Fr. Ben Berinti, C.PP.S.
The truth of the Communion of the Saints in these disorienting and disintegrating times of pandemic panic is becoming a more experiential, more tangible, more palpable doctrine than ever before.
The Communion of Saints—a phrase that slips so fluidly, with little to no reflection, from the tongues of Catholics on a regular basis—is seemingly just one of the items to check off on our creedal checklist. The reality is, it is a tangible presence that can bring us peace and comfort as we find ourselves restricted from sharing final moments and even new life, with loved ones due to coronavirus protocols.
When pressed to explain it, many will say, “I think it has something to do with people in heaven,” or perhaps, “I think we sing a song about it once a year on the feast of All Saints.” So, what is it and what does it mean to us today as we live in unprecedented times? Indeed, we do proclaim, “I believe in the Communion of Saints,” as a dogma of the Catholic Church, but it is mostly the proclamation of an abstract, theological, ethereal truth.
That is, perhaps, until now, as Catholics around the world find ourselves in the relentless grip of a global viral pandemic. It is becoming less abstract, less intellectual in these days and weeks, as people are isolated from one another, socially distanced from work and school, limited in travel, confined under a kind of house arrest, and painfully separated from the Eucharist and other sacraments of the Church.
Proclamation in this belief is a reality of faith worth clinging to when people are dealing with so much distancing and separation. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us: “We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church; and we believe that in this communion, the merciful love of God and his saints is always attentive to our prayers” (962). There exists an unbreakable bond between God and people that stretches from heaven to earth and around the earth because in Christ and through Christ, Risen Lord, we are held secure in the loving and compassionate arms of God, even though physically separated from one another.
Working through the grief of losing my own mother on March 16, and as the implications of and the restrictions imposed by the response to the global pandemic, the Communion of Saints has moved from a notion in my head to a consolation in my heart. To know that we are always in communion with one another, always in a living, conscious, grace-infused and intimate relationship with each other and with those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith is a potent remedy for distance, loss and disconnection.
I was fortunate enough to be at my mother’s bedside a few days prior to her death, but now, through the weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, so many people are unable to be with their loved ones during their greatest time of need, even as they are making their final journey to eternity. For many, there is now no opportunity to accompany loved ones as they prepare to take their final breath: no holding their hand, no stroking their hair, no kissing their cheek, no whispering words of love into their ears, no cradling them in one’s arms.
But the Communion of Saints reminds us that a deep, intimate and true embrace is still possible, that boundaries melt away when people of faith turn to Jesus Christ, whose power as Resurrected Lord breaks through the doors, as well as through fearful and disconsolate hearts. The Risen Lord cannot be held back, kept apart, or separated from those whom he loves. In the Communion of Saints, we too share in this boundary-breaking power, for as St. Paul tells us, “nothing can separate us from the love of God, in Christ Jesus our Lord!” For in God, we are all kept in relationship, despite obstacles that appear to separate us from one another, even the stringent barriers caused by a chilling global health crisis.
As we profess faith by renewing the promises of baptism this Easter, and we proclaim our belief in the Communion of Saints, let us do so boldly and with the expectation that the Risen Lord, through his death on the cross, is able to keep us in communion with one another, no matter the obstacles we presently endure.
On Good Friday, the proclamation of the Gospel from St. John told us that, at the very moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, immediately blood and water flowed from his pierced side. It is through this complete offering of himself that we can be assured of the communion of all the faithful. For the shedding of his blood frees us, and the emptying of his water purifies us from all obstacles, all separations, all chasms.
No longer the abstract dogma it may have seemed at one time, rather now a truth of faith worth grasping with tenacity, “I believe in the Communion of Saints” is a powerful, healing ointment that salves our wounds of absence and separation in these troubled times. Through the precious blood of Christ, we are brought near—still present to each other and participating in each other’s lives, no matter what appears to separate God’s people from one another.
(Author and pastor Fr. Ben Berinti, C.PP.S., is in ministry at Immaculate Conception Church in Melbourne Beach, Fla. This essay originally appeared in the April 17–23 issue of the Florida Catholic, and it is reprinted with permission.)