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Solemnity of All Saints, 01.11.20: Concentric Circles of Communion

The Solemnity of All Saints draws our minds and hearts to that dogma of the Catholic faith which is called the “communion of saints.”

The word dogma has become a bad word today. People use it pejoratively when, for example, displeased they call someone “too dogmatic.” What they mean is that a person is too sure of themselves, too black and white. By association, the implication is that being dogmatic is equal to being inflexible, hard, intolerant and other such lamentable things. The problem is then that when the terms dogma or dogmatic are used in their correct sense, they are already dismissed out of hand as unacceptable.

But the wrong use of a word does not cancel its right use. A dogma properly understood in terms of the Catholic faith simply means a statement about a truth of faith revealed by God. It is not stern, but firm. It is not inflexible, but steadfast. It is not an enemy of human freedom but the friend which guards it. For example, the dogma of the Trinity is that God is one in nature and three in persons. The dogma of the Resurrection is that, after he truly suffered and truly died on the Cross, Jesus Christ rose to life on the third day. Dogma is rooted in the Scriptures, in the revealed Word of God as this has been handed on to us, guarded and interpreted by the Church’s teaching authority. Dogma often renders explicit what is implicit in the Scriptures. For example, the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and of the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven are founded on the Word of God.

So, dogma maps out for us the parameters, the coordinates of the revealed truth of our faith. It tells us what it is, with greater certainty than even one plus one makes two. This can only offer us clarity and a sense of peace that we are holding fast to what Christ taught the Apostles and to what the Spirit of Christ has led the successors of the Apostles to grasp with ever-increasing certainty across the centuries. The core dogmas of our faith are contained in the Creed. As one father of the Church put it, the Creed contains in seed form all of the other fruits and flowers of the deposit of faith which the Spirit has led the Church to know and understand across the centuries.

It might be said that people today don’t need dogma, or they don’t understand it. Possibly. But it might also be that the doubts and denials of the truth of Christ which are so all-pervasive today in both the Church and the world mean that dogma is in fact detested and unwanted. In such circumstances, though, the task of the Church is not to play along uncritically with what people want, but to preach firmly and gently what Christ wants. It is true that many things in life are neither black nor white, that we are so often faced with the uncertain grey. But if you get lost in the fog, a bright light or a strong foghorn is just what you need. And what is grey, anyway, if not a confusion, a mixture of black and white? It is not a permanent attitude of uncertainty or leaving everything to everyone’s personal taste which will rescue us from the shadows, but splendour of the truth of Christ and the clear teaching of those he sends.

We come across grey areas all the time. As a priest, I can, and often do, sit and hold hands with people and lament with them the apparent lack of solutions to their difficult moral and spiritual problems. But I would fail miserably in both compassion and love if, when it is possible, I did not direct them with understanding and loving strength towards a solution worthy of their dignity and of Christ’s love for them. We cannot be resigned to sitting in the grey but need to discern our way out of it, carefully and patiently, to the bright light of Christ’s truth. Dogma is a gift of Christ’s love to us, not our foe.

Returning to the dogma of the communion of saints, it is our faith that those who have died and been judged worthy by God already enjoy the vision of his glory in the Kingdom of Heaven. St. John of the Cross tells us that, at the end of the day, we are judged on love. The Gospel of Matthew portrays the final judgment in terms of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat” or “I was hungry and you never gave me food.” The love in question is self-sacrificing love or agape as it is expressed in the New Testament. It is only our agape because it is first God’s own agape. “This is the love I mean”, says St. John, “not our love for God, but God’s love for us when he sent his Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away.”

The divine agape comes to us through Jesus Christ, by his life, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. Christ imparts this agape to us in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works in and through the Church and her sacraments, liturgy, preaching and shepherding. The agape of Christ is channelled along all these different means to feed and delight our hearts and souls and to make them bearers and agents of that same agape for others.

For, the immediate fruit of agape is communion. Love unites. Divine love unites divinely, unites us with one another in God. The unity among us is not the invention of our own collective minds and wills, but is generated at the roots of our very being by the Spirit of Christ, first in baptism and then in all the other sacraments and services of the Mystical Body.

Imagine three concentric circles. The first is the communion of the Three Persons of the Trinity as they pour out their agape to one another in the interior life of God. The second is communion in the reception of the sacraments by those who believe. This communion is not their own, but the overflowing of the communion of the Trinity into our lives. Third is the communion between believers themselves in the strength of the sacraments and other means of salvation which they have received. Our communion as Church is rooted in God’s communion as Trinity and it is brought about in us through the given means of sanctification, especially the sacraments, and above all through the Eucharist. The Eucharist is, if I can put it this way, where the communion of believers kisses the communion of the Trinity. Pope Benedict XVI once explained how the word adoration comes from the Latin word for mouth, and described Eucharistic adoration as the focal point of the great kiss of love between the Trinity and humanity.

But is there a fourth circle? Yes, there is. Going back to St. Matthew, he speaks of those whom God rewards for their corporal works of mercy in these terms: “when did I see you hungry and give you food?” In other words, many who do not see Jesus, who do not know him or do not recognise him, nonetheless love with his own divine agape when they feed the hungry, clothe the naked and so on. These are people who, without knowing it, respond to the love of Christ by living and acting in accordance with the light of a good conscience. They have not had the gift of faith, the privilege of the sacraments or the joy of knowing the communion of the Church. But moved by the Holy Spirit in the depths of their conscience, they have placed themselves in communion with the Trinity and therefore also with the Church.

I think it was St. Irenaeus who said that “wherever the Spirit is, there is the Church.” This means that even among people who know nothing of the Church or of the Trinity, or who may have heard of it but not been given the light of faith, the Spirit of God is at work. But since the Spirit of God does not somehow “leave the Church behind” to go and carry out “private” activities, then the Church is always there where the Spirit is. Christ has made the Spirit the “soul of the body, the Church.” Where the Soul goes, then, there goes the Church. The Spirit most certainly blows where he wills, but wherever he blows, he blows within and from within the Church.

Is there a fifth circle? Yes, I think we can say there is. The fifth circle is the whole of creation. St. Paul tells us that God the Father has “put all things under [Christ’s] feet and made him, as the ruler of everything, the head of the Church; which is his body, the fullness of him who fills the whole creation.” The impact of these words is beyond astonishing. St. Paul tells us elsewhere that “All things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. … He is the head of the body, the Church; … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” What is St. Paul saying?

  1. Christ not only created all things, but all things only continue to exist because they are somehow rooted in, connected into him. Without that, everything would fall apart.
  2. Christ became man to reconcile humanity back to himself. But because the destiny of mankind and of the created world stand or fall together, then the reconciliation of humanity in Christ also means the reconciliation of the whole of creation in Christ.
  3. But Christ did all this, chose to do all this, through the Church which is his body, his mystical body, the extension you might say of his own physical body in history.
  4. Therefore, if Christ is the Head of the Body of the Church and also head of the whole of creation, then the whole of creation is ordered to the Church.
  5. So, the Church as envisaged by Christ is not merely the institutional Church, nor even merely the spiritual communion of all who believe in him: it will encompass the whole of creation, something we will only see when the new heavens and new earth come.

But even now, my brothers and sisters, in a hidden manner, the Spirit of God working in and through the Church and beyond her visible confines, is drawing all things together, reconciling them. If you look at the world and even the Church today you might laugh at that statement. But we would be foolish to think that the Spirit of Christ is not at work, or worse, is failing to bring about Christ’s will for humanity and creation. Christ has already achieved the final consummation of the Father’s will by his death and resurrection. No matter what historical appearances may look like, the true historical unfolding of the Trinity’s plan for mankind and creation is advancing as God himself desires. We must trust him, in patient hope and a quietly joyful expectation.

So, the communion of saints is not just about a lot of happy people playing harps and singing alleluia in heaven. That’s a rather demeaning reduction of this dogma. On the contrary, those who already enjoy the vision of God in one sense of the term, are also participating actively in the vision of God in the sense of his ongoing plan for creation. They are hard at work through their prayer and charity, or agape, to work with Christ and the Spirit to draw the Church towards the Kingdom, understanding Church in that fuller sense which St. Paul tells us about. Their prayer for us is that we would every day, deliberately and consciously, immerse ourselves in the life of the agape Church, each of us in his or her own vocation and according to our own gifts and graces, sufferings and sorrows. The instrument of that agape is the Cross and Resurrection, its fruits are the life of grace in worship, sacraments, prayer, suffering and joy. This Church expands all space to embrace all creation, but it also expands all time, to include the living and the dead from the first Adam to the last human person who will be born in history, provided of course a given person carries agape in their heart.

Do you have a part to play in this grand design of God’s love? You most certainly do. You have a uniquepart which no-one else has, and so it is your God-given duty, your calling, your glory to embrace it with all the love of your heart. People seek here and seek there for the meaning of their lives, for the purpose of it all. Sadly, so many today have no hope and their hopelessness contributes to an atmosphere of nihilism, scepticism and cynicism which seems to have gripped the guts of so many. If people spent one percent of the time in seeking God’s plan for them that they spend on assorted banalities and vanities, their lives would turn round and gain depth and gravitas and purpose. There are surely many signs of hope and goodness in our society. It would be blind and mean to deny it. But there are also disturbing trends and ideologies which undermine that good and lead people to a lot of confusion and fear.

What St. John Paul II and Pope Francis have called the civilization of death reveal sinister and despairing signs, such as the threats to the beginning and end of life. In the areas of marriage, family and gender it’s as if the creative hand of God were being cut off and reinvented by man’s own hand. It’s a form of denying the sovereignty of God over his own creation, the consequences of which only bode very ill for man himself.

In the face of this, we must assume the quiet courage and commitment to live our lives positively in the here and now with our hopes and hearts in view of eternity, as if trainees for the heavenly branch of the communion of saints. Our quiet and persevering daily witness to Jesus Christ will spill over to bring hope and a holy curiosity into the hearts of many who have lost their way. Our fidelity to Christ will open the door to communion in the Church for others. I think though, today, we need to pray for the Lord to raise up deeply committed Catholics to witness to the values of Christ and of true humanity in public life. We need once more great lay faithful saints like Thomas More who will be the King’s good servants but God’s servants first. Preachers can do a great deal by speaking the truth with clarity and charity, but it is the laity who must take that truth to inspire their public lives. That is the true participation of the laity in the life of the Church.

Let’s turn our hearts towards heaven tonight, burning with love for All Saints, filled with what St. Bernard called a holy envy and desire to be with them. Let’s ask them to pray for us that we will discover through agape our own unique brand of holiness. Let’s ask them to pray for the Catholic Church of Christ and to ask the Lord to raise up strong and courageous witnesses to his truth and love amidst the perplexities and uncertainties of our times.