The Body of Christ is not limited to souls on earth. All the dead in Christ – both the saints in heaven and the faithful in purgatory – are active members of Christ’s Mystical Body.
One of the most encouraging truths of our Catholic Faith is that we are never alone in our journey of faith. God has ordained that all the members of the Body of Christ assist the other members in the work of their sanctification. When we are weak, the strength of the Body of Christ supports us.
Our Faith is not individualistic, but communal. In the Apostle’s Creed, immediately after we profess that we believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, we profess the existence of the “communion of saints.” St. Thomas Aquinas draws on Scripture to explain this article of the creed:
“As in our natural body the operation of one member works for the good of the entire body, so also is it with a spiritual body, such as is the Church. Because all the faithful are one body, the good of one member is communicated to another: ‘And every one members, one of another’ (Romans 12:5).
So, among the points of faith which the Apostles have handed down is that there is a common sharing of good in the Church. This is expressed in the words, ‘the Communion of Saints.’
Among the various members of the Church, the principal member is Christ, because He is the Head: ‘He made Him head over all the Church, which is His body’ (Ephesians 1:22). Christ communicates His good, just as the power of the head is communicated to all the members” (St. Thomas Aquinas).
God’s goodness flows from Christ, the head of the Church, to each member of the Body of Christ.
THE COMMUNION OF SPIRITUAL GOODS
What does it mean to be a member of the Church? It means to participate in a real communion of persons: “The Communion of Saints is the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church).
This “communion” enjoyed by the Body of Christ has two meanings:
First, it is a communion “among holy persons,” that is, it’s a shared life among those who are baptized and living in a state of grace.
Second, it is a “communion in holy things,” where we all share in the goods given to us by Christ, both collectively in the sacraments and individually in the special gifts He has given to particular members.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists the spiritual goods that are shared among the members of the Body of Christ:
Communion in the Faith. The Faith of the faithful is the Faith of the Church, received from the apostles. Faith is a treasure of life which is enriched by being shared.
Communion of the Sacraments. “The fruit of all the sacraments belongs to all the faithful. All the sacraments are sacred links uniting the faithful with one another and binding them to Jesus Christ, and above all Baptism, the gate by which we enter into the Church. The communion of saints must be understood as the communion of the sacraments…The name ‘communion’ can be applied to all of them, for they united us to God…But this name is better suited to the Eucharist than to any other, because it is primarily the Eucharist that brings this communion about.”
Communion of Charisms. Within the communion of the Church, the Holy Spirit ‘distributes graces among the faithful of every rank’ for the building up of the Church. Now, ‘to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’
[Communion of Material Possessions.] … “Everything the true Christian has is to be regarded as a good possessed in common with everyone else. All Christians should be ready and eager to come to the help of the needy…and of their neighbors in want.” A Christian is a steward of the Lord’s goods.
Communion in Charity … “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.” “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” “Charity does not insist on its own way.” In this solidarity with all men, living or dead, which is founded on the communion of saints, the least of our acts done in charity redounds to the profit of all. Every sin harms this communion. (Catechism of the Catholic Church)
THE THREE STATES OF THE CHURCH
This communion of “holy persons” sharing “holy things” is not limited to those who are alive on earth. All those redeemed by Christ, both the living and the dead, belong to His Mystical Body. Because Christ is the eternal God, the constituency of His Body transcends the boundaries of space and time, life and death.
The members of the Church, past and present, currently exist in three “states.” These three states are traditionally called the Church Militant, the Church Suffering, and the Church Triumphant.
“… all the souls dwelling in these three places participate in the prayers of the Holy Church and in the good works done in the world, especially in those that they did in their lifetimes and in those that are done by their friends after their death” (St. Brigid of Sweden).
The Church Militant: The Church Militant includes all souls living on earth who have received the sacrament of baptism, and who profess and live the Catholic Faith under the authority of the Holy Father.
The Church Suffering: The Church Suffering includes all the Faithful Departed who are currently being purified in Purgatory.
The Church Triumphant: The Church Triumphant includes all the saints in heaven who are now enjoying the beatific Vision of God.
While the Body of Christ currently exists in three states, at the Second Coming of Christ we will all be gathered together into the Church Triumphant. Yet even now the redeemed souls are currently united to one another in the bonds of Christ’s love for all of us.