood. It was his care for my soul that made him different from the many other relationships I had with others in my life. It is a wonderful thing that our Catholic faith can unite such different people from so many different places.

Anyone who has been to a World Youth Day, or similar gathering, can attest to the speed at which meaningful relationships can arise based primarily on a common faith. There’s a fittingness to the relationship. Perhaps that is due, in part, to the fact that there are common values. I think, though, that it is for a deeper reason: a common vision of life. The common acknowledgement that we have been created to ultimately be in relationship with God means that the relationship, too, has its end goal in God. It is a given that we are journeying in the same direction, toward the same destination.

Like the disciples who encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, we are called to live in relationship. We are made to live in community. Jesus teaches us the blessing of relationships rooted in him. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt. 18:20) These relationships carry a different quality precisely because Christ himself is present in it. They find their origin in God, blossom in God, and have their fulfillment in God.  

St. Augustine articulated it this way in his Confessions while telling of his friend who died too early: “For there is no true friendship save between those thou dost bind together, and who cleave to thee by that love which is ‘shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who is given to us’” (Book 4, chapter 4). Augustine recognized that true friendship is sent by God. True Christian relationship requires a cultivation of the same virtues necessary for living the spiritual life well. In friendship, we are constantly asked to look beyond our immediate desires and dislikes to see our friend’s sorrows and joys. We have all thought, at one time, “Well because he’s such a good friend, I’m willing to do that,” with the understanding that the burdensome task is not something we would desire to do save for the friendship. Not only are we willing to go further for another in a friendship, but we are called to do this again and again, cultivating a habit of charity.

True charity orders all aspects of our lives, including our relationships with others, purifying them, orienting them to their proper relationship, and elevating them to the supernatural. Christian relationships and friendships, in fact, help to sanctify us.

Through Christ, we are able to have relationships rooted in something other than merely ourselves. We are able to be eternally connected, not only with our family and friends in this life, but also with the multitudes of saints who have gone before us. We can know those who have gone before us, not merely in the sense that we can read and learn about their lives, as one might study a historical figure; we can actually have a relationship with them. The saints, both formally canonized, and those who are known only to God, are alive and able to help us on this earthly journey. They remind us of our glorious calling: to dwell in complete union with God.

Hopefully, all the relationships we have on earth are imaging the relationship, par excellence, in the Holy Trinity: the Father in relationship with the Son, the Holy Spirit proceeding from the two. Our relationships should imitate that perfect caritas present in the Holy Trinity for if, indeed, we are in a relationship rooted in Christ, Jesus is present as a third person to the relationship.

Our relationships on earth are not limited to those relationships we have with other people on earth. Even while on earth, we can have a relationship with the saints in Heaven. In a culture that trains us to rely on sense-able stimuli, it is easy to forget that which we can’t see with our eyes: the angels and saints. Every November, we remember in a particular way, all those who have gone before, rejoicing in the exultation of the saints, and praying for the souls in purgatory. Certainly, we should be reminded of our duty to perform the spiritual work of mercy to pray for the dead. We should, also, however, cultivate our relationships with the saints for they have lived lives of holiness. If our relationships should help us to grow in virtue, who better to be in relationship with than the saints who are already enjoying the beatific vision?

This should also be a reminder to us that our relationships here on earth will hopefully last forever, for Christian relationships are everlasting. In heaven, we are united perfectly with Christ. So, too, are we united perfectly with all other Christians. By exercising virtue in right relationships here on earth, we are able to grow in holiness. What we do on earth really does have eternal implications. St. Francis de Sales describes it in this way: “If the bond of your mutual liking be charity, devotion, and Christian perfection, God knows how very precious a friendship it is! Precious because it comes from God, because it tends to God, because God is the link that binds you, because it will last forever in him.” In Christ, our relationships continue beyond the bounds of this earth for they become exalted in and through him.

How fitting it was, then, that in the Eucharist, I would be most reminded of my pastor, for he really is present there. St. Paul writes, “Because the Bread is one, we, though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one Bread.” (1 Cor. 10:17) The Eucharist renders all of us one.

In the Blessed Sacrament, heaven and earth are united, and so all souls, both in heaven and on earth, are able to meet in the Eucharist. In a sense, we can “talk” to those in Heaven in a particular way through the Eucharist. When we receive Communion, we receive not only the Lord of Heaven and earth, but we are also profoundly united to each and every person in the mystical body of Christ, for every member of this body is present in the Eucharist. This is why our bonds with Christ, and with the entire Church, are strengthened through reception of Holy Communion. Our relationships are strengthened through God’s grace, joining us with those near and far and even those in Heaven. This is one of the beautiful mysteries of the gift of the Eucharist: we have a physical way to be united to others, in Christ.

This is the beauty of the Catholic faith: in some ways, after my pastor’s death, I am able to be even closer to him than when he was on earth. In so many ways, my life was blessed by him. Yet, I have more than merely memories; through faith, I trust that he remains present every time I attend Mass.  

Stephanie H. To About Stephanie H. To

Stephanie H. To works for the Archdiocese of St. Louis' Respect Life Apostolate. She holds a BA in psychology from Washington University in St. Louis, a MA in Bioethics & Health Policy from Loyola University in Chicago, and a JD with a certificate in health law from Saint Louis University.

Comments

  1. Michelle, Cocoa, Florida says:

    Thank you for this beautiful and consoling article…simple and yet very profound…a good reminder of our hope and faith when we are in grief. God bless.

  2. Paul Rodden says:

    I’m no expert, but it is the Communion of the Saints, as well as the Most Holy and Blessed Trinity and Our lady, which, to me, makes the growing use of the phrase, ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, by ‘Hipster Catholics’ sound so strange. It makes it sound as if ‘My mate, Jesus’, is the sole mediator in an absolute sense (‘Sola Jesus’) and everyone else – Persons or persons – incidental, if not irrelevant to ‘”my” spiritual life’. Doesn’t the phrase seems to imply a sort of subjective or immanentised ‘Jesus-ism’, rather than a Christianity made up of an organic, living Church: a Communion of Saints who worship a Divine Trinity of Persons, across space and time?

    In short, isn’t using the phrase, ‘a personal relationship with Jesus’, to admit a reduction of the full reality of the God and his Church, understood as Trinitarian and as Communion, to being about One Person and one person?

    • Stephanie Stephanie says:

      I’m not a theologian, Paul, but I think yes and no. I think you are right in saying that there is an improper reductionism that belies the phrase “a personal relationship with Jesus,” particularly since it is one employed by many Protestants who have a very different understanding of the communion of saints and Mary. However, I do think it is possible to have a particular relationship with Jesus Christ as the second person of the Trinity that is different from one’s relationship with Mary or one’s special devotion to a saint. Just as one has a unique relationship with one’s spouse (who is part of the Body of Christ) than one has with a Catholic acquaintance, so too we can have a different relationship with Jesus Christ than we have with the Holy Spirit, Mary, St. Joseph, or St. Anthony without taking away from our understanding of the Trinity or the communion of saints.

      • Paul Rodden says:

        Hi there, Stephanie.
        Thank you for taking the time to reply. You are far clearer than I am, for a non-theologian!

        The point you make about uniqueness – the personal – is an important one, but my concern is more ‘phenomenological’: that ‘a personal relationship with Jesus’ is a very central, and oft-used, piece of Evangelical jargon (being a revert from Evangelicalism), but it’s linked more to a subectivism/sentimentalism.

        As such, now as a Catholic, those Catholics I hear use it seem also to be developing a, ‘Jesus and me’ mentality which has the aura of that introversion I thought I’d left behind, yet it seems to be a growing phenomenon, which I find confusing in the light of the Communion of Saints, etc., which I thought would prevent that.

        In short, it is the (sentimental) ‘subjectivism’ the term seems to be engendering that I’m finding worrisome, not the ‘personal’ aspect.

        That said, your article and reply have given me plenty to ponder over, so thanks so much!

      • Hello Paul – as a fellow “revert” who was once among Evangelicals as you were, I was interested to read this conversation. “Catholic” language can involve much use of the words Mary, saints, communion, community, and so on. “Evangelical” language can sometimes even be hostile to such language, hearing in those terms a challenge to the unique experience of the unique relationship, “Jesus-and-me.”

        In truth, of course, it is precisely the unique relationship that Jesus calls us into with Him, personally, that enables and requires relationship with Mary, the (canonized) saints, and the whole community of those in Him. Jesus commands us to “love one another” as He has loved us. “Jesus-and-me” leads each person in Him, to interpersonal relationship with all in Him; and all in Him are commanded to look outward, right away, to all not in Him, to invite all to come into Him and into the “one-another” family in Him that is our common vocation.

        It is a tragedy – it hurts – to see any fall short of His call, His intention. A Catholic can have the right words of communion, yet live as individualistically as (or even more so than) a “Jesus-and-me” Evangelical. Catholics ought not be afraid of the personal relationship with Jesus that Evangelicals preach – especially when spoken and preached authentically. Evangelicals ought not be afraid of the one-another communion of life in Him – with all that flows from that in Catholic Faith and theology – and maybe they can become less afraid, as they see witnesses of such communion, authentic among Catholics.

        I am reminded of Paul VI’s words in Evangelii nuntiandi (Evangelization in the Modern World):
        “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses. St. Peter expressed this well when he held up the example of a reverent and chaste life that wins over even without a word those who refuse to obey the word. It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus – the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity.”

  3. Paul Rodden says:

    Thanks so much for your addition, Thomas. Very welcome. I find myself in agreement with both you and Stephanie, and so maybe I’m just being too sensitive!

    Interestingly, it was a sentence you used a couple of months back on your ‘Renew the Church’ blog (‘Let Us Pray! Really’), which stopped me in my tracks and got me thinking more about this back then. :)

    In the context of talking about the Church, you said, ‘My main concern then, these days, is for the foundations of the foundation: our individual, personal, person-to-Person relationship with God the Holy Trinity.’, and I thought that expressed beautifully and concisely the fuller depth of the matter. It always seems so much more. As you quote the Catechism later: a matter of communion.

    Fr Meconi summed it up, for me, in the open table discussion he had with Scott Hahn, Regis Martin, et al, on FUS Faith and Reason YouTube Channel. When asked whether he had a relationship with Jesus by an Evangelical street preacher in Scotland, he replied that he had a relationship with Jesus, but he didn’t want one, he wanted something deeper, and then talked about divinisation, and to me, since returning to the Church, has seemed to express the ‘Catholic Thing’ in this regard as being more substantial than ‘relationship’ which can be so fickle in human terms.
    (That snippet was used for the promo. for the excellent discussion.)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lG3VXfmaEQ

    But, as you say, when it comes down to it, ‘A Catholic can have the right words of communion, yet live as individualistically as (or even more so than) a “Jesus-and-me” Evangelical.’

    Like Stephanie, thanks for sharing your wisdom and insight with me…