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Musings on the Universal Church, the dead and the living

"Communion of Saints" - Elise Ritter
When we talk about the "universal church" as Catholics, we often take it to mean the Church all over the world - you know, the Catholics in Sao Paolo, San Francisco and Singapore.  But we REALLY are talking about the UNIVERSAL Church - all its members, those on earth and those "asleep in Christ".

I spent the weekend with my 86 year old mother.  She is clearly closer to the end of her life than the beginning, although, thanks be to God, she is healthy and vibrant.  However, the last few times I've been with her, she has spent a lot of time reminiscing about her father, her mother, her grandparents, and extended family.  She grew up in the Depression and her closely-knit family struggled together to make ends meet and manage tough times, deeply grounded in the Faith.  (Oh, it wasn't all wonderful.  They threw things at each other and argued;  we are Irish after all.)

It seems to me that there is a wistfulness in her memories - that she is, in part, longing to be with those people again in a very real way.  Most certainly, she misses my dad, who has been gone four years now.  They were married almost 60 years, and her heart still aches at the loss.

She's not sad, though.  There is hope - hope that she will indeed see all those loved ones again.  And, in a way, her telling these stories about them "puts flesh on their bones" for me, my siblings, cousins and our children.  These folks of her memory are real to us, despite the fact that many of them were gone long before we were born. Her hopefulness is borne of a very real faith - that there is something after the death of the body, and that that "something" is eternal life in Christ.

John Donne, in his Meditation XVII, poetically relates this same hopeful longing within the Universal Church:

The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all.  When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingraffed into that body, whereof I am a member.  And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.

"One chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language".  It appears that this is what my mother is doing now in her life - translating her childhood, her memories, her life, into a new language for the next few generations.  She is "translating by age", as Donne says, her advancing years giving her a perspective on life and death she did not have before. 

When we ponder the Universal Church, we will do well to remember that the saints in Heaven rejoice over every baptism with us, grieve with us in our struggles and losses, and long to be reunited with us in Eternal glory.  The Universal Church isn't just the parish down the street or St. Peter's; it's our friends and family in the pews with us and those who have died and are awaiting us with Christ.  "Universal":  Heaven and earth united in faith.

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