Because of the Communion of Saints

Guest post by Allison Salerno 
My 13-year-old mistook me for a Guantanamo Bay prisoner. When I told Gabriel last week I had been fasting for Haiti, his response was “I don’t think that is necessary, Mom. No one is against Haiti right now.” Our son’s frame of reference for fasting was the tradition of a hunger strike—where participants fast in a public way as an act of political protest or to bring about a policy change. Such strikes happened in 2005 among Guantanamo Bay detainees, to protest their innocence and the conditions of their detainment.

Fasting in the Catholic tradition is far different, a concept lost on my altar-serving confirmandi boy-turning-man. And if he doesn’t understand it—a boy whose parents are deeply involved in the life of their parish—how about teens with a more tenuous hold on our faith?

I don’t blame my son for his ignorance. Not until May 2007 did I really understand the meaning of what had, until then, been a phrase to me: “the communion of saints.”

That was when our second son, Lucas’s, CCD teacher gathered us “First Communion parents” (there were six communicants and six moms showed up for the meeting) in the parish hall for a meeting to prep us for the sacrament.

“Do you understand what is going to happen Sunday?” the 28-year-old Catholic mother of two asked. Our answers were boilerplate: “They are undergoing a sacrament of initiation in the Catholic Church.” Or “They will receive the body and blood of Christ for the first time.”

“Okay,” she challenged us, “but what is really happening?” We had no answers.

She went on to describe how we all are part of a family that exists beyond the bounds of space and time. I left that meeting understanding—finally, at age 43—that this communion of saints is real. Each of us is part of the mystical body of Jesus Christ. That body includes those of us living in the “real” world, who pray for one another, and those who have gone before us, are living in a heavenly dimension, and are praying for us.

“Your children will fully enter into the mystical body of Christ on Sunday,” she said. “This is forever. Souls in heaven will be praying for them now, and when they die, your children will be praying for the souls on earth.”

Never has this communion of saints felt more powerful to me than right now. Consider that tens of thousands of people died in the Haitian earthquake without time to prepare. We can pray for their souls. We can pray for the families they left behind. We can offer our temporary suffering to relieve a piece of theirs.

In partnership with my parish priest and another mom who coordinates youth group with me, our parish is organizing a teen Fast for Haiti. Inspired by a movement loosely affiliated with Catholic Relief Services and being organized through the Internet, Catholics throughout the world have been donating $5 a meal to the Catholic Relief Services’ efforts in Haiti.

At our tiny parish, we hope to educate young parishioners about the role of fasting in one’s spiritual life. We plan to meet on a Friday night during Lent to fast and pray, play some quiet board games and make tee shirts that say “Fast for Haiti.” Teens will ask sponsors for $5 each, to be donated to CRS. Most powerfully, we hope to share with our young parishioners the value of prayer and fasting in relieving human suffering.

Because I am Catholic, I have the great comfort in knowing we can pray for the souls in heaven or on their way to heaven (the process known as Purgatory) and that the souls in heaven pray for all of us, too.

I hope my son and our other young parishioners will learn this essential lesson long before I did.

  • Frank

    Very well done Allison! I look forward to reading this to my family at dinner tonight. A nice piece that helps bring to life the Church Universal comprised of a) The Church Triumphant, the cloud of witnesses of the Saints in heaven( see the Letter to the Hebrews); b) the Church Expectant- for those who have gone before us and are in Purgatory being cleansed and c) us foot-soldiers for Christ in the besieged Church Militant slogging it our here on Earth.Thanks for this Allison!

  • Allison Salerno

    @Frank. Thanks. See, and I just learned something new from you today.

  • Frank

    c) us foot-soldiers for Christ in the besieged Church Militant slogging it out here on Earth.I don't spell too well on the fly!

  • Ferde

    Awesome, Allison. Now it's clearer to me, too. Thanks.

  • Daily Grace

    What an excellent post! Wow!!Thank you.

  • Michelle

    The communion of saints was actually the first "controversial" thing I began to understand with regards to Catholicism. It actually softened me a lot towards it. In church and school growing up we'd talk about that "great cloud of witnesses cheering us on", but that's all it was, a great cloud. Nothing more. They don't commune with us, we don't with them. They are dead. Purgatory is a heretical belief. Etc. However, when I was fist challenged with the concept of intercessory prayers of the saints, purgatory, and in general the communion of saints I really spent a lot of time thinking about it. My "pseudo-intellectual thought process" brought me to this analysis:If I as a human I am sinful from the heart, as scripture says, why would death suddenly make me worthy of the Lord's presence? The body is not just body, it is body and soul (though maybe not to the agnostic, of course). Suddenly the concept of purgatory made more sense. My soul also had to be cleansed – death doesn't necessarily do that cleansing. And because we have souls, we never truly die. In fact, those who are dead and with Christ are more alive than we are! Why shouldn't they be able to pray for us? The first person I ever talked to was St. Paul, I asked him to teach me about the communion of saints. The second was Saint Mary, that she would lead me to her Son and pray for me, and be my mother – because I really, really needed a mother at that time. The third was to my mother, if she was in heaven, that she would pray for me.But I had a faith crisis of sorts regarding this same kind of thing in November, and maybe I can get some good answers from some of you. My cousin unexpectedly died at 25. He was raised Catholic and while I don't know anything about his personal state when we passed, I know that two years ago he didn't believe there was a god or an afterlife. I felt thrown into the turmoil of "did his baptism save him?" I've been harangued by this question ever since. Despite being in turmoil, I was simultaneously happy to witness a Catholic funeral, where there is the freedom to pray that my cousin's soul would be accepted into heaven. What grace. And my aunt asked me to do the prayers of the people, where I got to pray just that.

  • Anne

    Great and timely post! Two weeks ago, right after the earthquake, I asked all of my children to fast for Haiti with my husband and I. Our five children range in age from 8-16. I simply asked that they spend a Saturday with three small meals and no snacks. They did it, but you should have heard the complaining! Later, I heard a story about some women in Haiti who climbed a mountain to gather mud to make mud cookies for their children. That brought my children to realize how tremendously blessed they are to always have good and healthy food to eat. A little fasting is a very meaningful way to pray in solidarity with our suffering siblings in Christ.

  • Allison Salerno

    @Michelle:Thanks for responding to my post and I want to offer my condolences on the death of your dear cousin.I have had many chats with my pastor about this very topic and his response to me is wise – we pray for God's mercy. You can continue your relationship with your cousin by praying for his soul and by having Masses offered for him. I never "got" the idea of having Masses said for the dead, or of Mass cards until I "got" the idea of the communion of the saints and of purgatory. Understanding why these traditions exists has given me great solace. It is a sign of God's gentleness and mercy.I believe this praying for the deceased "works" in that it has a real consequence. In addition, it will bring you and his family great comfort. Which is real, too.

  • Allison Salerno

    p.s. There is a wonderful saying – I believe it comes directly from scripture. When you are baptized, your name is written in heaven. A paraphrase I am sure but the concept is beautiful.

  • Frank

    Our Lord speaking in the Gospel according to Luke (10:20-21):"Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven."At that very moment he rejoiced (in) the holy Spirit and said, "I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike."

  • Webster Bull

    Allison, Your posts are a wonderful addition to YIM Catholic. I'm not sure if everyone's made the connection, but Allison also authored this beautiful tribute to a man who inspired her, Thanks to Mr. Papes. Check it out.

  • Shannon

    When a man at the prison asks, "What's the difference between Catholics and Christians?" my second answer, after "Catholics are Christians," is always the communion of saints. For men who are separated from family, community, the world as they knew it, to know that people around the world are praying for them is a huge revelation. It's a simple step from there to include those in heaven.

  • Anonymous

    Shannon: That is such a good point. You are right that when people know that others are praying for them, the next step — The Communion of Saints becomes a less awesome leap of faith.

  • EPG

    The Communion of Saints is a major reason I am hanging out on the banks of the Tiber, as Webster put it not too long ago. The Episcopalians refer to it (we _do_ recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday) but don't ever seem to do much about it or with it. The Catholics and the Orthodox now, that's a different story . . .

  • Frank

    Allison,My 14 y.o. son liked this too. He wrote earlier, "Cool, Dad." Thanks again!

  • Allison Salerno

    @Frank How neat you shared this post with your children, Frank. And I wish I had your command of Scripture. Very impressive you could "pull that up" out of your personal data base (your brain)Blessings to you.@Shannon What a great ministry you have and such insights you bring – and receive – to it and from it.

  • Cordial Connie

    I was thinking about this yesterday. The Catholic Commentator (our diocese weekly newspaper) arrived and I read a letter to the editor. The letter was a criticism of the Commentator's annual collection of Lenten recipes. The Commentator collects the members of the diocese's favorite meatless recipes and publishes them in a special insert. The letter admonished us in S. Louisiana for indulging in seafood feasts prepared to substitute for meat dishes. It went on to describe these seafood feasts as contrary to the intention of fasting, and describe how indulgent this is.I have often thought the same thing, that substituting seafood for beef, chicken or pork is not a sacrifice and that we should besubstituting beans and rice, peanut butter or crackers and cheese. And that this year we should donate the money saved on the meal to the relief efforts in Haiti. Blessings!

  • Maria

    Cordial Connie–Great advice!

  • Maria

    Hardon SJ on The Communion of Saints"In teaching about the Church, catechists should be clear in explaining that Christ came into the world to save us not only as individuals but as social beings.The Church, therefore, corresponds to our supernatural existence as social beings. Immediately we see that this includes the Church on all three levels of her existence, on earth, in purgatory, and in heaven.What unites the members of the Church still struggling on earth, being purified after death, and possessing the beatific vision of God? It is the Holy Spirit who is the one soul of the whole Mystical Body of Christ, militant, suffering, and glorified. The Holy Spirit is the Church’s Soul, even as the human beings who belong to the Church can be called her body.When, then, we speak of the Communion of Saints, we mean the community of human beings who are united by one Holy Spirit. He is holy because He is God. He makes them holy, and therefore “saints” in the measure of their cooperating (or having cooperated) with His grace. But through Him they are also cooperating with one another. Consequently, we may say the Communion of Saints is the Cooperation of the Saints in sharing with one another the supernatural blessings they receive from the Holy Spirit".

  • Webster Bull

    This post has been very useful for me too, Allison. I have written that the saints were decisive in bringing me to the Catholic Church. But to experience the saints as a presence in one's life, a cloud of witnesses surrounding me, is a thought that's still sinking in. I come closest to it in my love for St. Joseph, with whom my prayers have become a sort of intimate conversation. Only he is walking on the road ahead of me, like all the saints. "All" I have to do is follow.

  • Allison Salerno

    @Maria: Thank you for sharing that excerpt. As I was reading it, I was thinking: yes, yes, yes. So well articulated.@Webster. For me, praying to one saint in particular – except Our Lady – has always felt odd. Perhaps because of my not so Catholic Catholic childhood; I don't know. For me, what works is considering the hosts of souls in heaven and the hosts of souls on earth, all communicating, and us all supporting the souls in Purgatory. I guess that is why this Communion of Saints concept works so powerfully for me. We are all part of the mystical body.

  • suburbanbanshee

    It's a good thing to fast, and it's a good thing to encourage humble fasting meals. However, it's not a good idea to try to order and admonish Catholic moms to give up the great Catholic traditions of Lenten cuisine. The poorer the Catholic family, the more important it tends to be to the moms to provide good-tasting Lenten food. It's rich people, or athletic young guys, who feel called to eat bread and water. Which is fine for them, unless they start posting on blogs that all _must_ do likewise or confess themselves to be hopeless sinners. :)Yes, I've been through some very long online Lents. :)

  • Allison Salerno

    @suburbanbanshee:There are Lenten meals,and Lenten feasts. I think what Connie is speaking her concerns about feasting on seafood at Lent. That is absolutely contrary to the spirit of a Lenten meal. At my parish, we have soup suppers. Our priest was troubled, as were many of us, that this turned into – who can bring the best dessert to go with the soups. That is not what Lent is about.We should all be striving to simplify our meals during Lent. One can do that with Lenten meals, but not with seafood feasts.The goal, it seems to me, is to fast and stay simple, so we can reflect on our participation in the communion of saints and our the Lord's sacrifice enabled this to happen.Blessings to all.

  • Zeke

    Allison, great post. We miss you all and that 'tiny' parish in NJ! "Fast for Haiti" t-shirts for teens…Awesome idea – as well as the actual fast, of course. Much Love to you Trevors!

  • Allison Salerno

    @Zeke!Great to see your name here. My love to you and your brood. This is an awesome blog and I am sure Webster and Frank would love to read a proposal from a guest blog from you! Keep reading and think about writing.

  • Webster Bull

    @Zeke: FYI, Allison is our unofficial recruiter for guest bloggers (having successfully g-b'ed twice already, both here and here). So if she says you have a story, I want to hear it!

  • Buck Ryan

    Nice, thoughtful piece, Allison! I loved the anecdote about fasting, thanks to your boy: protest or prayer. How wonderful. Having children is a gift that allows you to learn what you missed in childhood and to relive what you will never forget about growing up. Help for Haiti has run from our church, to Student Government, to UK basketball's Hoops for Haiti ($1 million raised for the Red Cross!). Prayer works. Now, if only the Saints can go marching in to a Super Bowl victory—that would be a miracle. Good luck with your blog!

  • Allison Salerno

    @Buck: Thanks for reading (Buck is a former professor of mine at Northwestern U. who taught me almost everything I know about writing)And I guess you got the miracle you were looking for on Superbowl Sunday! I am just a guest blogger here and I imagine Webster and Frank, the official bloggers, would love to hear about life from your part of Kentucky!