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.
“When the Lord comes in glory, and all his angels with him, death will be no more and all things will be subject to him. But at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is’ … All, indeed, who are of Christ and who have his Spirit form one Church and in Christ cleave together” (Catechism of the Catholic Church).
GOD WANTS IS TO HELP EACH OTHER GET TO HEAVEN
God has willed that His gifts and graces be “mediated,” or shared, with the whole Body through each of its members in the communion of saints. It is His desire that each soul practice true charity for one another, where we, like Christ, sacrifice ourselves for the good of the Body.
But a body calls also for a multiplicity of members, which are linked together in such a way as to help one another. And as in the body when one member suffers, all the other members share its pain, and the healthy members come to the assistance of the ailing, so in the Church the individual members do not live for themselves alone, but also help their fellows, and all work in mutual collaboration for the common comfort and for the more perfect building up of the whole body (Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi)
Blessed Pope Paul VI beautifully articulated how the three different states of the Church share in spiritual goods in his Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina:
There reigns among men, by the hidden and benign mystery of the divine will, a supernatural solidarity whereby the sin of one harms the others just as the holiness of one benefits the others. Thus the Christian faithful give each other mutual aid to attain their supernatural aim. …
Following in the footsteps of Christ, the Christian faithful have always endeavored to help one another on the path leading to the heavenly Father through prayer, the exchange of spiritual goods and penitential expiation.
The more they have been immersed in the fervor of charity, the more they have imitated Christ in his sufferings, carrying their crosses in expiation for their own sins and those of others, certain that they could help their brothers to obtain salvation from God the Father of mercies.
This is the very ancient dogma of the Communion of the Saints, whereby the life of each individual son of God in Christ and through Christ is joined by a wonderful link to the life of all his other Christian brothers in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ till, as it were, a single mystical person is formed.
Thus is explained the “treasury of the Church” … the infinite and inexhaustible value [of] the expiation and the merits of Christ Our Lord have before God, offered as they were so that all of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. It is Christ the Redeemer himself in whom the satisfactions and merits of his redemption exist and find their force.
This treasury also includes the truly immense, unfathomable and ever pristine value before God of the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin May and all the saints, who following in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have sanctified their lives and fulfilled the mission entrusted to them by the Father. Thus while attaining their own salvation, they have also cooperated in the salvation of their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body.
‘For all who are in Christ, having his spirit, form one Church and cleave together in him; (Ephesians 4:16). Therefore the union of the wayfarers with the brethren who have gone to sleep in the peace of Christ is not in the least weakened or interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the perpetual faith of the Church, is strengthened by a communion of spiritual goods.
For by reason of the fact that those in heaven are more closely united with Christ, they establish the whole Church more firmly in holiness, lend nobility to the worship which the Church offers to God here on earth and in many ways contribute to building it up evermore (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).
For after they have been received into their heavenly home and are present to the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8), through him and with him and in him they do not cease to intervene with the Father for us … This by their brotherly interest our weakness is greatly strengthened.
For this reason there certainly exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth a perennial link of charity and an abundant exchange of all the goods by which, with the expiation of all the sins of the entire Mystical Body, divine justice is placated. God’s mercy is thus led to forgiveness, so that sincerely repentant sinners may participate as soon as possible in the full enjoyment of the benefits of the family of God.
The Church, aware of these truths ever since its origins, formulated and undertook various ways of applying the fruits of the Lord’s redemption to the individual faithful and of leading them to cooperate in the salvation of their brothers, so that the entire body of the Church might be prepared in justice and sanctity for the complete realization of the kingdom of God, when he will be all things to all men” (Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina).
Now that we have an idea of what it means to be part of the Communion of Saints, we will look individually at the three stated of the Church – beginning with the Church Militant.