The feast of All Saints today and the commemoration of All Souls tomorrow are perfect opportunities to recall to ourselves the catholicity of the Church. We are members of the Catholic Church, practitioners of Catholic Christianity. Catholic is a Greek word that simply means general or universal. The Church is ‘universal’ or ‘general’ in many ways. In one sense the Church is universal because it extends over the whole earth. There’s even a Catholic chapel in Antarctica; it’s dedicated to St. Francis by the way. The moon, it’s already been decided, is part of the diocese of Rome, in case you were thinking of making a visit and were wondering who your bishop might be. The Church is also universal because it extends until the end of time. But most of all, the Church is universal and catholic because it passes beyond the boundaries of time and space to include both heaven and earth.
This teaching on the catholicity of the church comes to us in the classic language of the Church Triumphant, the Church Militant, and the Church Suffering or Expectant. The Church Triumphant is the Church we honor today on All Saints’ Day: those Christians who have completed their journey and enjoy the vision of God in heaven. We who make up the Church on earth are classically called the Church Militant; “militant” in the sense that we are in the midst of the struggle with sin and the work of ushering in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.
Indeed, God is so merciful and gentle that even if we don’t complete this purification of our hearts by the time we finish our pilgrimage of this life, even if we don’t succeed in allowing the grace of God to make us saints by the day we die, God provides a stage of further purification for us after our death. This is the Church Expectant or Suffering, the holy souls in purgatory. These are the dead for whom we are always praying at Mass, that they might arrive at the fullness of God’s presence in heaven and become the saints who pray for us.
So that’s the universal, Catholic Church: the Church on earth, in the midst of the struggle with sin and the work of the kingdom of God, the Church in purgatory made up of those enduring their final purifications for the perfection of the life of heaven, and the saints themselves, those who have completed their journey and enjoy the perfect joy and fulfillment of God’s immediate presence.
The good news for us today is that we enjoy the communion of saints. This ancient doctrine teaches us that the Church in Heaven, the Church on earth, and the church in Purgatory are not spiritually separate. We are all in communion with each other and connected to each other on the spiritual level. This is why I can ask Blessed Mary or St. Joseph or St. Francis to pray for me just as easily as I can ask one of you to pray for me. Our communion also enables us to pray for the holy souls in Purgatory, and even to apply our good intentions to them to speed them on their way to Heaven.
So in the sublime observances of these two wonderfully catholic days, let us honor all the saints, those who are canonized and those whose holiness remains unknown, those who kept the faith safe to be handed on to us, and those whom we knew ourselves. Let us give thanks to God for their constant prayer for us. Tomorrow, let us pray for the holy souls in Purgatory, thanking God for this most merciful expression of his gentleness, that the holy souls may be sped on their way to heaven and become intercessors for us who remain on the pilgrimage of this life.