Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The greater 'We'

All Souls 2012

Many people suffer from an over exaggerated sense of self-importance, whether as individuals or collectively as a group. A dead give-away is when they begin almost every sentence with the royal ‘we’. Some feel that whenever they speak, they do so as a representative of the rest of the world or at least of its majority. They imagine themselves as the focal point of reference, the centre of the universe, the Solar system’s centrifugal axis where all other planets must find their orbit. Psychiatrists have a term for this – it’s called ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder.’ The Church too has sometimes been subjected to this egocentric and megalomaniac worldview. Thus the declaration, “We are Church!”

When speaking of the Church, it has become quite fashionable to say – “We are Church.” The reason for its popularity and attraction is because it implies a kind of democratisation of the Church; an identification of the Church with its grassroots rather than with the hierarchical elite. For those who may not be aware, ‘We Are Church’ is also the name of an organisation of dissenters, a church “reform” group that was started in the German-speaking world some years ago and has now spread to other countries. You would find the usual trendy, politically correct dissenter on their menu: women priests (for), clerical celibacy (against), homosexual sex (for), contraceptives (against), abortion (for) etc.

What most Catholics are not aware of is that the above label or way of describing the Church is not just highly inadequate but also distorts the vastly complicated ecclesiology of the Church. The Church is not just the sum total of its living members but also encompasses the members who are separated by the boundaries of death. Death does not sever their membership in the Church of Christ. GK Chesterton, one of the most famous converts to Christianity at the turn of the 20th century argued that if one wishes to apply the principles of democracy to the Church, especially in the area of its teachings or Sacred Tradition, then one must speak of a democracy that extends through time, encompassing all Christians who have come before the present generation and all Christians who will follow hereafter. So, to those who flaunt the problematic ‘We are Church’ slogan whenever they wish to dictate or pontificate to others, this is going to be news for you – ‘You are in the minority!’

When Pope Benedict was in Germany last year, he gave a talk to a group of seminarians. First, he stressed to the seminarians that a proper Christian perspective “requires us always to look beyond the particular, limited “we” towards the great “we” that is the Church of all times and places: it requires that we do not make ourselves the sole criterion.” When the Pope pointed to the greater “we”, he was not just merely referring to the rest of the living Catholics of our day. The emphasis is on the second part – “the great ‘we’ that is the Church of all times and places.” In other words, we must look beyond ourselves and our own views and must embrace the fullness of Christian tradition. If the voice of the whole Christian tradition is allowed speak, you will find a clear rejection of many of the issues championed by these group of dissenters today.

The Pope then continues with the following lines of wisdom firmly rooted in the Church’s traditional self-understanding: “When we say: “We are Church” – well, it is true: that is what we are, we are not just anybody. But the “we” is more extensive than the group that asserts those words. The “we” is the whole community of believers, today and in all times and places.” Who is this ‘greater we’, which the Pope is speaking of? The answer lies in the liturgical celebrations of these recent two days. Today’s feast of All Souls and yesterday’s All Saints are clear reminders of the truth in the Pope’s assertions. When discussing this greater conception of the Church under the doctrine of the Communion of Saints, the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, has been traditionally described in a threefold manner as the Church Militant, the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant.

The saints and angels in heaven compose the Church triumphant, because they have gained the crown of victory. The souls in purgatory compose the Church suffering, because they still have to expiate for their sins before they can enter heaven. The faithful on earth compose the Church militant, because they have to struggle ceaselessly against the enemies of their souls, the world, the flesh and the devil. But there is only one Church, one Mystical Body of Christ, because its members are united by supernatural bonds, incapable of being severed even in death, with one another and with Christ, their Head, thus resembling the members and head of the living human body.

Today, on All Souls Day, the Church reminds us of our duty to pray for the dead. St. Augustine says: "Prayer is the key by which we open the gates of heaven to the suffering souls." The Church teaches us that just as we love and respect our living brethren, so do we love and respect those of them who have departed this life. We express our love for our departed friends and relatives through prayer. Death and burial cannot sever the Christian love which united the living with those once living and now deceased. We pray for the faithful dead not because we believe that God's mercy can only be triggered by our intercession, but because it is our life task to hold in our mind and heart those who are given to us through kindred and affinity, and as friends, colleagues and neighbours.  This task transcends the boundaries of life and death. 

Today’s feast teaches us an important truth about the Church - there is interdependence among the members of the Church – no one lives for himself alone, but for the entire body. Every good a member does perfects the whole Body, of which he is a part. We need to be always in the sync with the rest of the Body, especially with its Head, and not constantly plot to overthrow it with our own plans of Church-domination. This supernatural fellowship where all three Churches commune together, praying for one another is known as the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. The Church Triumphant prays for the Church Militant, who in turn prays for the Church Suffering.  We, the faithful who comprise the Church Militant, pray to the Church Triumphant, for their intercession and they, in turn, plead with the Lord on our behalf.  The Church Suffering cannot pray for themselves; therefore they cannot hope for the intercession of the Saints in Heaven without the Church Militant, praying in their behalf. This interplay has been described by some authors as a great philharmonic orchestra with God as its supreme maestro. It is really awesome when you think of the integral part each of us play in God’s Symphony for Salvation. 

Thus the doctrine of the communion of saints, though one of the least understood or known, is one of the most consoling dogmas of the Church. The doctrine injects the necessary antidote for humility to our hubris-filled notion of Church. ‘We’ are not Church, only a part of the Mystical Body of Christ, a small minority in fact. Thus, we must defer to the wisdom of the majority, those who have reached the perfection of heaven, the Church Triumphant.  

In celebrating both the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls we are reminded that sanctity is the universal vocation of all men. We are destined for heaven. Even for those who are suffering in purgatory, our faith fills us with hope, because we are assured that their salvation is guaranteed. Purgatory is never a final state. The souls in Purgatory have died in a state of sanctifying grace. They will enter Heaven!

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