The Communion of Saints

In last week’s article, A Match Made in Heaven, I remembered a promise made to my cousin.  This article fulfills the promise – a letter to his new bride.

Dear Erin,

First of all, I welcome you to our family!  You made such a lovely bride and the wedding was so beautiful. It was a day that I will not forget and I thank you for having invited me to be a part of it. If you have read part one of this article, you already know that I have been feeling guilty because I promised Jack quite a while ago that I would write you a letter.  It may seem strange that I am writing to you using such a public forum.  However, I think you’ll understand once you continue to read.  It has been my experience that you are not the only one who has been catechized poorly regarding the Communion of Saints and our relationship to our loved ones in Heaven.

Jack informed me that you were taught as a youngster that when we arrive in Heaven, we will not know or recognize our loved ones whom we were acquainted with on earth.  This means that spouses will no longer be united, children will not be reunited with deceased parents, and dearly loved grandparents may only be figures in our distant memory – if that!  I notice that this strange teaching seems to resurface every once-in-awhile as I continue to catechize students over the years.  It is a very sad and hopeless teaching, which, I assure you, has nothing to do with the promise of Christ.  As I mentioned in the previous article, I believe it was erroneously derived from our Lord’s words in Scripture, “At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.” (Mt. 2:22.)  However, while marriage as an institution is not necessary in the next life, the love of marriage is taken up and transcended – even perfected, as we experience the beatific vision together.

I was also taught this mistaken notion by a religion teacher in my grade school years.  Fortunately, I did not take it to heart, especially since other good teachers easily corrected my concerns.  I also knew that in the Bible, there were instances of people who had known each other on earth meeting again in the afterlife.  For example, let us look at the famous story of Lazarus the Beggar in Luke 19:19-31.  The rich man, who had callously ignored Lazarus during his life, was now asking for a bit of relief from Lazarus, who he could see was standing next to Abraham.  This relief was refused to him because he had ignored the needs of Lazarus during his life on earth. In Revelation 6:9-11 the martyrs stand together and ask Jesus how long it will be before their cruel deaths are avenged.  One is reminded of the many early Christians who were martyred together in the Roman coliseum. Now they stand together before the throne of God.  St. Paul also brings out the importance of the “togetherness” or Communion of the Saints in the following passage:

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.  For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.  Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord, himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore, console one another with these words.  (1 Thess. 4:13-18)

In Matthew 8:11, Jesus promised, “Many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” There is a sense of a family gathering in these words.  Each of us belongs to this great family in which Christ is the Head.  In Christ, there is no division or separation.  Galatians 3:28 assures us of this union, saying:  “…for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Let us also remember, that in Revelation 2:6, Jesus tells us,  “Behold, I make all things new.” These things include our relationships to one another.  Our earthly relationships are only shadows of the love and communion which awaits us in Heaven.

As Catholics, we not only look to scripture for revealed truth, we also look to tradition.  The Liturgy is an essential element of the holy and living tradition of the Church.  There is a Latin expression, Lex orandi, lex credendi, which literally means “the law of prayer is the law of belief.”  In other words, we know what the Church believes by how she prays, especially during Mass.  As a matter-of-fact, the opening prayer for the funeral Mass of a religious Sister points to the fact that she will be joining her deceased Sisters for all eternity:

All powerful God,
We pray for our Sister N.
Who responded to the call of Christ
And pursued wholeheartedly the ways of perfect love.
Grant that she may rejoice
On that day when your glory will be revealed
And in the company of all her brothers and sisters
Share forever the happiness of your Kingdom.

Another opening prayer for deceased parents reflects the same promise:

Lord God, who commanded us to honor father and mother,
Look kindly upon your servants N. and N.
Have mercy on them
And let us see them again in eternal light.

As the final commendation during the funeral Mass, the priest reminds us to find consolation in our hope that we will one day see our deceased loved one again.  For example, one prayer he might offer is:

Before we go our separate ways, let us take leave of our brother/sister. May our farewell express our affection for him/her; may it ease our sadness and strengthen our hope. One day we shall joyfully greet him/her again when the love of Christ, which conquers all things, destroys death itself.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not specifically state that we will meet our loved ones again in the next life (at least I can’t find it anywhere!)  However, there are some allusions to it.  For example, in CCC ¶1024, the Catechism says, “Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” Erin, I ask you to take a few moments to recall your dear grandmother to memory.  Now look into your heart.  What is your deepest longing at this moment? Surely it is to meet her once again one day! Heaven holds that promise for you.  Why else would God have placed this holy longing in your heart?  Many well meaning people have taught that we won’t know or recognize our loved ones in Heaven because, “God is enough!”  I don’t think any true Christian would disagree that God is enough for all of us.  And yet, in God we find our loved ones.  He places the holy desires for eternal communion inside our hearts and he will not forsake us.  Doesn’t Jesus tell us in Mark 12:27, “He is not a God of the dead, but of the living?” The God of life put this desire in you and will see it realized. All we are asked to do is to trust him and be faithful to him.  The Catechism states in CCC ¶1026:  “Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ.” It did not say “some.” It says “all.”  “All” includes your loved ones who have died in him.  In CCC ¶1029, this relationship is asserted:  “In the glory of heaven the blessed continue joyfully to fulfill God’s will in relation to other men and to all creation.”

So far we have looked to three sources to support our hope that we shall meet our loved ones again one day in Heaven:  Scripture, Liturgy, and the Catechism. Another source rich in wisdom is found in the lives of the saints.  Many saints held firm to the belief that they would one day meet their loved ones in Heaven, or come to get them upon their deaths and bring them into Heaven.  For instance, on her death bed, St. Thérèse of Lisieux promised her Sisters:  “I’ll still be even more with you than I was before; I’ll not leave you.  I will watch over Uncle and Aunt, over my little Lèonie, over all of you.  When they are ready to enter heaven, I’ll go very quickly to meet them.” [1] Padre Pio, on his death bed is reported to have whispered, “I see two mothers!” [2] It is believed he was referring to his own biological mother and, of course, to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Finally, it is in the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of us all that we find the most obvious hope for meeting our loved ones in the next life.  In John, chapter 19, Jesus promised John to Mary and Mary to John as he hung overhead upon the Cross.  As Catholics, we understand that in doing this, Jesus offered his mother as his very last and dearest possession on this earth, not only to John, his beloved-disciple, but to each of us.  How many times a day do the words “Pray for us now and at the hour of our death” ascend to our heavenly mother’s ears?  She keeps each of these prayers in her heart, waiting for the day when she can come and take us to the throne of her Divine Son.  Not only does she continue to be the Mother of the Son of God, but she continues to be our mother in Heaven.  The relationship that began on earth continues and is perfected in the life to come.  If this is true for our relationship with Mary, surely it is true for our relationships with our earthly mothers … and grandmothers!

I have only tapped into a few of the countless sources which the Church has in her treasury to help give you consolation and peace regarding our future together in Heaven.  However, Erin, I cannot end this letter without reminding you of the innumerable stories told by people even today who lie on their death beds, sharing with us their experience of dying. How many hospice workers can attest to the fact that many people claim to have seen or even spoken with their loved ones as they lay dying! [3] For some, it is easy to “write off” these experiences as drug-induced fantasies or as hallucinations caused by the brain “shutting down.”  However, when these experiences bring great peace and joy to agitated souls, I believe they point to the presence of some sort of heavenly intervention.  As my own mother lay dying nearly two years ago, she smiled and exclaimed that she could see her brother “up there!”  I have no doubt that she did.

So, Erin, I hope these references can help settle your heart and bring you peace, knowing your dear grandmother not

Jack and Erin at their Nuptial Mass

only waits for you to join her one day for all eternity in Heaven, but that she is near to you now, helping lead you and your new family on your Christian journey. Have you ever felt her presence with you since she has died? I even suspect that she watched you more closely than ever and with great joy as you exchanged your vows with Jack during your wedding a few weeks ago. Truly, she had the “best seat in the house!”  Pray to her, especially during your times of trial, and trust that she will help you and your family so that you will all be united again in Heaven.  May she intercede for us with all the saints in order that we one day may join the great multitude before the throne of God, crying out, “Alleluia! Salvation, glory, and might belong to our God!” (Rev. 19:1)

Lovingly in Christ,

Sr. Marie Morgan, OSF

[1] From St. Therese of Lisieux:  Her Last Conversations translated by John Clark, OCD. ICS Publications.  Washington D.C., 1977. (pp. 275-276)

[2] From Padre Pio:  The True Story by C. Bernard Ruffin.  Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Co., Huntington, IN, 1991.

[3] Might I suggest the book, Glimpses of Heaven:  True Stories of Hope and Peace at the End of Life’s Journey by Trudy Harris, RN?  There are many stories of dying patients who seem to experience the presence of deceased loved-ones coming to help them when they are dying. It is a wonderful book.

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