[I]t is axiomatic that there is no such thing as a lone Catholic. Just as the members of the Church on earth share a common spiritual life, just as they hold and share its goods mutually, so also there is a living and conscious relationship between Catholics who form the company of the Church Militant and those who are in purgatory or in heaven. The Catholic does not pray that he may be alone with God forever. He prays, to use the words of the Canon of the Mass:
Remember also, O Lord, thy servants and handmaids, N . . . and N . . . , who have gone before us with the sign of faith, and rest in the sleep of peace. To these, O Lord, and to all who rest in Christ, we beseech thee, to grant of thy goodness, a place of comfort, light and peace. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen. To us, sinners also, thy servants, trusting in the greatness of thy mercy, deign to grant some part and fellowship with thy holy apostles and martyrs: with John, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicitas, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all thy saints; into whose company, we implore thee to admit us, not weighing our merits, but freely granting us pardon, Through Christ our Lord.
All through the prayers of the Mass, which is truly a ladder between heaven and earth, there is this sense of the community between the Church in this world and the faithful departed. All through the common prayers of the Holy Sacrifice there sounds the note of what may rightly be called the supernatural kinship of Catholics in Christ.
Heroes of All Humanity
Any list of those whom the Church has been able to recognize and honor as saints, such as that given in the prayer from the Mass which I have quoted, suggests something of the immense variety of the souls who comprise the Church triumphant in heaven. Even in that small group mentioned in the prayer one encounters personalities as diverse as those of the innocent maiden Agatha (martyred in 251) and Ignatius of Antioch, that distinguished bishop (martyred in Rome about 107) in whose writings the whole system of Catholic doctrine stands in clear outline. In his account of his vision of heaven, the beloved St. John powerfully suggested this very richness and diversity: “I saw a great multitude which no man could number, of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and in the sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands” (Rev. 7:9). In the Church triumphant the indomitable St. Leo, who faced the barbarians before Rome, is with St. Marie Bernadette Soubirous, the simple peasant child to whom Our Lady appeared at Lourdes in the nineteenth century. The glory of the Beatific Vision falls upon St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, upon St. Dominic and St. Ignatius Loyola, upon St. Mary Magdalen and St. Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin. In the white company of heaven the illustrious and the obscure, the powerful and the weak, the simple and the most learned, are among the glorified. Those whose names have been included in the liturgy of the Church on earth share with those whose names are written only in heaven. These are the saints. These are the heroes of Catholicism. These are the living proof of what the loving grace of God can do for men and women.
It is the belief of Catholics that the saints in heaven see and know and love God directly as he is in his very self. What is known to us darkly, they see in the fullness of a supernatural light which unites their souls to God in understanding and perfect love. Every intellect that sees God in the Beatific Vision sees him to its fullest capacity. The souls of the blessed are literally filled with knowledge and love of God. And they will know and love him forever, for they have attained to the last end. The source and cause of the vision they have is God himself, and there is no violence, there is no alteration or change, which can tear them from him. All through their earthly lives, they, like all men, sought for that stability and rest in the perfect good which nothing on earth can ever satisfy. The fact that they have found that for which they longed is evidence that the universal human desire for perfect happiness is not in vain, for with God’s help, freely offered and lovingly accepted, it can be attained.
Thus the saints in heaven are truly the heroes, not only of Catholicism but of all humanity. Breaking through the barrier of time and space in the light of faith, the power of hope, and the transforming fire of charity, they have won through to God, who is both their goal and their reward. Cooperators with grace, they have gained a victory to which even so great a conqueror as Alexander of Macedon could never lay claim, for they have conquered their own pride and brought their capacity for love and knowledge to its fullest possible development. . . .
Bound to Help One Another
It is not, therefore, surprising that from the beginning of its history the Catholic Church has venerated its heroes. One of the earliest records of such veneration is that contained in the second century manuscripts which deal with the death of St. Polycarp, a bishop of Smyrna, who was martyred about the year 155. A venerable man of eighty-six, Polycarp refused to comply with an order to acknowledge the supposed divinity of the emperor, who at that period was Antoninus Pius. Polycarp was quite calm about it, but he persistently refused to compromise his faith in the one true God. When the police captain who arrested him said, “What harm is there in saying ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and in offering incense, and so forth, to be saved?” Polycarp said nothing. But when pressed for an answer, he simply replied, “I am not going to do what you advise me.” In the arena where he was finally burned at the stake, Polycarp behaved with great dignity and offered to instruct the proconsul, who reluctantly condemned him to death, in the truth of Christ. When his body had been burned, the faithful gathered the bones of St. Polycarp, which they regarded as being more valuable than gold or precious stones, and took them to “a proper place,” where they met together in gladness and joy “to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.”
To those of their pagan critics who suggested that the Catholics of second-century Smyrna had abandoned the worship of Christ in order to give their devotion to Polycarp’s memory, this reply was made,
We can never abandon the innocent Christ who suffered on behalf of sinners for the salvation of those in this world who have been saved, and we cannot worship any other. For we worship him as the Son of God, while we love martyrs as disciples and imitators of the Lord, for their insuperable affection for their own king and teacher. With them may we also be made companions and fellow disciples. (F.X. Glimm, The Apostolic Fathers , 151-60)
So it has continued to be with the veneration of the saints. Statues are erected in their honor, pictures of them are treated with respect, relics associated with them in some intimate way are preserved with affectionate care. As a great nation memorializes its most honored dead with monuments, as a mighty army reverently stores away the bloody banners it has carried to victory, as a family reveres the painted images of distinguished ancestors, so the Church keeps its material reminders of the heroes of the spiritual life. . . .
It is, in fact, impossible to understand the true position of the saints in Catholic life without constant reference to the doctrine of the Mystical Body. To have an appreciation of the role of the Church triumphant in heaven, one must constantly bear in mind the fact that the Catholic conception of the Church is intensely organic. At the same time, it must also be remembered that according to Catholic theology God—who is the first and only necessary cause of all things—has given to his rational creatures the inestimable dignity and privilege of acting as the intelligent, cooperative agents of his will. In other words, God wills certain things to happen through the action of men or of angels.
The saints of God are the most perfect members of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, in which every member has a function to perform. All the members of the Mystical Body, united in charity, are bound to help one another. The goodness and strength of one affects the goodness and strength of all, just as the sins and weaknesses of one are harmful to the well-being of all. Any member of the Mystical Body may ask for the help of the rest, and there is no help they can give so great as that of the prayers of those members of Christ, the saints, whose membership in him is perfect. They are co-workers in God’s ordered plan for the salvation of souls.