Question: Is it true that the body and soul die at our death but the part of the soul called the spirit never dies, which is why we can have the Communion of Saints with those already in heaven?
— Armel Audet, via email
Answer: No, not exactly. Some distinctions are necessary to properly answer your question.
The “spirit” is not a third entity of the human person. Rather, it is an aspect of the human soul. The spirit is the part of our soul that distinguishes us from the animals and other living things. God has breathed into our soul a capacity we call the human spirit so that we have a rational soul, a soul that is capable of reasoning and extracting meaning from the world about us; of seeing beyond the merely physical to the metaphysical. Thus, we look beyond the “what” of this world and ask “why?” Further, we conceive of metaphysical concepts such as justice, goodness, beauty, truth, right, wrong and so forth. This points to the spiritual capacity of our soul.
So, when we die, our soul and body are separated (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1016, 1023), and though the body dies and decays, our full soul continues to live on. One day, our body, too, will arise, perfected and be joined again to our souls. So, our soul does not die.
Thus, we properly speak of the souls of the faithful in heaven. They are alive and aware as members of the Body of Christ and not in some state of suspended animation.
As a crude analogy, consider our own body, which has various members: hands, feet, legs, eyes, other organs, etc. Suppose I step on a thorn. One member of my body, the foot, communicates pain to my head. The head then communicates to my eyes to investigate and to my hands to remove the thorn once discovered. Thus, the various members of my body are united and coordinated, but only through the head. And this is similar with the Body of Christ. We, his members, have union with all the other members — those here and those caught up into glory. But our union with the saints is not something apart from Christ our head but depends on him, who as head of the Body, the Church, causes unity in his members and enables communication.
Question: A non-Catholic friend attended Mass and found it strange that the priest kissed the altar. I really could not say why. Can you help?
— Mary Caulfield, Towson, Maryland
Answer: The altar built of stone represents Christ, who is rock and cornerstone (1 Cor 10:4). Further, relics of saints were formerly placed within the altar stone, so the kiss was also seen as a salutation of the saint and the whole Church triumphant.
But why a kiss, rather than a bow or some other salutation? The kiss was actually very common in ancient culture as a sign of reverence and love for both people and things. The temple was honored by kissing the threshold. Likewise, it was common in the ancient world to kiss the family meal table with a kiss before the meal.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org.