On April 30, C.C. Sabathia of the New York Yankees became a member of the “3,000 Strikeout Club” when he struck out John Ryan Murphy of the Arizona Diamondbacks. This is a peculiar kind of club, insofar as its members never meet, never pay dues and have no social significance. The membership includes 17 pitchers, beginning with Walter Johnson, who achieved the illustrious 3,000 mark in 1923. If he was a member at this time, he was alone for nearly 51 years, until Bob Gibson turned the trick in 1974. Johnson passed away in 1946, though he is still a member.
Deep in the human psyche is a need for bringing people together in one kind of society or another. The “3,000 Strikeout Club” satisfies the notion of membership, but little else. The membership is eternal, but nothing more is required of its members than having fanned 3,000 batters over the course of their Major League careers. Their membership can never be revoked.
In Alex Haley’s celebrated book Roots, Omoro, one of the principal characters in the story, is trying to explain life and death to young Kunta Kinte. He begins by saying that there are three groups of people who live in every village. He refers to those whom we see walking around, eating, sleeping and working. The second group consists of those who have passed away and whom another character in the book, Grandma Yaisa, has now joined. “And the third people — who are they?” asked Kunta. The third group, Omoro tells him, “are those waiting to be born.”
In this image, Haley is adding to mere membership the notion of respect. This respect is not based on achievement, but on being a living part of the human family.
There is respect for the people one encounters, as well as for those who are unseen: the deceased and the unborn.
The Sisters of Life, a religious order that Cardinal John O’Connor founded, help in the healing process of women who have undergone abortions. The sisters ask these women to write letters to the children they once carried in the womb, expressing their love and asking for forgiveness. In this way, both the reality of motherhood and the humanity of the unborn are affirmed. Adding to the notions of membership and respect is communication. Acknowledging the relationship between mother and child proves, in many cases, to be therapeutic. The mother-child bond is one that is rich in moral significance and should not be belittled.
According to Catholic doctrine, the Communion of Saints embraces membership, respect and communication. But it also includes “communion,” and one on a very deep level, since it is communion in Christ through a common membership in the Mystical Body. It is, so to speak, the summit of clubs — and the greatest fulfillment of that deep desire in the human psyche for a perfect society.
Avowing belief in the Communion of Saints is part of the Apostles’ Creed, which is recited at the beginning of every Rosary. It represents the solidarity that binds together in a spiritual way the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven. In terminology that is used less often than it was in the past, the Communion of Saints includes the faithful on earth (the Church Militant), the souls in purgatory (the Church Suffering) and those in heaven (the Church Triumphant). The term “saints” does not refer to canonized saints, but in the sense that St. Paul had in mind when he began one of his letters with the salutation, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi” (Philippians 1:1).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the “Communion of Saints” as consisting in “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. … In this communion, the merciful love of God and his saints is always [attentive] to our prayers” (962).
Members of the Communion of Saints are able to confer benefits on each other. One way is through prayer. “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins” (2 Maccabees 12:45). “Do not weep,” St. Dominic advised his loved ones, “for I shall be more useful to you after my death.” Likewise, St. Thérèse of Lisieux expressed the intention “to spend my heaven in doing good on earth.”
In his book The Mystical Body, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen states, “It is indeed one of the most consoling doctrines of the faith that we can still help our loved ones after death, if they stand in need of help, and by doing so perhaps make atonement for our ingratitude to them during life.”
Death does not dissolve the relationship between the living and the dead because that relationship is not based on flesh and blood but on the Spirit of Christ. Love, which is the life of the soul, endures beyond death.
The Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor is reputed to have been haunted by the grotesque. To her credit, however, she was only too aware of human imperfections and the need for grace.
Although she regarded her subject in fiction as “the action of grace in a territory held largely by the devil,” she was a firm believer in the power of love.
“This action by which charity grows invisibly among us, entwining the living and the dead,” she wrote, in one of her essays, “is called by the church the Communion of Saints. It is a communion created upon human imperfection, created from what we make of our grotesque state.” As members of the Communion of Saints, we pray with hope for those who have predeceased us and hope that the blessed in heaven will pray for us. We are not alone as long as we are part of the Mystical Body of Christ.
professor emeritus at
St. Jerome’s University and
adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary.
He is a regular columnist for the St. Austin Review.
His latest books are
available at Amazon.com.