Having a small interest in photography, I find myself drawn to the photos in such places, and these figure prominently in both. Naturally, because these places have such historical dimensions, the photographs are historical gems recording the people of the time and some of the circumstances in which they lived. To our sensibilities the photos can appear a bit dour and austere. This has something to do with the age and photographic techniques used at the time.
These pioneer Christian women and men of the 19th and early 20th centuries came from many different places around the world, and from around Australia. One thing a photo cannot show is the voice of those in the photos. I’m not sure if any recordings exist of say Mary MacKillop’s voice? What might it have sounded like? Might there still be a twinge of a Scottish accent to be detected? What the photos do show is the extraordinary courage and faith and perseverance of so many people in the way they responded firstly to God’s call and where they were led to carry that out and the particular way, namely education, they brought it to life.
Spending time with the faces, while recognising very few, I had a real sense of communion with them. I had a sense that whatever my small efforts, I was in some way building on their efforts. For me there was a deep experience of communion.
This is not as strange as it may seem. We are now in November, the ‘month of the holy souls’, the month where we not only call to mind those who have ‘gone before us marked with the sign of faith’ but a time where we deepen our appreciation of the ‘communion of saints’.
In the baptismally-oriented Profession of Faith, the Apostles Creed, we pray ‘I believe… the communion of saints…’. I wonder how often we might just skip over that phrase without allowing its great comfort, consolation and hope to touch our hearts.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarises our understanding of this:
- 960 The Church is a ‘communion of saints’: this expression refers first to the ‘holy things’ (sancta), above all the Eucharist, by which ‘the unity of believers, who form one body in Christ, is both represented and brought about’.
- 961 The term ‘communion of saints’ refers also to the communion of ‘holy persons’ (sancti) in Christ who ‘died for all’, so that what each one does or suffers in and for Christ bears fruit for all.
- 962 ‘We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church; and we believe that in this communion, the merciful love of God and his saints is always [attentive] to our prayers’.
The last paragraph, (962), is one we dwell upon more deeply in November. It ought, however, be always connected to the other two. It is such a rich way of describing who it is we are as the Church and that to which we aspire to be as the Church, namely the Church is a ‘communion of saints’. We may not always live up to that, yet it is that to which we strive. We also realise rather quickly that unless God is the source of that communion then it will remain an impossibility. With God, the origin and end of that communion, it is not only possible but in fact the only way we can proceed.
It strikes me that both the phrase ‘communion of saints’ and the living it out in all its three dimensions, is a wonderful filter for all of our discussions around the Plenary Council, and our hope to renew the life of the Church in Australia. It actually gives us a language to use that can avoid stridently over-emphasising one dimension or another of our life in Christ. It actually gives us a way forward, as God is the centre of this communion in which we all strive to share more deeply.
Unexpectedly, some people’s experience of COVID this year has led to a deeper, not lesser, experience of the communion of saints. Not being able to gather as freely; being dislocated out of our normal routines has meant our longing for communion with the ‘holy things’ and the ‘holy persons’ has intensified, not lessened. While this is not everyone’s experience it reveals that sometimes we yearn more deeply for the things that we cannot have. Expressed well, this is a good thing.
The month of November is a reflective time before the intensity of end-of-year and Christmas. Whatever, especially during November, might draw us into that communion, I know that I have been blessed to know so many of those who are in the ‘communion of saints’. Photographs help me to both visualise it and know that it is possible. Might they do that for you? Maybe God uses another pathway for you! What is always true for us all, however, is that God always seeks to draw us ever more deeply into that communion. Let us seek to be instruments of that.
God is good, good indeed.