A young child in third grade has much to learn. But even at an innocent age, children can teach us. This year for the Feast of St. Francis, the pastor instructed the school children to have their parents bring their pets after school for the blessing in honor of this great saint. Those who did not have live pets could bring one of their stuffed animals.
That morning, my grandnephew, Alexander, was leaving to go to school. His mother kept calling to him to hurry up and choose one of his stuffed animals to take with him. He just couldn’t make up his mind. He kept thinking of how unfair it was to take only one of them. What about all the others? Why should they be cheated of the blessing? After all, he cared about each of them. His mother kept calling.
Finally, he came from his room with one animal. Problem solved. He proudly announced to his mother, “It’s okay. I had a talk with St. Francis. When I’m at school, he’s coming here to bless all the other animals.” He then climbed into the car with a smile of contentment. A simple solution; a profound insight.
Alex had talked to St. Francis. He knew he was connected to the saints in heaven and they would listen to him. In the ninth article of the Apostles' Creed, we say, "I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints". We belong to the Communion of Saints. In 1 Corinthian
12, Paul compares Christians to a single body in which each member contributes to the good of all and each shares in the welfare of all. This is a great theological truth. The Church is essentially a mystery of communion.
The Church is a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Our sharing in the life of the Triune God is the source of our sharing with each other (cf
, 4; 8; 13-15; 21; 24-25). The Church is a wider reality than those who belong to the same parish or diocese or even the same time. The Church embraces all who belong to Christ: those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are in purgatory and the saints in heaven. This is the vast communion to which we on earth belong. “In this communion, the merciful love of God and his saints is always [attentive] to our prayers" (
Catechism of the Catholic Church
This is a truth with very practical urgency. We can depend on other members in this vast communion to help us with their prayers. Alex talked to St. Francis. He knew what prayer is. Conversation. Opening our thoughts and concerns to God. Talking to his saints. Simple, unaffected pouring out of needs to God or to his saints: this is prayer. And prayer works. “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects" (Jas. 5:16).
From Scripture, we learn the value of prayer of intercession. Abraham prayed for his nephew Lot. And, Lot and his family were saved from Sodom and Gomorrah. Eli prayed for Hannah and she conceived. Elijah prayed for the people of Samaria and a drought ended. The centurion prayed to Jesus and his son was cured. And Mary interceded for the couple at Cana and their wedding overflowed with the joy of wine.
In the communion that is the Church, even those who are no longer on earth still pray. In the last book of the Bible, the seer John says that "the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints" (Rev. 5:8). Thus the saints in heaven offer to God the prayers of the saints on earth.
As early as the second century, Christians gathered at the tombs of the martyrs. At the catacombs of St. Callistus on the Appian Way, near the crypt where the bodies of ancient martyr-popes lie, there are prayers scratched on the walls. So too near the tomb of the martyr Crescentio in the catacomb of St. Priscilla on the Via Salaria. The early Christians remembered the heroism of the martyrs. They celebrated the power of God’s grace. They begged these saints to intercede for them with God. St. John Chrysostom says very poetically, "He that wears the purple. . . stands begging of the saints to be his patrons with God, and he that wears a diadem begs the tent-maker [Paul] and the fisherman [Peter] as patrons, even though they be dead" (
Homilies on 2 Corinthians
26 [A.D. 392]).
St. Jerome argues in the same way, "You say that, while we live, we are able to pray for each other, but afterwards, when we have died, the prayer of no person for another can be heard . . . But if the apostles and martyrs while still in the body can pray for others, at a time when they ought still be solicitous about themselves, how much more will they do so after their crowns, victories, and triumphs?" (
In life, we remain united with those who have died and are not in the glory of heaven. Therefore, we can and should pray for them. As Michael Palaeologus said at the Second Ecumenical Council of Florence in 1439: “ If the truly penitent die in the love of God, before they have made satisfaction…for their sins, their souls are purified by purgatorial pains after death; and...for relief from these pains they are benefited by the suffrages of the faithful in this life, that is, by Masses, prayers and almsgiving…"(
, 1304). Already in the catacombs, we find written prayers for the dead such as "May the dead one have peace … eternal life, union with God, with Christ, and with the angels and saints."
On November 1
, we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. On November 2, we remember all the faithful departed. Both are moments for prayer. Jesus said, “Unless you become like a little child you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:2-4). When we have the childlike simplicity of a young Alex and spontaneously engage with God and his saints in conversation, we will find the true power of prayer for ourselves and others. And with a smile on our face, we will know we have been heard.