My maternal grandmother, Christina White, had a great fondness for each of her 21 grandchildren. That's a large number to get to know individually. Yet she paid great attention to our unique needs. When I was a child she made me a series of Grammie Bunnies -- stuffed toy rabbits. As I wore one out from excessive cuddling, she made another.
When her grandchildren got older, she made quilts for each of us. Over the years, she made me three of them. Times 21, that's a lot of quilts.
In 1989, just five days shy of her 96th birthday, Grammie White died. Less than six weeks later, I met Nora Parker, the women I married. Grammie always knew how to look after her grandchildren. I saw her hand in this. Nora swears she didn't act alone, that her maternal grandmother, Helen Grainger, was part of this heavenly conspiracy of grandmothers which brought us together.
Who's to know, for sure? Are we just projecting our feelings into an explanation of occurrences which are mere coincidence? Deceased grandmothers don't leave a trail of hard evidence for their actions.
Still, such intuitions about the influence of ancestors and deceased loved ones are widespread. They are not a uniquely Christian phenomenon. However, Christians do believe that each person retains their individuality after death. We do not melt into God or become an undifferentiated part of some cosmic mystical ooze.
Nor do those who die leave the church. They remain part of Christ's body, even more effective in their intercession on behalf of us and our sin-filled world than they ever could have been when they walked among us. They are close to God and, because of that, they can bring us closer to God.
The Second Vatican Council devoted significant attention to the communion of saints on earth, in heaven and in purgatory. One thing it said was that "The union of the wayfarers with the brethren who have gone to sleep in the peace of Christ is not in the least interrupted. On the contrary, . . . it is strengthened through the exchange of spiritual goods" (Constitution on the Church, 49).
To one with an "enlightened," scientific mind, all of this is superstitious hokum. There is no scientific procedure which could show how dead people can affect the lives of the living. This doctrine of the communion of saints reveals how superstitious religion really is.
However, the belief that we should venerate the dead and that they can act on our behalf should not be casually dismissed. That so many cultures and religions include such a belief is itself evidence for its truth.
This belief can also help us move beyond the narrowness of late 20th century Western society in other ways. We can cooperate with the saints by trying to do the same sorts of things in our lives that they did in theirs. One sees this particularly in religious orders who try to live out the spirit of their founder many centuries after he or she is dead. In doing so, they may well keep alive values and orientations which our society does not value. But all Christians, not just priests and religious, should have patron saints whose lives sanctify our own by their example.
Further, the notion of the communion of saints can help us see the lasting value of our own actions. Our own values and hopes can live on in the lives of those who come after us. Realizing that can make us less compulsive about the effectiveness of our own actions. The projects we begin may bear fruit long after we are gone. Our responsibility is to be faithful to our tradition and to build a solid foundation for the future.
To see ourselves as part of the communion of saints is to know our life's work is part of something much greater than its particular objectives. Each of us is part of the body of Christ, creatively collaborating with Christ and with other Christians, both living and dead, to build up God's kingdom.
Pope John Paul once described this vividly: "The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world's great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord's vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God's grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the kingdom of God in history" (Christifideles Laici, 17).
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.