Question: I don’t think the Church teaches that the saints are omniscient. Therefore my question is: how are they made aware of our prayers, which are directed to them?
— Harold Whalen, Long Beach, Calif.
Answer: Our communion with the saints is accomplished in and through Jesus Christ, who is the head of the body, the Church. All the members of Christ’s body, those here on earth (the Church militant), the saints in heaven (the Church triumphant) and those in purgatory (the Church suffering) are members of the one body of Christ, and are united by him and through him, who is the head.
To use an analogy, my right hand has communion with my left hand, not because my hands have their own capacity to work together. Rather, my right hand and my left hand have communion only in and through the head of my body, which unites and directs them. And so it is with the members of the Body of Christ. In this regard, St. Paul teaches that when one member suffers, all the members suffer, and when one member is glorified, all the members are glorified (see 1 Cor 12:26). And there is thus a communion of the members in the one body.
That the saints are aware of us and pray for us before the throne of God is attested in Revelation, where the four living creatures present the prayers of the saints before the throne of God and where the incense, which is the prayers of God’s saints, is brought before the throne (see Rv 8:3-5). There is also the tradition of the Church from apostolic times wherein the martyrs and saints are invoked for help of every sort.
Let us be clear that such communion of saints does not occur apart from Jesus Christ, but it is facilitated by him through whom and in whom all things are and subsist, and who is the head of the body — the Church uniting his members.
Question: In our hymnal there are many lines in the hymns that concern me. One line says, “I myself am the bread of life … you and I are the bread of life.” Another says, “we become for each other the bread, the cup.”
— Name withheld, via email
Answer: Such lines ought to cause concern. For, interpreted in a rather literalistic way, they seem to declare equivalence between the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and our communion with one another.
It is true that the concepts are related, but they are not equivalent. One, in fact, causes the other. That is to say, our communion with Christ in holy Communion effects our communion with one another. And I suspect that is what these hymns are trying to get at. But they do so in a clumsy way.
For Christ is not simply reducible or equivalent to the sum total of his members; he, as God, is greater than and is the cause of the communion we enjoy with one another.
That said, we must accept the limits of what art and poetry do. Hymns are a form of poetry and cannot always have the doctrinal precision that we might expect of a theological treatise. Context is important, and hymns use a poetic genre.
Nevertheless, some of the older Eucharistic hymns were able to speak poetically and not sacrifice doctrinal precision. Perhaps we could hope for more than we often find in many modern compositions.
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. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.